Media Matters: The Bad man in the glass box

The media had a love-hate relationship with Michael Jackson. How will the pop icon be remembered?

flowers on jackson mailbox 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
flowers on jackson mailbox 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Now that the media frenzy over Michael Jackson's death has begun to die down and the stardust has somewhat settled, we might begin to contemplate how he will go down in history. After a respectable period of mourning, all the dirt will undoubtedly come out, because American libel laws don't apply to the dead. In the week following Michael's passing, however, the media have generally been respectful of the megastar, playing up the grieving fans around the world, constantly broadcasting clips of his music and discussing his exceptional musical career. To some degree, the gory details of the autopsy and the more grotesque aspects of his life - including drug and child abuse - have been set aside, for now. Michael Jackson may have been the world's most famous pop idol, but he was also a very sick individual, and it's only a matter of time before new exposés and biographies will be published and the tragedy of his life fully revealed. Fifteen years ago, I had a minor scoop connected to Michael while working for the Reuters news agency. It was a quiet Friday afternoon, and I decided to cover his sister LaToya's arrival in Israel. To my horror and delight, perhaps because of the "high" she experienced in coming to the Holy Land, she decided to speak her mind and spill the beans about Michael's pedophilia. LaToya said that although she loved her brother "very dearly" and they had both been abused by their father, she could keep quiet no longer about his "crimes against children." "I cannot and will not be a silent collaborator of his crimes against small, innocent children," she declared, her voice shaking. "I have seen checks payable to the parents of these children." Michael at the time was being treated for addiction to painkillers at a secret location in Europe - a habit, it turns out, he never kicked. The press was generally unkind to Michael when it came to the spate of allegations that came to light over the years about his sleeping with young children, and the public generally assumed that he really was guilty of child abuse, even if he was acquitted in court. The fact that he made out-of-court settlements with some of his victims was a tacit admission of guilt. And even if he did not have sex with them, he should not have been sleeping with other people's children in the first place. Michael played the role of victim well, accusing his father of beating him when he was a child and blaming the media for cruelly "victimizing" him. He almost never expressed regret for his actions, and sometimes flaunted his faults for all to see. When he dangled his child out of a Berlin hotel window for the benefit of fans seven years ago, the world gasped - but this time, he did apologize for his "terrible mistake." When you think of Michael now, what picture do you see? Singing with his brothers as a kid? Moondancing? Making the moves in Thriller? Holding his crotch in Bad? Courting Naomi Campbell in In the Closet? Hugging Oprah? Chatting with Geraldo? Do you think of him as an icon or a monster? The picture that says it all, for me, was first published in the National Enquirer in 1986. The gossip magazine ran a story claiming that Michael had been sleeping regularly in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to slow down the aging process and help him live to 150. And if featured a bizarre photo of him lying in a glass box. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers, incidentally, treat the body with oxygen at high pressure, and recently have been found to help insomnia and heal wounds. After the publication, Michael faked anger over the report, but it soon emerged that his PR people had leaked the whole story (including the picture) to promote a science fiction image of him ahead of his new movie, Captain EO. And a former editor of the National Enquirer confirmed this week that Jackson himself had staged the photo and given it to the magazine. Although he may have gotten a kick out of fooling the media for a while, Michael stopped providing false stories to the tabloid press after a leak that he had bought the bones of the Elephant Man triggered the nasty nickname, "Wacko Jacko." He certainly didn't want that image to stick. The media had a love-hate relationship with Michael. They could, at times, be hagiographic, portraying him as a do-gooder, a male Princess Di helping poor children and those suffering from diseases such as AIDS. And, of course, nothing expressed this better than "We Are the World," the song he wrote with Lionel Richie that was recorded by a supergroup of 45 singers. On the other hand, the media could also be cruel, painting him as a pervert preying on innocent kids. The phrases repeated over and over again in the crazy coverage on TV after his death ranged from "King of Pop" and "a Peter Pan" to "freak show" and "child abuser." Not too many (besides The Jerusalem Post) pointed out his virulent anti-Semitism. Although Michael's second wife, Debbie Rowe, was Jewish (making their two children halachically Jewish as well) and he counted Jews as some of his best friends (Uri Geller and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to name just two), he was known to have made some very offensive statements about Jews. According to a tape released in 2005, he said Jews "suck." "They're like leeches," he said. "It's a conspiracy." After Michael died, his brother Jermaine, speaking on behalf of the family, wished that Allah would be with Michael forever. Jermaine may be a religious Muslim, but Michael was far from being one. He led a life of hedonism and debauchery, and in the end, he lost a lot of money through bad business dealings, and most of his color, hair and nose through surgery, and he died a sad, lonely man, addicted to a range of drugs. You may have seen computer-generated photographs of what he might have looked like before his death, but that's probably not how we will remember him. We will most likely have a picture in our collective memory of a youthful Michael singing and dancing. Yet as we see new pictures today of his body displayed at Neverland, we might also conjure up the image of him lying in that hyperbaric oxygen chamber. In the end of course, Michael died at 50, reaching only a third of his vision 23 years ago. And his dream of 50 London shows and a possible world tour never materialized. Just a few days after his death, financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in jail for the biggest financial scam in history. Madoff fed the very stereotype of the Jew that Michael portrayed in the tape four years ago, although he primarily "sucked" rich clients, many of whom were Jewish themselves. The media have squarely portrayed Madoff as a monster rather than a business wiz who strayed off track. Michael, however, seems to have gotten away with the image of the glamorous King of Pop rather than the freaky Whacko Jacko. Time will tell if history is kind to him, but there is no doubting his supreme talent. And the spontaneous outpouring of love from fans across the globe indicates that perhaps he can now, finally, rest in peace.