Saturday, March 3, 2012

One of the Most Shameful Episodes In Journalistic History - Part 1

This article was divided in two parts. It was written by Charles Thomson and published in his blog in June 13, 2010.
It was five years ago today that twelve jurors unanimously acquitted Michael Jackson on various charges of child molestation, conspiracy and providing alcohol to a minor. It is difficult to know how history will remember the Michael Jackson trial. Perhaps as the epitome of western celebrity obsession. Perhaps as a 21st century lynching. Personally, I think it will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in journalistic history.

It's not until you find yourself digging through newspaper archives and re-watching hours of TV coverage that you truly understand the magnitude of the media's failings. It was industry-wide. No doubt, there were certain reporters and even certain publications and TV stations that overtly favored the prosecution, but many of the media's shortcomings were institutional. In a media obsessed with soundbites, how to you reduce eight hours of testimony into two sentences and remain accurate? In an era of rolling news and instant blogging, how do you resist the temptation to dash out of the courtroom at the earliest opportunity to break news of the latest salacious allegations, even if it means missing a slice of the day's testimony?

Looking back on the Michael Jackson trial, I see a media out of control. The sheer amount of propaganda, bias, distortion and misinformation is almost beyond comprehension. Reading the court transcripts and comparing them to the newspaper cuttings, the trial that was relayed to us didn't even resemble the trial that was going on inside the courtroom. The transcripts show an endless parade of seedy prosecution witnesses perjuring themselves on an almost hourly basis and crumbling under cross examination. The newspaper cuttings and the TV news clips detail day after day of heinous accusations and lurid innuendo.

It was November 18th 2003 when 70 sheriffs swooped on Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. As soon as news of the raid broke, news channels abandoned their schedules and switched to 24 hour coverage. When it emerged that Jackson was accused of molesting young cancer survivor Gavin Arvizo, the boy who famously held the singer's hand in Martin Bashir's 'Living With Michael Jackson', the media went into overdrive. Networks were so obsessed by the Jackson scandal that a terrorist attack in Turkey went almost entirely unreported, with only CNN bothering to broadcast George Bush and Tony Blair's joint press conference about the disaster.

All three major networks immediately set about producing hour-long specials on the Jackson case, apparently undeterred by the fact that nothing was yet known about the allegations and prosecutors weren't answering questions. CBS dedicated an episode of 48 Hours Investigates to the arrest, while NBC's Dateline and ABC's 20/20 also rushed out Jackson specials. Within two days of the Neverland raid, and before Jackson had even been arrested, VH1 announced a half-hour documentary called 'Michael Jackson Sex Scandal'.

Daily Variety described the Jackson story as "a godsend for... media outlets, particularly cable news channels and local stations looking to pump up Nielsen numbers in the final week of the all-important November sweeps."

Daily Variety was right. Celebrity-oriented news shows saw figures spike when the Jackson story hit. Viewing figures for Access Hollywood were up 10% on the previous week. Entertainment Tonight and Extra both achieved season best audience numbers and Celebrity Justice also enjoyed an 8% rise.

Newspapers reacted just as hysterically as TV stations. 'Sicko!' shrieked the New York Daily News. 'Jacko: Now Get Out Of This One' goaded the New York Post.

The Sun - Britain's biggest newspaper - ran an article titled 'He's Bad, He's Dangerous, He's History'. The piece branded Jackson an 'ex-black ex-superstar', a 'freak' and a 'twisted individual' and called for his children to be taken into care. "If he weren't a pop idol with piles of cash to hide behind," it said, "he would have been picked up years ago."

Encouraged by the audience boosts the Jackson scandal had produced, media outlets made it their mission to milk the case for all that they could. Entertainment Weekly's Tom Sinclair wrote, "Media mavens, from the tackiest tabloid reporter to the nattiest network news anchor, are in overdrive scrambling to fill column inches and airtime with Jacko scoops and talking heads."

"Pressure on news people is enormous," attorney Harland Braun told Sinclair. "So lawyers you've never heard of wind up on television talking about cases that they have no connection to."

Sinclair added, "And not just lawyers. Everyone from doctors, writers, and psychiatrists to convenience-store clerks who once waited on Jackson are weighing in on TV and in print."

While the media was busy badgering a host of quacks and distant acquaintances for their views on the scandal, the team of prosecutors behind the latest Jackson case was engaging in some highly questionable behavior - but the media didn't seem to care.

During the Neverland raid District Attorney Tom Sneddon - the prosecutor who unsuccessfully pursued Jackson in 1993 - and his officers breached the terms of their own search warrant by entering Jackson's office and seizing hoards of irrelevant business papers. They also illegally raided the office of a PI working for Jackson's defense team and lifted defense documents from the home of the singer's personal assistant.

Sneddon also appeared to be tampering with fundamental elements of his case whenever evidence came to light which undermined the Arvizo family's claims. For instance, when the DA found out about two taped interviews in which the entire Arvizo family sang Jackson's praises and denied any abuse, he introduced a conspiracy charge and claimed they'd been forced to lie against their will.

In a similar instance, Jackson's lawyer Mark Geragos appeared on NBC in January 2004 and announced that the singer had a 'concrete, iron-clad alibi' for the dates on the charge sheet. By the time Jackson was re-arraigned in April for the conspiracy charge, the molestation dates on the rap sheet had been shifted by almost two weeks.

Sneddon was later caught seemingly trying to plant fingerprint evidence against Jackson, allowing accuser Gavin Arvizo to handle adult magazines during the grand jury hearings, then bagging them up and sending them away for fingerprint analysis.

Not only did the majority of the media overlook this flurry of questionable and occasionally illegal activity on the part of the prosecution, it also seemed perfectly content to perpetuate damning propaganda on the prosecution's behalf, despite a complete lack of corroborative evidence. For example, Diane Dimond appeared on Larry King Live days after Jackson's arrest and spoke repeatedly about a 'stack of love letters' the star had supposedly written to Gavin Arvizo.

"Does anyone here... know of the existence of these letters?" asked King.

"Absolutely," Dimond replied. "I do. I absolutely know of their existence!"

"Diane, have you read them?"

"No, I have not read them."

Dimond admitted that she'd never even seen the letters, let alone read them, but said she knew about them from "high law enforcement sources". But those love letters never materialized. When Dimond said she 'absolutely knew' of their existence she was basing her comments solely on the words of police sources. At best, the police sources were parroting the Arvizos' allegations in good faith. At worst, they'd concocted the story themselves to sully Jackson's name. Either way, the story went around the world with not a shred of evidence to support it.

It was over a year between Jackson's arrest and the beginning of his trial and the media was forced to try to pad the story out for as long as they could in the interim. Aware that Jackson was bound by gag order and therefore powerless to respond, prosecution sympathizers started leaking documents such as Jordan Chandler's 1993 police statement. The media, hungry for scandal and sensationalism, pounced on them.

At the same time, allegations sold to tabloid TV shows by disgruntled ex-employees in the 1990s were constantly re-hashed and presented as news. Small details of the Arvizo family's allegations would also periodically leak.

While most media outlets reported these stories as allegations rather than facts, the sheer amount and frequency of stories connecting Jackson to ugly sexual abuse, coupled with his inability to refute them, had a devastating effect on the star's public image.

The trial began in early 2005 with jury selection. Asked by NBC about prosecution and defense jury selection tactics, Dimond said the difference was that prosecutors would be looking for jurors who had a sense of 'good versus evil' and 'right and wrong'.

No sooner had the jurors been selected than Newsweek was trying to undermine them, claiming that a middle class jury would be unable to fairly judge a family of lower class accusers. In an article titled 'Playing the Class Card' the magazine said, "The Jackson trial may hinge on something other than race. And we don't mean the evidence."

As the trial kicked into gear, it became quickly apparent that the case was full of holes. The prosecution's only 'evidence' was a stack of heterosexual porn magazines and a couple of legal art books. Thomas Mesereau wrote in a court motion, "The effort to try Mr. Jackson for having one of the largest private libraries in the world is alarming. Not since the dark day of almost three quarters of a century ago has anyone witnessed a prosecution which claimed that the possession of books by well known artists were evidence of a crime against the state."

Gavin Arvizo's brother, Star, took the stand early in the trial and claimed to have witnessed two specific acts of molestation but his testimony was completely inconsistent. Regarding one alleged act, he claimed in court that Jackson had been fondling Gavin, but in a previous description of the same incident he told a wildly different story, claiming Jackson had been rubbing his penis against Gavin's buttocks. He also told two different stories about the other alleged act on two consecutive days in court.

During cross examination Jackson's lawyer, Thomas Mesereau, showed the boy a copy of Barely Legal and repeatedly asked if it was the specific edition Jackson had shown him and his brother. The boy insisted that it was, only for Mesereau to reveal that it was published in August 2003; five months after the Arvizo family had left Neverland.

But this information went almost entirely unreported, the media focusing on the boy's allegations rather than the cross examination which undermined them. Allegations make good soundbites. Complex cross examination does not.

When Gavin Arvizo took the stand, he claimed that Jackson had instigated the first act of molestation by telling him that all boys had to masturbate or else they would turn into rapists. But Mesereau showed under cross examination that the boy had previously admitted his grandmother made that comment, not Jackson, meaning that the whole molestation story was predicated on a lie.

Under cross examination the boy severely undermined the prosecution's conspiracy charge by claiming he'd never felt afraid at Neverland and he'd never wanted to leave. His accounts of the alleged molestation also differed from his brother's.

Unfortunately for Jackson, Gavin Arvizo's cross examination was all but ignored as newspapers giggled and gossiped about what became known as 'pajama day'. On the first day of the boy's direct examination Jackson slipped in his shower, bruised his lung and was rushed to hospital. When Judge Rodney Melville ordered a bench warrant for Jackson's arrest unless he arrived within an hour, the singer sped to the courthouse in the pajama trousers he'd been wearing when he was rushed to hospital.

The photographs of Jackson in his pajamas went all over the word, often with no mention of Jackson's injury or the reason he was wearing them. Many journalists accused Jackson of faking the entire event in order to gain sympathy, although sympathetic is the last word you'd use to describe the media's reaction.

The incident didn't stop the media from sending Gavin Arvizo's lurid allegations around the world the following day. Some outlets even ran the boy's testimony as fact rather than conjecture. "He Said If Boys Don't Do It They Might Turn Into Rapists - Cancer Boy Gavin Tells Court of Jacko Sex," wrote The Mirror.

But the boy's cross examination was another story. It went almost completely unreported. Instead of stories about Gavin Arvizo's lies and the two brothers' contradictory allegations, newspaper pages were filled with snarky opinion pieces about Jackson's pajamas, even though 'pajama day' had been days previously. Thousands of words were dedicated to whether or not Jackson wore a wig and the Sun even ran an article attacking Jackson for the accessories he pinned to his waistcoats every day. It seemed like the press would write anything to avoid discussing the boy's cross examination, which severely undermined the prosecution's case.

This habit of reporting lurid allegations but ignoring the cross examination which discredited them became a distinct trend throughout Jackson's trial. In an April 2005 interview with Matt Drudge, Fox columnist Roger Friedman explained, "What's not reported is that the cross examination of these witnesses is usually fatal to them." He added that whenever anybody said anything salacious or dramatic about Jackson, the media 'went running outside to report on it' and missed the subsequent cross examination.

To be continued...

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