December 1 2003


December 1 2003


On the benefits of an old-fashioned media lynching

MICHAEL JACKSON arrested. Who’d a thunk it? Well, most of us, probably. As news events go, the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s plan to charge Jackson with the molestation of a 12-year-old boy doesn’t exactly have the shock value of the JFK assassination. Jackson’s baby-dangling, nose-dissolving behaviour, including a frank admission in a TV interview that he likes to share his bed with children, plus the settlement reached 10 years ago to make a molestation charge go away, made the announcement of his arrest remarkable

only to those who assume that the rich and famous are always above the law. It may well be true that modern pop culture sets up celebrities just to knock them down, but it’s hard to make the case that Jackson has been a victim of anyone but himself.

The case takes its place atop a rather bewildering array of current scandals and sensational crime stories—from the Prince of Pop to the Prince of Wales, Phil Spector to Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant to Paris Hilton, Rush Fimbaugh to Robert Blake, Scott Peterson to Robert Durst (the Texas millionaire who admitted to killing and dismembering his 71year-old neighbour but was acquitted anyway by a jury that clearly studied at the O.J. School of Jurisprudence). And that’s not even to mention the financial accusations against Conrad Black. The scandals are getting so numerous that more cynical observers might compare them to the fall TV

schedule—some shows will fly while others won’t make the grade.

More than any other kind of story, scandals highlight the random nature of modern media. Somewhere there probably still exists a utopian journalistic ideal that the content of news coverage should be of universal importance. The reality is that the news business often resembles a lottery. Stories become prominent because someone recognizes the ingredients of a gripping yarn. Or perhaps a small story nearly overlooked by reporters catches the public imagination, leaving the media hordes scrambling to catch up. Either way it’s a good bet that while satellite trucks converge on a courthouse or a quiet residential street, similar stories are playing out elsewhere in oblivion.

Michael Jackson’s perverse prominence guarantees that his story will get big play. But what about Faci Peterson? The case of the pregnant California woman whose husband, Scott, is accused of her murder has become a programming obsession for CNN’s Larry King Live and Greta Van Susteren on the Fox News network. Tragic though the case may be, spousal murder is not an uncommon scenario. Unlike that previous CNN fixation, the Chandra Levy case (Washington intern disappears, turns up dead), there is no prominent figure like congressman Gary Condit to explain the attention accorded Peterson by tabloids and networks. And yet on it goes. Larry King is regularly replaced by Court TV’s Nancy Grace (one of the most obnoxious TV personalities working) to discuss every minor detail of the Peterson investigation and trial. For Canadians who have been less attuned to the macabre story, the effect can be a little like picking up the sports section of a British newspaper and seeing all the cricket coverage. Who cares?

Of course, nine years ago many puzzled observers were asking the same question about the O.J. trial. Through 1994 and 1995, the O.J. Simpson double murder case set the bar, holding the networks in thrall for months to a degree that seems remarkable even by today’s standards.

And yet, when it was all over, the O.J. trial had become genuinely important— and enlightening—in ways that could not have been predicted at the outset. As was famously recorded all over the country, the O.J. verdict was greeted in wildly different fashion by black and white America. Although many black Americans joined their white fellow citizens in decrying the verdict as a travesty, a great many more celebrated in the streets, overjoyed that a black man could beat the system with savvy lawyers just as privileged whites so often do. Just a few years earlier Rodney King asked Americans: “Can we all get along?” The O.J. trial replied, “Not yet.”

Michael against the music: Jackson’s iconic mugshot (above) will be a head-shop classic

Today’s fractured media market usually militates against Beatlemania-style episodes, where everybody watches the same televised phenomenon at once and reacts en masse. There are too many channels, too many options, to create a unified public response to anything. Sensational events like the O.J. trial or Sept. 11 manage to overcome that fractionalization by focusing many different media eyeballs on the same event, thus re-creating the mass audience that often existed in the earlier days of television.

Obviously the networks, newspapers and tabloids that followed the O.J. case so intently could not have known that in so doing they were creating a de facto workshop on race relations. They were merely sharks in a blood frenzy. Nonetheless, the results were genuinely educational.

The O.J. case had other consequences— it created a generation of addicted media

executives. Much of the ensuing scandal coverage—Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson et al.—has been driven by news outlets that have now tasted the crack cocaine that is celebrity crime and are constantly, desperately, in search of the next hit. For network television and 24-hour news outlets, the Michael Jackson case is a godsend, allowing them to dip into the tabloid pool while justifying it as appropriate news coverage—Jackson is, after all, a legitimate megastar, a man who once dominated pop music as few others have managed to do. Likewise in Britain, the latest Prince Charles scandal, vaporous and vague though it is, can be offered up as legitimate public business involving the future of the monarchy.

No sensible observer will ever believe that the media’s motives are noble as they troll the bottom for juicy muck. But no one can predict which news event will ultimately

prove significant. The Lindbergh trial in 1935 led to a backlash that banned cameras from the courts for decades. Canadian Bonnie Fuller’s decision to run a salacious picture of Kobe Bryant’s accuser on the cover of the Globe supermarket tabloid has kickstarted a debate about victims’ rights. And the 1993 Michael Jackson molestation case, in which the pop star’s accuser was reportedly paid a huge sum of money and afterwards refused to testify, led to a change in California law that will make it easier to prosecute Jackson this time around. Now, even if the alleged victim refuses to testify, prosecutors can still use the child’s previous statements in court.

Public furors can have unintended consequences. Maybe you should save that new issue of the National Enquirer for posterity, fffl

Steve Burgess is a frequent contributor to Maclean’s