By Mike Taibbi Correspondent
updated 5/31/2005 2:08:46 PM ET
SANTA MARIA, Calif. — A silver-haired attorney stood and said “The defense rests,” not calling any of the rebuttal witnesses he’d been expected to call, and the vast machine of the Jackson trial press corps poured out of the courtroom to report the news. After 13 weeks, 60 days of testimony, 140 witnesses and more than a dozen years of allegations, rumors, intermittent tabloid frenzy and Ahab-like persistence from a local District Attorney, the question of whether an entertainer of world-class stature is also a pedophile is about to be answered by a jury.
With no final defense rebuttal, the last piece of evidence presented by the prosecution to the 20 local citizens in the jury box (12 primary jurors plus eight alternates) was an hour-long videotape of the understandably sympathetic first police interview with Jackson’s young accuser. Mumbling and with seeming reluctance, the boy related the sordid details of his alleged molestation by the faded popstar over a few nights in the winter of 2003.
“Once you share this you’ll feel better,” prodded Sgt. Steve Robel. The boy, a cancer survivor, fidgeted in his chair, eyes downcast. Robel asked what sports he liked, he said “football and baseball.”
“I wanted to be a pro ballplayer,” the veteran cop said. “I was scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies, they came to talk to me and my parents. But certain things got in the way… it’s called politics.”
Soon enough the boy told his story. That Jackson trolled internet porn sites with him on the night they first met at Neverland. That he gave him wine, vodka, scotch and rum. That he talked often about sex, shared his collection of pornographic magazines and, “…maybe five times or so,” reached over as the two shared Jackson’s bed, after both had been drinking, and fondled him.
The jurors had heard those specific allegations before when the boy had testified earlier in the trial. I watched the boy on the tape: Were his hesitations and lack of eye contact evidence of the established difficulty male victims of male pedophiles have in first disclosing their molestation? Or was it a performance by a skilled and experienced liar as defense witnesses made him out to be? I looked at the jury box a couple of times: They were watching and listening, but gave no obvious hint of what they were thinking.
“You’ve been through hell,” Sgt. Robel was saying near the end of the interview. “What he has done to you, he is the bad person, not you. You, your mom, your sister, your brother… you’re the good people. You guys are doing the right thing, you’re helping a lot of people.”
Robel asked the boy if he’d “be open to making a phone call to Michael”– a pretext call in hopes that the popstar would make a damaging admission.
The boy shook his head. It was going to be his word… and that of his mother, sister and brother…against Jackson’s. Period. Four months later, with virtually no further substantive investigation beyond the interviews with the accuser and his family, one of the most famous people on the planet would be arrested. The tape ended.
The courtroom lights came back on. The silver-haired lawyer, Jackson’s lead attorney Tom Mesereau, stood up, said his three words, and sat down. A defense source had told me Mesereau had studied the tape and “wasn’t worried about it,” convinced, the source said, that the jury already had an indelible picture of the boy and his family as grifters out to skin any available mark, especially celebrities, with the boy’s sickness as their currency of persuasion.
I ambled deliberately out of court while other reporters raced past me to spread the news worldwide. Jury instructions and final arguments after the holiday weekend, and then those citizens in the box will do their thing. And then, thankfully for me, home.
I have never liked this story and would never have chosen this assignment. Of course there are others among the thousands of stories I’ve reported in nearly four decades at this craft that also would not have been my choice, and an assignment, in my business, is an assignment; but few have left me feeling dispirited and soiled at the end of a day’s work, as this one has. There are others in this press corps who feel the same way, and many of my colleagues and friends and intimates back home have declined to follow this story at all.
It feels voyeuristic, and for a dozen years it has been voyeuristic. There are “journalists” who’ve maintained careers by chasing down and breathlessly reporting every Jackson rumor peddled by real or would-be “witnesses” to the singer’s every move. Many of those rumors, enhanced by each sale and re-sale to the tabloids (print and broadcast), became embedded in the public consciousness because, in the past decade and a half, mainstream journalism itself and its relationship to “tabloid” stories have changed.
I think it began on the day in 1990 when the mainstream press covering the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in Palm Beach (I was there) was restrained outside the courthouse police lines as the key witness in that case was escorted into court on the arm of a “reporter” for one of the newly-popular tabloid TV shows… because that show had “bought” that witness and locked her up exclusively.
And because mainstream news organizations do not “buy” witnesses, the only way to compete on stories the tabloids increasingly “owned” was to legitimize the tabloids themselves. Thus, in the OJ Simpson case, the vaunted New York Times held its nose and started quoting the National Enquirer, because the tabloid (through whatever means) was often out front on that story. And CBS News, on its “Evening News,” used tape and information attributed to the television show “Hard Copy” in its reporting on the 1993 Jackson scandal.
The 9/11 effect
In the meantime, over the years, the preferences of news consumers seemed also to be changing. Or maybe they were being changed. I think—and, let me stress, this is just my opinion—that 9/11 contributed to that change in a fundamental way: The event itself was so incomprehensibly awful that news consumers (consciously or unconsciously) suddenly wanted something different from the news organizations on which they’d depended for years. Less bad news, fewer investigative reporting efforts that required hard work on the part of viewers and readers. Keep it simple, make it pleasant or safely entertaining, make it diverting. The great newsmagazines on the major networks fought shrinking audience shares by changing their fare. Reality television arrived… and exploded as the genre of audience choice. In the cable universe the trial of a fertilizer salesman accused of killing his wife and unborn child became the lead story for a year… audiences wanted that story, the ratings instructed. There was live coverage of Joey Buttafuoco’s sentencing on the same day the realignment of NATO earned a 30-second reader on one network newscast.
And, since November of 2003, the question of whether Michael Jackson fondled a young boy from a family of graspers who may also be con artists has been the epicenter of a worldwide reporting effort by scores of news organizations.
I’m a reporter assigned to this story, so I’m here. Soon, though not soon enough, I’ll be home because one story– Jackson’s guilt or innocence as determined by this apparently hard-working jury—will be over.
But the other story and the bigger one in my mind– how and why we all got here in the first place– is yet to be told.