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The Sideshow Has Left Town
After the ''not guilty'' verdict for Michael Jackson, the media should be found guilty of covering a freaky sideshow instead of genuine news by Stephen King
There was no 700-pound fat lady, no Illustrated Man crawling with tattoos from the crown of his shaved head to the soles of his bare feet, no razor blade-gargler or weirdo geeking the heads off chickens at a special midnight performance, but make no mistake about it: The Michael Jackson trial was a freak-show. One of the longest-running operas of oddity ever to be played out before the American people finally ended on June 13, with 10 not-guilty verdicts. The star of our show, the Pale Prince of Peculiarity, then left the courthouse under his black umbrella for the last time.
It's finally over. Can I be any clearer about my amazed disgust at the amount of ink and TV time this show-trial consumed? At the amount of intellectual house-room it took up? Thank God it's over, how's that? On the night of the verdict, the network news programs devoted a significant percentage of their paltry 30-minute spans first to the verdicts, then to analysis of the verdicts - as though not guilty needs analysis. The cable-news buzzards (Nancy Grace, Larry King, Mercedes Colwin, and Pat Lalama of Celebrity Justice to name just a few of the plumper ones) were all over it. Not-guilty roadkill isn't quite as tasty - or as bloody - as guilty roadkill, but it'll do. It hurts more to see a smart guy like CNN's legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin keeping his eye on the black umbrella. Here's a man in the prime of his creative life and in command of what are clearly prodigious talents, and what he spent over a year doing with them was analyzing the legal struggles of an aging pop star accused of fondling little boys in front of the TV set.
This came down to a prosecutor either so sure Jackson was bad or so offended by Jackson's combination of celebrity and wackiness that he rushed into a case that looked shaky from hello. It looked worse as Tom Sneddon went along, and had become nearly ludicrous by the time Jackson's ex-wife left the stand. No matter how pure Sneddon's motives may have been (and I'm not saying they were, believe me), he began to look like a man pursuing a vendetta, one whose chief hope of securing a conviction lay in the obvious fact that the trial was a sideshow and the accused was . . . well, a freak.
With the enthusiastic collaboration of the American news media, the sideshow has somehow become the main attraction in American culture; the weirder the guy, the bigger the headlines. It's sickening that it takes a columnist in an entertainment magazine to point out that more than 2,000 newspeople covered the Jackson trial - which is only a few hundred more than the number of American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq. On the same day that crowds gathered in Times Square (and around the world) to learn the fate of the Pale Peculiarity, another four suicide bombings took place in that tortured, bleeding country. And if you tell me that news doesn't belong in Entertainment Weekly, I respond by saying Michael Jackson under a black umbrella doesn't belong on the front page of the New York Times.
The passage of time often makes us look back at certain cultural excesses with a wince, a groan, and a laugh. Black parachute pants. Pet Rocks and Garbage Pail Kids. Lava lamps. ''If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.'' David and Shaun Cassidy. I think that very few of us will be apt to laugh about the national Michael Jackson fixation 20 years from now. Most of us will probably say we barely paid attention to the damned thing, even if we still remember exactly where we were when the verdict came down.
Well, we wouldn't want people to know we just had to get in and ogle the 700-pound fat lady, either, would we? Or that we crowded up to the front row when the man gargled the razor blades to see if he'd cut himself? Or that we went out back to watch the geek bite the heads off live chickens?
No, we probably wouldn't want to own up to such low tastes, and in fact, the circus sideshows are pretty much a thing of the past - except maybe on Court TV. People didn't flock to the Jackson trial to watch the American justice system at work; they came to watch the weirdity. And if Michael Jackson had been sent to jail? That would have been the ultimate freak-show.
The media first turned the trial into a freak-show by emphasizing Jackson's peculiarities rather than his humanity, and stoked the ratings with constant, trivializing coverage while other, far more important stories went under-reported or completely ignored in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Washington, D.C. The press might respond by saying, ''We gave the people what they wanted.'' My response would be, ''My job is to give them what they want. When he steps into a recording studio, it's Michael Jackson's job to give them what they want. Your job is to give the people what they need.''
Ah, but it doesn't matter now. The Pale Peculiarity has floated out of the courthouse to his black SUV for the last time. The sideshow has moved on. In Santa Maria the sweepers are cleaning up the mess and all the cameras have been turned off. There'll be another sideshow eventually, but probably not one this good for a while. The best comment might have been by a Jackson supporter, responding to a TV reporter after the verdict. Maybe I misheard it, maybe it was just a particularly apropos malapropism, but it sure sounded like ''You guys really hit the jackal-pot.''
Do you agree? What do you think of the media coverage of the Michael Jackson case?