Television

This Isn’t the First Time a Michael Jackson Documentary Inspired a Reckoning

Revisiting Living With Michael Jackson, ABC’s “world-exploding” 2003 special.

Martin Bashir and Michael Jackson from the 2003 documentary.
Martin Bashir and Michael Jackson.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by ITV.

The nation was waiting for a documentary about Michael Jackson, one filled with serious allegations about one of the most beloved pop stars in history, and it felt as if, when the movie arrived, the world might be knocked off its axis. That’s where we are now, looking ahead to the HBO broadcast of Leaving Neverland, which stunned audiences at Sundance with its detailed allegations from two men who accuse Jackson of repeatedly sexually abusing them when they were children, and it’s where we were in February of 2003, as word spread that journalist Martin Bashir’s Living With Michael Jackson, a 90-minute TV documentary that aired in the U.K. three days before its debut on ABC, was full of shocking and salacious details about the reclusive icon’s life.

Bashir was best known at the time for having coaxed Princess Diana into an on-camera admission of an extramarital affair, and despite a title that could as easily have accompanied a glossy magazine puff piece, it was clear almost from the outset that Living With Michael Jackson was out for blood. The program opens with a snippet of Bashir and Jackson chuckling in a recording studio, and a few minutes later, they’re strolling through Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, sharing a Ferris wheel gondola and racing miniature cars around a track. But as the two drive in circles, Bashir’s voice-over promises the viewer that what lies ahead is an unprecedented inside look at Jackson’s life: “his music, his money, his children, his sex life, his face.”

It was that last item—the question of Jackson’s dramatically altered physical appearance—that drew the most advance attention, with the question of Jackson’s relationships with children barely bubbling to the surface. Wire reports based on the U.K. broadcast left the revelation that, even after spending millions to settle a sexual abuse lawsuit in 1993, Jackson was still inviting children to share his bedroom for their final paragraphs, where it could be cut for space. Even Bashir, who rarely missed a chance to coat every interaction with a layer of leering tabloid innuendo, was far more interested in the subject of Jackson’s history of plastic surgery—whether he’d thinned his nose or lightened his skin—than whether he might have been engaged in inappropriate conduct with young boys. Even while interviewing 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo, who would later that year be the centerpiece of the criminal charges of child molestation filed against Jackson, Bashir does little more than press the subject of whether it looked weird for Jackson to have intimate emotional connections with children 30 years his junior.

MJ Reckoning

Watching Living With Michael Jackson in the wake of Leaving Neverland’s stomach-churning allegations (it can be found on YouTube), I found it hard to even look at Jackson as he takes Bashir on a tour of his sprawling estate, or as Bashir and his camera crew tag along while Jackson shops for antiques in Las Vegas. Bashir casts himself as a hard-nosed muckraker, but the feeling is less of a steady progression toward the truth and more a gawking drive-by, at a speed where Jackson’s opulent lifestyle and red-flag behavior blur into one big WTF. To be fair, at that point Michael Jackson was one of the strangest people on the planet, so divorced from the commonalities of human existence that practically every statement provokes a double take. Jackson shows Bashir the tree in whose branches he wrote some of his latter-day hits, then proclaims one of his favorite things in the world is having water-balloon fights; he discusses an adolescent Tatum O’Neal trying to pressure him into having sex with her; he tells Bashir he nicknamed his son Blanket because “It’s an expression I use with my family and my employees—you should blanket me.” Although Bashir makes sure we know he followed Jackson on and off for eight months, there’s no sense of intimacy or understanding, just a pile of accumulated dirt.

Living With Michael Jackson was a sensation whose 27 million viewers—at the beginning of sweeps, the crucial period when network TV pulls out all the stops to increase ratings—made it the most-watched program of the week. It repeated half a dozen times on ABC’s sister network, VH1, and returned to ABC, scheduled opposite a two-hour Dateline special called “The Many Faces of Michael Jackson.” It was, said NBC’s Jeff Zucker, “one of the most ridiculous sweeps in modern American TV history.” Fox even paid $7 million to air The Michael Jackson Interview: The Footage You Were Never Meant to See (which can also be found on YouTube), a Jackson-produced rebuttal that paints Bashir as an obsequious sneak who praised Jackson to his face and stuck a knife in his back after the fact.

TV critics largely sniffed at the phenomenon: The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley wrote “Like junk bonds or fen-phen, Mr. Jackson is one of those phenomena that seem destined to be yanked from the public at any minute but are irresistible while they last,” and the Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg, suggesting the furor had drowned out the preparations for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, quipped, “I don’t know about you, but I’d go to war to stop another TV show from even mentioning Michael Jackson.”

But the attention didn’t die down, and eventually the focus shifted from Jackson’s overall oddity to the specifics of his relationship with Arvizo. According to the prosecutor in Jackson’s 2005 trial, the public reaction to the documentary sent Jackson into a panic. In November of 2003, eight months after the special first aired, police raided the Neverland compound. In December, Jackson’s former security chief, Robert Wegner, told the Associated Press that Neverland’s staff kept a running account of the number and location of Neverland’s guests in case of emergency and said, “There was always a number plus Michael in his bedroom, mostly all boys.” Later that month, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation. Jackson was eventually found not guilty of all charges.

Now, Living With Michael Jackson’s most significant and discomfiting passage by far is the few minutes it spends with Arvizo, who is interviewed at Jackson’s side. The boy seems in high spirits—in court, he said the sexual abuse started only after the documentary had aired—but as he describes how Jackson is really “a kid at heart,” the camera pans to Jackson’s face, and Jackson’s expression is blank, unreadable. If you’ve seen Leaving Neverland, and heard Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s accounts of how Jackson used their emotional bonds to manipulate them, your blood will run cold when Arvizo recalls Jackson saying, “If you love me, you’ll sleep in the bed”—a chill that doesn’t dissipate when Jackson goes on to say he slept in a sleeping bag. As Bashir presses Jackson on whether it’s appropriate for a 44-year-old man to share a bedroom with children, Arvizo holds Jackson’s hand, leaning against his shoulder and shaking his head. There’s no such footage of Jackson and Robson or Safechuck in Leaving Neverland—in fact, Jackson is largely absent from its four hours, the better to focus on his alleged victims and their families. It might be necessary to take a step back from who Jackson was in order to get a clearer look at what he did.