What Next

This Reporter Covered the MJ Trial for Slate. Leaving Neverland Changed His Mind.

How one writer changed his perspective on one of the most controversial trials of the 21st century.

Michael Jackson waves as he leaves the Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

The following article is a written adaptation of a recent episode of What Next, Slate’s new daily news podcast. Listen to What Next for free every day via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, Stitcher, Overcast, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Some of the most popular things Seth Stevenson ever wrote for Slate were these dispatches from the Michael Jackson trial.

“When the trial was announced, there was a lot of media interest. Everyone thought it was going to be a circus,” he says. “It was approached as entertainment.”

And that’s how Stevenson pitched it to the editors here at Slate—that this was going to be a hugely entertaining trial. He went out to Santa Maria, California, where the courthouse was, in 2005. He stayed in the only decent hotel in this small town. He ate at the Jack in the Box, and he went to the trial every day.

“I would walk through these throngs of Michael Jackson fans outside the courthouse,” he says. “And then I covered it—I was in the room every day, sitting about 10 feet away from Michael Jackson at the defense table. And it was a circus in some sense because there was so much media there, and everyone was doing their hits on TV and the fans were chanting things and waving signs. And Michael Jackson, every time he showed up, it was a huge event—he was wearing these crazy clothes. And so I wrote about it like it was a circus, and I wrote about it in a lighthearted way and cracked jokes and talked about what he was wearing. And I just continued to do that. And then when he was found not guilty, it allowed people to treat it like entertainment.”

This trial was about a horrific crime. Michael Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy, and of holding his family hostage. But Stevenson’s updates were an especially insightful version of a lot of the coverage back then—they were full of humor. He introduced readers to superfans outside the courthouse and wisecracking journalists inside it. He always started by revealing what Michael’s armband looked like that day.

“It was partly me and how young I was then,” he says. “But I think it’s partly the times, and partly the fact that on the ground—I don’t know. Reading it now, I’m like, ‘What are you doing cracking jokes? What are you doing?’ ”

Readers loved his approach—his reporting was very successful and drove traffic to the website you’re reading right now. Stevenson got lots and lots of emails about how great it was. When he took a pause from his reporting, people asked him to go back on the job.

“Reading it now, I’m like, ‘Well, that’s what people wanted,’ ” he says.

HBO’s new documentary Leaving Neverland is going to test whether this is the story people still want. It’s filled with detailed allegations of abuse and is built around interviews with James Safechuck and Wade Robson. Both men say Michael Jackson abused them for years when they were kids. Over four hours, they detail how Jackson groomed them to be his sexual companions and groomed their families to be accomplices. He showered their mothers with gifts and financial favors whenever they would bring their children to him at his secluded, sprawling ranch, Neverland.

“When I heard [the film included] Wade Robson, specifically, talking about being molested by Michael Jackson, the first thing I thought about was sitting in a quiet room and watching Wade Robson say to me and many other people that he had not been molested by Michael Jackson,” Stevenson says. “He seemed very believable when he denied any of this had happened. I was just eager to see his manner and see who this guy was, whom I saw when he was 22 and now is in his late 30s.”

Stevenson says that while he was watching the documentary, he got a new sense of things: that he believed the men.

“And it didn’t take long. It didn’t take long,” Stevenson says. “The way he talked, the way he described things, was extremely believable and credible. And then watching James Safechuck, the other person who’s in the documentary, corroborate a lot of the same stories [about what] Michael Jackson had done—yeah, I believed him 100 percent. I have no doubt that he’s telling the truth.”

In the film, Safechuck takes out a box of jewelry Michael Jackson gave him. His hands shake as he displays each ring that Jackson seemingly gave him in exchange for sex acts.

“That was the most powerful moment in the documentary for me,” Stevenson says. “It just made it utterly credible—utterly believable what he was saying.”

I wanted to talk to Stevenson about Leaving Neverland because he’s been covering Michael Jackson for years, trying to peel back the layers of artifice and see the real man underneath. I asked Stevenson to detail his reporting, and share his thoughts on the documentary, in a recent episode of What Next, the new daily news podcast I host for Slate.

It should be noted: The Jackson family says the men in this documentary are lying, and they argue the film is posthumous character assassination.

But to me, the trick of this film is that it neatly separates Michael Jackson the musician from Michael Jackson the man, and it forces you to grapple with the plainly creepy facts of his personal life. There’s almost none of his music in the documentary. It’s extensively scored with orchestral music, but seeing Jackson divorced from his own music allows you to separate your vision of him in a certain way, or at least that’s how I felt.

“I don’t think that documentary was really about Michael Jackson,” Stevenson says. “I think that the documentary was about what it’s like to be a survivor of abuse, what child molestation does to someone, even 10 or 20 years later—how it affects them and how it continues to evolve within them and how they deal with it. I think that’s really what it was about. And Michael Jackson just happened to be the monstrous figure in the background.”

Leaving Neverland is at once momentous and narrow. Momentous because it features hours of tape from two men who spent years defending Jackson, and narrow because there is no response from the Michael Jackson estate. There is obviously no defense from the late Jackson himself, and no interviews with the people who already accused Jackson in court.

One of the things that stood out to me about this documentary is how Michael Jackson was constantly surrounded by children. There’s video after video of him leading individual children around his Neverland ranch. There were children onstage with him, and they were often a theme in his art. This seems to have been hidden in plain sight, and Jackson had multiple accusers.

“There’s the Jordy Chandler accusation in 1993—you see reports of a $25 million settlement for that,” says Stevenson. “And then the Gavin Arvizo accusation, which was also in the 2005 trial that I covered.”

But both of the men in Leaving Neverland were deeply involved with defending Michael Jackson whenever these charges came up.

“James Safechuck reportedly testified in 1993 on Michael Jackson’s behalf,” Stevenson says. “Wade Robson testified then, [and] Wade Robson came back in the 2005 trial and took the stand and testified on behalf of Michael Jackson and said nothing happened.”

Stevenson was there the day when Wade Robson came into the court as a witness after listening to extensive arguments from the prosecution.

“I was there the day that the prosecution rested, and it was a long case, with day after day of chain-of-custody evidence and fingerprinting and all that forensic stuff,” he says. “They finally rest and they don’t have hard evidence—they have a credible accuser and they have a lot of smoke. They have a maid who testified that she had seen Michael Jackson shower with Wade Robson. But there’s a ton of circumstantial evidence, a ton of suggestion that untoward things were happening.”

Then it was the defense’s turn.

“They put up their very first witness and it’s Wade Robson,” says Stevenson. “He comes into the courtroom with his fiancée on his arm. They are both extremely attractive, put-together, well-dressed people.”

Robson was already a mini-celebrity—he was ’N Sync’s choreographer, and in 2002, Britney Spears had reportedly even cheated on Justin Timberlake with Robson. The lines in Justin Timberlake’s song “Cry Me a River,” which is from his debut solo album, apparently alluded to the infidelity—“You don’t have to say what you did/ I already know, I found out from him.” The him in this case is Robson, and it was partially in this context that Robson entered the 2005 Jackson trial.

“He’s already pretty famous. He’s been doing these massive dance choreography things—he’s got a career,” Stevenson says. “You have to think, as he takes the stand with his attractive fiancée and his booming career, Well, this guy seems pretty well-adjusted. It seems like this guy wasn’t derailed by some horrible thing that happened to him. He seems like he’s doing great. He takes the stand, he’s very confident, he’s very at ease, he’s cracking jokes—he’s funny. And you have to think, Well, is this the guy who’s the survivor of some sort of life-changing trauma? It doesn’t seem that way.”

Stevenson says that Robson asserted with utter conviction that Jackson did not abuse him.

“I was sold—I was sold that nothing happened to him,” Stevenson says. “I 100 percent believed him in that moment, watching him. I could look him in the eye. I was sitting four rows back looking at him on the witness stand and I bought it. I was still agnostic on Michael Jackson’s guilt—it could be that Michael Jackson didn’t molest Wade Robson but Michael Jackson did molest the accuser in the trial or molest somebody else. But I was sold at the end of that testimony that Michael Jackson had not molested Wade Robson.”

It wasn’t just Wade Robson who had testified. It was also his mother and his sister.

“They were extremely believable,” Stevenson says. “They seemed like this happy, well-adjusted, normal family. And Joy Robson, Wade Robson’s mom, she took the stand and said, Of course Michael Jackson would never do anything like this. Neverland is such a happy place. I love playing with the chimpanzees there.”

Stevenson continues: “And then you watch the documentary and you see how Michael Jackson so strategically targeted these families—the kids and the parents—and how he bought off the parents with financial stuff. He bought a house for James Safechuck’s mom. He bought a car for Joy Robson. In the trial, the prosecution brought up the fact that Michael Jackson helped Joy Robson with her immigration status coming from Australia. And she talks in the documentary about how they were living this life of luxury, being flown around by Michael Jackson and staying in really nice hotel suites. And she seemed to love it. She seemed to want to be a part of that.”

In 2005, Joy Robson accused the mother of Jordy Chandler, who had settled with Jackson in 1993, of being financially motivated. “I thought she wanted to be mistress of Neverland and she was trying to use Michael. I thought she was a gold digger,” she said. But it was Joy Robson who was reaping financial benefits from having her son be in Jackson’s life.

“The other thing I remember with the trial that they brought up with regard to Joy Robson was one night Michael Jackson called very late and asked her to bring over Wade Robson, and Joy Robson brought Wade over at 1:30 in the morning, and they went straight to Michael Jackson’s bedroom together,” Stevenson says. “I don’t want to question her when she says that she thought nothing was happening, but it’s like a booty call. What goes through your head when you bring your kid over to a grown man’s house at 1 in the morning and deliver him right into his bedroom?”

It seems to me that the original sin, if there is one here, is the commodification of children—whether you’re talking about Michael Jackson himself or you’re talking about the children who are now men in this documentary. There was this one moment that really stood out to me: Safechuck’s mom talks about how he wanted to be an actor and a model, and how he was so cute. They took him to an agent, and she looked at this small boy who was probably 7 and said something like, He’s money in the bank. I’ll take him.

To me, that was the beginning of it all—whether you were the Jackson 5 and the Jackson family or you were James Safechuck’s family, when you start equating your child with something transactional in that way, it opens the door to all kinds of abuse. And Stevenson seems to agree.

“You could see in the documentary that Joy Robson sees her son Wade as a ticket to a new life,” he says. “She uses Wade’s relationship with Michael Jackson and Wade’s talent at dancing as a way to get out of Australia to come to Los Angeles, as a way to get out of her family, to break up her marriage and escape from a marriage that she didn’t seem to be hugely thrilled about. You can see this excitement in her eyes about this new life. Her son is a ticket to a new life, and she’s gonna ride it for all it’s worth. And she just continues to do that. It’s so transactional with Michael Jackson.”

I looked back at all of Stevenson’s dispatches from when he was watching the trial, and they give a really fascinating picture of what was happening there. There are several things from his writings that are echoed back years later in this documentary.

At the time, Stevenson said that the prosecution was painting this disturbing picture—one where several mothers were jockeying for status at Neverland by offering up their little boys. The lawyers argued that Michael Jackson was fickle with his attention and that he would often move on to a new “special friend” every year or so. Now, years later, that’s something the documentary shows—mothers are now saying that this is what happened, and they noticed every year there would be a new boy.

“The portrait that the prosecution was painting is that these moms are pimping out their sons to Michael Jackson for their own benefit,” he says. “And when you see the documentary, that’s exactly what they were doing. That’s exactly how it worked out.”

Stevenson continues: “The attachment and the tether to Michael Jackson is the kid—if the kid’s not there, Michael Jackson doesn’t care about Joy Robson. How’s Joy Robson going to continue living this celebrity lifestyle without the kid being in the mix? All of the motivations for her are just terrible, and then she indulges them all.”

Yet so much of this was known during the trial. Reading back on what Stevenson had written, he explains the police testified that Debbie Rowe, Michael Jackson’s ex-wife, told them Jackson was a sociopath and he used children as tools or saw them as commodities. It now seems like the evidence was all there.

“There was all of this very fishy evidence that certainly a reasonable person could say, It’s obvious that Michael Jackson is a pedophile. It’s very clear,” Stevenson says. “At the same time, in that 2005 trial, I really think the prosecution botched the case. They failed to prove that the particular accuser had been molested. They had his testimony, but other than that they didn’t have any hard evidence. And the defense’s case that this is someone gauging Michael Jackson for money, that these are people making false accusations against a rich person because they’re trying to get money out of it, well, there were a lot of ways they could bolster that case.”

If you remember, before this 2005 trial involving Gavin Arvizo, Jackson’s previous accuser, Jordy Chandler, had settled for $25 million. And Arvizo’s family previously got money out of other celebrities.

“But the most important evidence in that trial is Wade Robson taking the stand and saying, This never happened. I was never molested. It was completely innocent. I slept in his bed night after night and nothing happened. The maid at Neverland that testified that she saw me in the shower with Michael Jackson, that never happened. I never took a shower with Michael Jackson,” Stevenson says. “Macaulay Culkin also took the stand and said, Nothing happened even though I’ve been around Michael Jackson. Brett Barnes, this third kid who’d been a little kid around Michael Jackson for a long time and slept in his bed, said nothing happened.

“Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes actually still deny that anything happened. That was why Michael Jackson was found not guilty,” he adds.

I keep thinking about the moment we’re in now, and how we talk a lot about believing victims—which we should. But then the question becomes: When do we believe victims? And is that enough? Because Wade Robson seems to have been a victim, and Stevenson believed him the first time when he said Michael Jackson didn’t molest him. And now Stevenson believes him the second time when he says he did. And it shows me how complicated that idea is and how imperfect, frankly, it is.

“The first time [Robson] was under oath—in some ways that should be more believable, because he was under penalty of perjury, and it was in a legal setting when he lied that time,” Stevenson says. “I think victimhood is a very complicated state to be in and causes you to behave in all sorts of ways that might be unpredictable.”

It is complicated, but it’s one of these things where it’s like, whom do we believe? When do we believe them? When is it enough? And when is it enough to clear out the smoke? The Jackson estate is not part of this. As a journalist, I have really complicated feelings about that, because I do think it’s unfair to not get a response from the people you’re accusing.

But at the same time, I can also see how it’s the only way to elevate the victim’s voices as loud as Michael Jackson’s voice. I wonder if people would see the victims if it weren’t for something like this. Wade Robson came out years ago and said, Michael Jackson molested me. No one really paid attention. Stevenson remembers how he felt when he saw that shift.

“I was like, Oh, what is this about? I can’t really tell what this is about,” he says. “It seemed to barely make a ripple, and nobody really changed the way they thought about Michael Jackson. People didn’t stop playing him on the radio, at their weddings—nothing happened. I do think this documentary will have much more of an impact, because you hear [Robson’s] story at length, and isolated.”

The estate says that Wade Robson is after money, that both of these men are. And Stevenson says there is a plausible case to made that that could be true.

“There’s enough evidence of people seeking money from Michael Jackson around these accusations that it is possible to make that argument,” he says.

In a way, it all goes back to the idea of money, and how it complicates the narrative. These folks may be after money, but the accusations may also be true. And Stevenson says that the documentary leaves that out.

“It leaves out a lot of the things that happened at the trial; it’s somewhat misleading,” he says. “At one point it seems to imply that Macaulay Culkin testified before Wade Robson, and then Wade Robson came on the stand after Macaulay Culkin, but that’s not what happened. I was there. The prosecution rested, the defense called its first witness, and its first witness was Wade Robson to take the stand. He was the key witness—he was the all-star witness for the defense. And part of me wondered, Why did the documentary try to imply that Macaulay Culkin had taken the stand first and Wade Robson only came after? Was that to try to soften what he’d done at the trial?’ ”

The team behind the documentary didn’t really have Robson grapple very much with his false testimony at the trial, something Stevenson says he noticed.

“There’s a sentence where [Robson] says, I wish I’d been in a place where I’d been able to give justice to Gavin Arvizo, the accuser. And all I thought was, Well, gosh—Gavin Arvizo might have deserved a little more than that. And I’m not sure if in the documentary, for my taste, there was enough grappling with that.”

Since watching the documentary, Stevenson says he can’t really listen to Michael Jackson’s music.

“I’ve heard it at grocery stores and it makes me really uncomfortable,” he says. “All I can think is, Are we gonna keep listening to this now? Or, How are we going to keep listening to this? I didn’t listen to it in the same way. I love his music. I love so much of his music. It’s such great music. And I certainly can’t enjoy it in the same way right now.”