The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast from Slate about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends.
As I watched Leaving Neverland, the documentary focusing on James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who accuse Michael Jackson of raping them when they were children, I experienced a barrage of thoughts and emotions, but I never thought, “I wonder if he really did it?” I don’t know for certain that the most successful solo recording artist of all time sexually abused little boys; I just know that the testimony of the two accusers, plus a massive amount of supporting evidence, overwhelmingly suggests that he did.
Contributing to this belief is that every bit of evidence that is in any way ambiguous is easily explained without a big logical leap. I think that Safechuck and Robson are telling the truth—it’s all over their faces, in their words, in the details, and in the supporting evidence. It’s also all in keeping with what we know about child molestation, the dynamics of abuse, and the legal system.
To enumerate the three major areas of defense of Michael Jackson: One, there are many young men Jackson didn’t molest. Two, Wade Robson testified under oath that Michael Jackson didn’t molest him, raising the question, “Was he lying then, or is he lying now?” (Answer: Then.) Three, Robson and Safechuck are after the money.
The issue of these two accusers’ financial motivations is at the center of the campaign to discredit them. Michael Jackson’s defenders take the notion of a perfect victim to an extreme. They seem to demand that the only believable Michael Jackson accuser is one who suffers abuse from one of the wealthiest entertainers of all time without seeking any recompense for years of therapy, anguish, and personal or professional paralysis. When I interviewed the director, Dan Reed, he acknowledged that his subjects have and are suing Michael Jackson, because victims of abuse are entitled to compensation from their abusers. The wrongly convicted are entitled to money from the state. Users of defective products get money from companies. People discriminated against in the workplace get money from their employers.
The main purveyors of the money argument are the lawyers for the Jackson estate. The lawyers’ motivation is to protect the estate’s huge pile of money. That doesn’t discredit the lawyers’ arguments, but we can’t think of it as a smoking gun of witness impeachment. If we believe the lawyers’ arguments, then we are believing the argument of people being paid to argue that you can’t believe the arguments of people who are in it for the pay. I’ll let you sit with that one.
In addition to the lawyers, thousands of people are eager to defend their hero. In some cases, these people are related to the Jackson family, like Taj Jackson, son of Michael’s brother, Tito. Taj told Sky News in an interview: “I can tell you I’ve been around people where I’ve just gotten that energy and it’s an energy that you’re like, ‘That’s a bad person, I’ll stay away from them,’ and I think if I ever felt that way about my uncle, just one hint of it, I wouldn’t be here defending him, I wouldn’t.”
I have no reason to believe that Taj’s motives are about anything but the sincere belief that his dead uncle is innocent. But he neatly elides the fact that his fortunes—as well as his father’s—are tied to the reputation of Michael Jackson. Taj and Tito are recording artists and entertainers. To the extent that the public has any interest in their output, it is certainly due to their association with beloved musical superstar Michael Jackson. Once that association becomes connected to reviled child molester Michael Jackson, their earning potential will plummet, too. It doesn’t disqualify them from making an argument, but it informs the argument.
So far the most prominent print piece to defend Michael Jackson ran in Forbes, from the music journalist Joe Vogel, who wrote, “As someone who has done an enormous amount of research on the artist, interviewed many people who were close to him, and been granted access to a lot of private information, my assessment is that the evidence simply does not point to Michael Jackson’s guilt.”
Vogel hadn’t seen the documentary when he wrote that. His Twitter feed is filled with people who knew Jackson well and say they never, ever thought that Jackson would in any way harm a child. In other words, he’s quoting people who, if they are wrong, were blind to or countenanced child molestation. That’s a motivation there.
Vogel also focuses on the dynamic that this is a black man accused, and the public, if they believe Leaving Neverland, is believing white accusers, writing: “It’s no accident that one of Jackson’s favorite books (and movies) was To Kill a Mockingbird, a story about a black man—Tom Robinson—destroyed by false allegations.” That could be your favorite book, and you also could have abused little boys.
Vogel writes: “[D]ozens of individuals who spent time with Jackson as kids continue to assert nothing sexual ever happened. This includes hundreds of sick and terminally ill children such as Bela Farkas (for whom Jackson paid for a life-saving liver transplant) and Ryan White (whom Jackson befriended and supported in his final years battling AIDS).” OK, so Jackson didn’t sexually abuse White or Farkas, who he apparently met twice.
I wasn’t surprised at the weakness of Vogel’s argument—I have a pretty low opinion of Forbes. And that inkling aligned with another feeling that I was having as I evaluated the arguments of the Jackson defenders: They feel like the impassioned online rambling of the 9/11 truthers, or the unhinged “Hillary is a sex trafficker” types, or the peak oil crowd, if you remember them. Their screens flash and blink, their clip art grates, their sentences are often ungrammatical, their YouTube videos go on forever, and their Twitter names have four emoji in them.
It is telling that, in these weeks in which Leaving Neverland was the dominant topic of cultural conversation, in which Slate magazine alone has published more than 20 pieces about the documentary and the charges, there has yet to emerge—in any bona fide journalistic outlet—even one cogent defense of Michael Jackson from the charges of abuse.
Perhaps I am being a snob. An argument needn’t be exquisitely crafted for it to be true. On the other hand, it’s like all those miracle cures available only in this exclusive TV offer: If it really worked, don’t you think doctors would use it? Wouldn’t America’s retailers want in on these amazing products?
When an argument comes packaged in a dented and soggy box, that doesn’t necessarily mean the argument is bad, but if it were good, wouldn’t someone with a little more credibility put it forward? A better journalist might pursue it. It would get play in a higher-quality publication. Instead, the “Michael Jackson is innocent” industrial complex is churning out Medium ramblings and extensive hit jobs from YouTube, which cites a post Robson made on social media about the power of visualization and asserting that such practices caused him to concoct stories about Jackson’s abuse.
In a different age, one of “gatekeepers” and “professional standards,” such ideas wouldn’t be entertained, and the shoddy aesthetic around them would be an indictment of their credibility. But gatekeepers are now undemocratic, and professionalism is elitist. Gatekeepers kept marginalized voices from being heard, true. Some of those marginalized voices are truth-tellers from oppressed communities. Others are wackadoo conspiracists oppressed by a series of real-life acquaintances who have smiled and walked away slowly.
I do believe that the vast majority of people who watched the documentary or thought much about the accusations against Jackson over the years came to the conclusion: “This guy’s guilty. No need to dedicate my life to it.” But for people who believe he’s innocent, it’s become a cause.
Three years ago, if I had encountered troves of weirdly packaged, poorly argued, strangely formatted, amateurish defenses of Michael Jackson, I’d have regarded that as an indication that there aren’t any good defenses of Michael Jackson. I’d have actually evaluated this evidence and found that it comes up lacking not just in presentation but in substance.
That’s exactly what I’ve done with the Michael Jackson popular defense front today. The difference is that back then, I would take all these wild claims and conclude that their poor presentation was an indication that the Michael-Jackson-is-innocent side of the argument was failing. Only unserious people were taking it seriously. Now I don’t immediately come to that conclusion. The defenders, like the 9/11-was-an-inside-job folks, have advantages in terms of virality and resilience that I hadn’t counted on before. Connected and impassioned just might beat staid and correct.
Michael Jackson’s misdeeds are appalling. The rebuttals to Michael Jackson’s misdeeds are in shambles. But the fact that this ham-handed and tawdry propaganda campaign might be enough to prevent us all from achieving consensus is actually depressing.