The Washington Post called it an "orgy of praise" and an "exercise in excess." They were referring to the star-studded, mega-televised Michael Jackson memorial service in Los Angeles. It just as accurately described the supposedly serious national media’s weeks of outsized hyperbole concerning the life and death of a man who was a pop sensation, to be sure, but also highly controversial, even scandalous.
There certainly was the exercise in excess on the "news" programs. On the night of July 6, ABC, CBS and NBC paid 20 times more attention to Jackson (more than a week after his death) than to the deaths of seven brave soldiers in Afghanistan.
They were only tip of the excess iceberg. Jackson dominated every "Access Hollywood" and "Entertainment Tonight" show for two weeks. The memorial service aired on 19 different networks, drawing 31 million viewers. At least that exposed one piece of hype from the Jackson camp: that "a billion" global villagers would tune in.
Many people were touched by the Jackson tributes, and none were more heart-rending than his adopted daughter Paris declaring through tears that he was the best father you can imagine. How sad: No one can seem to explain precisely who is the biological father or mother of Jackson’s children. Such was his family.
It’s not hard to sense that someone behind the scenes is still seeking to milk the Michael Jackson "brand" for every dollar. Every network that plugged into this service was accepting a feed from the Jackson family, which controlled every frame of what people saw. Huge pictures of Jackson with his arms outstretched were an imposing backdrop, with Jackson looking either like a Christ-like religious figure or a willowy despot of a totalitarian People’s Republic of Neverland.
You sensed that some celebrities weren’t there to mourn Michael Jackson. They were there to perform for his fans.
Behind this event’s financial agenda was an attempt not only to designate Jackson as "the greatest entertainer who ever lived," as Motown Records founder Berry Gordy proclaimed, but to deny the obvious. Rev. Al Sharpton came to the memorial, not to preach the gospel of Jesus but to offer all his praises and hosannas to Jackson, praises which turned ridiculous. "There wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy," he told Jackson’s children, "It was strange what he had to deal with."
What? There is nothing more self-evidently untrue than to claim Michael Jackson wasn’t strange. What was he? The Washington Post asked: "Boy? Demigod? Alien?" Time magazine claimed he "seemed so remote as so be extraterrestrial — the moonwalking moon child." In a People magazine timeline of photos, he looks like he underwent 25 facial surgeries, which turned what was a handsome man into a walking freak-show headliner.
What made Jackson strangest was his refusal to stop sleeping with young teenage boys. He settled the first sexual-abuse charges in 1993 with a huge $15 million-plus settlement — an action that hardly clears him of the taint of child molestation. Even after that settlement tainted his reputation, he damaged it further by continuing to declare to TV interviewers that his outsized attention to young boys was utterly normal.
On "60 Minutes" in 2003, Ed Bradley asked Jackson if he thought it was acceptable to share his bed with children. "Of course," Jackson said. Even after the allegations and innuendo? "I would never stop helping and loving people." In 2005, ABC’s Martin Bashir asked again, and Jackson gave the same answer: "Why can’t you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone."
What the media frenzy over Jackson’s death may have accomplished is a whitewash of this disturbing record of behavior. The Washington Post described the memorial service as "the completion of Michael Jackson’s 12-day transformation from ostracized to beloved."
Some cultural commissars claimed the musical genius transcended the cloud of molestation. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic magazine wrote, "Woody Allen wooed his wife’s adopted daughter, and may well be a child molester. But I think ‘Bananas’ makes me laugh. Mike Tyson is, among other things, a convicted rapist. But I had not lived until I saw him demolish Trevor Berbick. And so on. I guess I could peel these people out my life. I guess I could stop separating art from men. Regrettably, I think, I wouldn’t be left with much art worth admiring."
This attitude suggests a very dangerous angle to celebrity worship. Once you can make us laugh, or dance, we’re so self-absorbed it doesn’t matter if you’re a rapist? Let’s hope Coates wouldn’t add O.J. Simpson to his analogy. But millions of Americans did precisely that, as evidenced by their refusal to admit he butchered his wife and her friend. Such is the state of our popular culture today.