Michael Jackson Could Be Guilty as Hell, and HBO’s Leaving Neverland Would Still Be Unfair
I have never been a fan of music legend Michael Jackson in any significant way. I have also long believed, even before I covered his criminal trial as a Los Angeles radio talk show host, that he was very likely a pedophile.
On Monday, I watched all four hours of HBO’s Leaving Neverland, along with Oprah Winfrey’s hour-long discussion with the film’s stars, mainly out of curiosity. As documentary filmmaker myself, I wanted to see what kind of content could possibly compel such an extraordinary endeavor about a man who has been dead for a decade.
I came to these shows with a unique perspective. I have spent much of the last seven years independently investigating the “Penn State Child Sex Abuse Scandal,” and taking more flak than maybe any modern media figure for their educated opinion on a matter of great controversy — one which, to this day, is still being adjudicated on multiple fronts.
To be clear, while Jackson was properly acquitted given the evidence presented in his 2005 trial, I have no problem accepting the probability that he was indeed a pedophile (though, I should note that I am convinced that Jackson’s criminal attorney, Tom Meserau, whom I have gotten to know pretty well, sincerely believes him to be innocent). It also appears that the two primary figures in this film, Wade Robson and James Safechcuk, were indeed sexually abused.
While I still have some questions about why there is not more compelling corroborating evidence against Jackson at this juncture (when he clearly has no power to keep people quiet), that is not the point of this column. For the purposes of this endeavor, I am presuming Michael Jackson to be guilty as hell, and Robson and Safechuck to be totally telling the truth.
Even factoring in that presupposition, however, what HBO did was very wrong. In the spirit of basic fairness and the avoidance of incredibly bad precedents, which create dangerous new rules, Leaving Neverland should never have been broadcast in its current form.
Because Jackson was acquitted in a criminal case, never even found liable by a civil court, and cannot defend himself because he is dead, this should have required HBO and director Dan Reed to reach a far greater threshold of evidence than might normally be the case (one of the disconnects in our legal and journalistic system is that it is easier to do this show about dead person, no matter how unfair that may be, because the deceased can’t be legally “defamed”). Having produced a movie so one-sided that it really shouldn’t even be called a “documentary,” they clearly failed to meet that burden.
To put it a slightly different way, had Jackson been convicted and confessed, this film would have been perfectly appropriate and possibly quite helpful in the cause of understanding the impact on victims of this kind of horrible crime. But the film’s primary problem, which the director inadvertently admits to in the Oprah-hosted “post-game” show, is that from the start he presumes Jackson to be guilty, and his subjects to be telling the full truth, and therefore there is no need to focus on anything but the impact on them.
I’m sorry, but Reed skipped a couple of really important steps here. Since it has never been done in court in this case, you need to first prove guilt before you can simply decide to let two victims who, despite being given the opportunity to do so as fully-grown adults, never testified against Jackson, with one of them, Robson, actually acting as one of Jackson’s two star witnesses at his trial.
This doesn’t mean that Robson and Safechuck aren’t telling the truth. It does mean however, that the audience should at least be made fully aware of the problems with their stories, and they should have something, anything, to corroborate their claims before being given such a huge and unrestricted platform.
Here, Leaving Neverland fails on both counts.
Part one, broadcast for two hours Sunday night, completely withheld all potentially problematic information from the audience, as Robson and Safechuck were given about an hour each to tell their stories in the most sympathetic light imaginable. There was not one remotely skeptical question, any semblance of a constraint on what they could say about Jackson, and absolutely not even one second for what passed as a rebuttal to the horrific allegations being made against him.
It wasn’t until part two, Monday night, when Reed finally let his audience, which has already become emotionally invested in his subjects, know the following facts, for instance, about Robson:
- He testified on Jackson’s behalf in a civil matter when he was about 12, which he now says was five years into his seven years of continual sexual abuse.
- He testified on Jackson’s behalf in the criminal trial when he was about 22, and a celebrity in his own right.
- His mother and sister also strongly testified on Jackson’s behalf at the criminal trial.
- Both his mother and his then-soon-to-be wife asked him point-blank before the criminal trial if Jackson had ever done anything wrong to him, and he completely convinced both of them that he had not.
- When Jackson died, he issued a glowing statement of extraordinary praise of Jackson and attended his funeral.
- His story only radically changed four years later when he filed a lawsuit against Jackson’s estate, which failed on statute of limitations grounds.
None of this proves that Robson is lying, and the story of abuse that Robson tells now is extremely graphic and seemingly credible. But that’s not the real issue.
The problem is that allowing someone with that factual background to tell their story essentially unedited, without a hint of scrutiny, without a shred of corroboration, about an un-convicted dead man, is both wrong and treacherous. Quite simply, you can’t have a “he said, he said” situation about such an incredibly inflammatory charge, especially when one of the two people who were in the room is dead, and the other one told the 100% opposite story while under oath, twice (and, if you do, you should damn well interview some people representing the other side, which Leaving Neverland does not).
While Oprah (who, it should be pointed out, played a key role in the Michael Jackson hype machine back in the day) at least made meager efforts to promote some semblance of fairness by reading a blistering statement for the Jackson family, and gently asking a couple of half-way decent questions, she was very poorly positioned to take part in this project. Oprah — an abuse victim herself — has championed this cause, and comes off as too invested in believing all abuse allegations to give stories like these the scrutiny that a journalistic endeavor should demand, regardless of how politically incorrect it may be to do so, or how truthful those stories may end up being.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.