Michael Jackson on stage with guitarist Jennifer Batten, 1988
Michael Jackson: It’s Time For Outlets to Take Responsibility in Covering the Rock Star
By Charles Thomson
The Huffington Post, March 2, 2010
Last week Michael Jackson’s guitarist discredited widely reported allegations about the star’s behaviour on the road. So why is the media refusing to publish her comments? British writer Charles Thomson explores media bias against black music’s biggest star.
Aging glam-rocker Gene Simmons made international headlines last month when he claimed to know that Michael Jackson had molested children. In an interview with Classic Rock, Simmons alleged that Jackson was on tape ordering alcohol for children and that during the star’s 2005 trial a travel agent had testified to importing Brazilian boys for Jackson’s amusement. He also claimed that a musician friend had quit a Jackson tour after seeing ‘boys coming out of the hotel rooms.’
What followed was a classic example of copy and paste journalism. Within hours the story had been duplicated by hundreds of blogs, forums and news websites from Australia to India to the USA. None of them had fact-checked the story before they re-hosted it. Jackson was never on tape ordering alcohol for children. There was never any testimony during his trial about young Brazilian boys. Both of these claims were easily disproven by trial transcripts.
As a relative Jackson expert, I was also unaware of any musician ever leaving one of the singer’s tours midway through. So when I sat down a fortnight ago for an interview with Jackson’s long serving tour guitarist Jennifer Batten, I ran the story by her.
She told me that no musician had ever quit a Jackson tour. Two musicians had been fired but both were let go before the show hit the road, so they couldn’t possibly have witnessed anything going on inside hotels.
When Sawf News published Batten’s rebuttal I observed an all too familiar phenomenon. Although the story appeared on Google News and was picked up fairly swiftly by the Examiner, nobody else seemed willing to touch it. Whilst Simmons’s speculative and ultimately baseless accusations had been reproduced the world over, Batten’s expert rebuttal was being suppressed.
I soon began receiving emails from Jackson’s fans telling me that they were sending the story to every celebrity news outlet they could think of, including several of those which published Simmons’s initial allegations.
But more than 48 hours later, typing an exact quote from Simmons’s rant into a search engine produced almost 350 webpages. The number of news outlets hosting Batten’s rebuttal? Three.
This was not the first time I’d had a Jackson story suppressed. After Evan Chandler’s suicide in November 2009 I was contacted by the Sun and asked to supply information about the 1993 allegations. I spent quite some time compiling my research, advising the newspaper of common myths and how to avoid them, being careful to source all of my facts from legal documents and audio/visual evidence.
When I read the finished article I was stunned to find that all of my information had been discarded and replaced with the very myths I had advised them to avoid. I alerted staff to the inaccuracies but my emails were not replied. The same inaccuracies appeared in every single article I read about the suicide.
The same bias manifested itself the following month when Jackson’s FBI file was released. Across more than 300 pages of information there was not one piece of incriminating evidence—but that’s not the way the media told it.
A videotape seized at customs in West Palm Beach and analysed for child pornography was repeatedly referred to as belonging to Jackson. In actuality, files stated merely that the tape was ‘connected’ to Jackson and that connection appeared simply to be that somebody had written his name on the sticky label.
In another document the FBI logged a telephone call from a tipster claiming that the bureau had investigated Jackson during the 1980s for molesting two Mexican boys. The files made no other mention of the supposed investigation and the claim was ascribed no validity—the call was merely noted. But the media persistently referred to the anonymous tipster’s unsupported allegations as the FBI’s own conclusions.
Jackson’s FBI file overwhelmingly supported his innocence but its contents were routinely manipulated to give the opposite impression.
Many are quick to scoff when Jackson’s fans speak of a media conspiracy to destroy the star’s reputation and I used to scoff with them. As a member of the industry I prefer not to think of it as sinister and conspiratorial, but I find it increasingly difficult to explain away the bias with which Jackson is treated.
I wonder whether the problem is pride. When the 1993 allegations broke, the vast majority of information available was released, either officially or unofficially, by the prosecution. Jackson, meanwhile, remained characteristically silent.
Perhaps because the prosecution’s version of events went almost completely unchallenged (although I imagine that drama and selling newspapers had something to do with it, too), the media primarily chose to portray Jackson as guilty.
But as the facts started to trickle out it became increasingly apparent that the case was full of holes. The allegations had been instigated not by the boy but by his father, who had demanded a scriptwriting deal from Jackson before he went to the police. He was on tape plotting to destroy Jackson’s career and dismissing his son’s wellbeing as ‘irrelevant’. Then the boy told cops that Jackson was circumcised, but a police body search concluded that he was not.
Although Jackson’s innocence looked increasingly likely, most news outlets had made their bed and to this day they seem unwilling to do anything but lie in it.
Whatever the motivation, be it pride, profit or plain old racism, the bias against Jackson is undeniable. The suppression of Batten’s comments proves once more than when it comes to Jackson the media is interested not in fact or reason but negativity and sensationalism. Batten accompanied Jackson on all three of his world tours and was known for a decade as his ‘right hand woman’. But Simmons—who self-confessedly did not know Jackson—has been given over 100 times more media coverage for his inaccurate ranting than Batten has for her firsthand experience.
It is time for outlets to assume responsibility for their own content. Websites should not re-host other publishers’ stories unless they can be completely certain that the content is factual. Even if the media refuses to print the truth about Jackson, they should compromise by not printing the lies either. At least that way he can rest in peace.
Charles Thomson, The Huffington Post