Published June 25, 2009
At this very moment, supermarket tabloid editors are trying to decide if they're going to immortalize Michael Jackson as a villain or as a hero. Since The National Enquirer is the highest selling print publication in the world, tabloids will surely have an impact on Jackson's legacy.
The deciding criteria will be based solely upon whatever they predict will sell the most copies, and I should know because I used to work for them.
"Do we ever say anything nice about anyone" I once asked my editor at the Globe.
"Sure, when they die," he answered.
So, at least Jackson finally has a chance of being shown a little respect by the so called "magazines" that tormented him throughout his life -- but there are no guarantees.
I hate to sound pessimistic about my former "journalistic" colleagues, but I can't help but feel a touch of deja vu, taking me back to the time I was sent to Aspen to cover the death of John Denver.
Although I was based in Boulder to investigate the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the Globe occasionally sent me to Colorado resort towns and eventually Los Angeles to chase celebrities.
"So, what's it gonna be?" I asked an editor after John Denver's plane had crashed. "Good guy or bad guy?"
"Bad guy," he said. "John Denver's little girl is flying into Aspen right now, and by the time our story hits the front page I want her crying, crying, crying, you got me?"
I got it all right.
During my time as a tabloid reporter, I witnessed a sadistic streak I'd never seen before. The reporters I worked with undeniably reveled in the pain and humiliation they inflicted upon celebrities and reveled in the power they held over successful people's lives. Shortly after Denver's death, the Globe sent me to Los Angeles where they pressured me to write false stories about former LA prosecutor Christopher Darden and Farrah Fawcett, which I respectfully declined.
A lot of people have suffered from the tip of the poison pen wielded by tabloid reporters and editors, but Michael Jackson certainly earned a monumental place in the supermarket checkout lines, accused of being a diabolical child molester with severe psychological problems.
Sure, Jackson was prosecuted twice, and although this reporter can't acquit him of any charges, he was never convicted of a single crime. He certainly didn't deserve the tabloid innuendos that only fueled a toxic fire that was burning his reputation to a cinder in the court of public opinion.
What the tabloids rarely emphasized were Jackson's countless charitable acts, writing music to raise money in third world countries, donating millions to victims of alcohol and drug abuse, helping underprivileged children, sending young African Americans to college and financing a multi-million dollar burn center.
Jackson was also a pioneer in raising awareness about AIDS. He publicly pleaded with President Clinton at the president's inaugural gala to increase federal spending to combat the disease and travelled to Africa to raise public awareness. In fact, Jackson's charitable and musical accomplishments won him recognition and awards from President Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
When Jackson was accused again in 2005 of child molestation charges, the tabloids were all too willing to imply that he was guilty, but as the prosecution's case progressed, their victim and his mother seemed to lose credibility. Even during Jackson's first prosecution in 1993, the alleged victim's mother insisted the pop star did nothing wrong.
The New York Times once said, "in the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else." Perhaps it is fair to say the same for Jackson's lifelong career as a target of the tabloid industry.
We'll never know whether or not Michael Jackson did the horrific things the tabloids accused him of, but we do know all the heroic things he did throughout his lifetime and those are undisputed facts.
We can only hope that this time the tabloids will show an ounce of decency and emphasize the facts as opposed to speculation, which is what real journalists do anyway. Michael Jackson did many altruistic things throughout his lifetime and he deserves to be remembered for them.
Some decisions should be based on more than what sells, and Michael Jackson deserves an accurate place in history. He should, at the very least, not be defamed in death.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro worked for the Globe tabloid for two years until 1999 when he reported his editors to the FBI and testified against them before a grand jury. He is now a Washington, D.C. based lawyer and reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.