About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jackson triumphed over media

Finally, the dust has settled over the death and burial of Michael Jackson. Throughout his career, Jackson fought two battles; one with himself, the other with general societal norms. The battle within himself was an attempt to discover the childhood denied to him by his father’s ruthless ambition combined with his becoming a celebrity at a tender age. It led him to persistent attempts to live his childhood as an adult by having an obsessive love for the company of young children.

This battle within inevitably led Jackson to the second one; the battle against general societal norms and expectations! Humans are social beings and society demands that people conform to certain general norms: you are born, you grow, acquire skills, you get a job, find a husband or wife, bear children, raise them up, visit friends and relatives, belong to some religious faith or social club etc. While most people find it easy to meet these societal expectations, a few don’t.

However, those who cannot meet society’s unrealistic demands upon them try to fit at considerable cost. Often, they become social psychopaths. A gay man is forced into a marriage with a woman. This makes him live an unhappy and false sex life. His sexual frustrations may lead him to becoming a savage wife beater. Societal demands for fidelity and faithfulness can lead a woman with an over developed appetite for sexual variety to debilitating psychological disorders.

Jackson shared this deviant personality. Many of his actions tended to deviate from the norm. For example, he did not like his nose. So he kept altering it through plastic surgery. The more he did it, the more he looked comical. Society expected him to remain looking the same. So the media (in many ways a representative of society’s values ‘ sometimes in an irresponsible way) made an issue out of it.

They sliced and diced every conceivable reason he altered his nose and made careers and money off this speculation. So what if he changed his nose? What did that have to do with anything? Did it harm anyone else? I tried to find reason why I should be remotely concerned about a man changing his nose and could not find any. Rather than act as a break on societal passions, the media became the cheerleaders of this injustice.

One could say that Jackson was a celebrity, made a living from the fact that people were interested in his person and personality and therefore he cannot enjoy the same levels of privacy as we ordinary mortals. But this reasoning is flawed; as journalists, our concern with the private actions of public figures should be limited to how such actions impact on their public duties. I believe that even celebrities should enjoy this level of protection; what effect did his changing of his nose have on his music?

Possibly the most devastating aspect of Michael Jackson was his obsession with children. He invited them in large numbers at his Neverland ranch, ate with them, played with them and even on occasion shared his bed with many of them. Society in the western world (it is really not a big issue in Africa) is against an old man sharing a bed with boys. Often, such men are child predators. But this does not make every old man who shares a bed with a boy a molester.

Jackson’s obsession with children was weird, yes. But equally, the evidence of his innocence on charges of child molestation was overwhelming. Hundreds of children stayed at his ranch and tens of them shared his bed. Had he molested a significant number of them, they would have exposed him in large numbers. Instead, over a period of 25 years, only two accused him of molestation and in both cases they were under pressure from their parents to make money off him.

But the media covered only the scandalous part of these allegations. When they were exposed as false, it did not give similar prominence to the truths. Even when people like the actor Macaulay Culkin (of Home Alone fame) who shared a bed with Jackson for years testified in his favour, the media remained with the claim of Jackson as a child molester. So they kicked him, hounded him and finally drove him to his death.

But the world has many ways of testifying to the truths. When Jordie Chandler (13 years in 1992) accused Jackson of molesting him, the police asked how. The boy claimed the two used to indulge in mutual masturbation and oral sex. He was then asked to describe Jackson’s penis ‘ was it circumcised? He had a 50% chance of getting it right; he said yes. When police undressed Jackson, he was not.

In spite of this, Jackson settled with Chandler out of court paying the young man (actually his greedy father) US$ 22m. When asked why, Jackson said he had had enough of the media coverage. But allegations of child molestation were devastating on Jackson and drove him into taking painkillers and sleeping drugs. The more he did so, the worse his addiction became until it drove him to his death.

It is possible that had the media been balanced, fair, truthful and accurate, Jackson would not have died the way he did and at the time he did. Instead, the media turned themselves into his executioners. It is fair to say that Jackson brought this unto himself. He could easily have avoided accusations of child molestation by simply not letting little boys sleep in his bed. Yet following his story, one gets convinced that he had a strong urge to help children; to give without asking for anything in return.

There was overwhelming evidence of his innocence that the media chose to ignore. He may have given the media the rope; that does not justify the media using it to hang an innocent man. The outpouring of emotion across the world over his death shows that the media can pound someone, but the public are better judges. In his death, Jackson proved that great aspect of human kind ‘ the ability to see beyond false claims.


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