The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Michael Jackson conspiracy theories: The media at its tabloid best

July 13, 2009 |  1:04 pm


There's an inevitable arc to the media's insatiable desire to over-cover a story that sells newspapers, scores website hits or earns big TV ratings. I wish I could say that the press has sunk to new lows in its Michael Jackson frenzy, but you could probably track pretty much the same arc in the media's coverage of the early 1920s Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal or Marilyn Monroe's overdose of pills in the 1960s. To put a new spin on the take of a pioneering media critic: Never underestimate the salaciousness of the American people.

So while the first days of the media's wall-to-wall absorption in All Things Michael were largely respectful, culminating with the wide-eyed coverage of what appeared to be a state funeral, the all-seeing media eye has slowly but surely become more skeptical, more trivialized and more bizarre, with even supposedly respectable network news anchors taking us on ghoulish tours of the dead star's deserted Neverland Ranch. And, of course, all of this comes before the arrival of the autopsy findings, which will surely unleash a torrent of revisionism, with media scolds coming out of the woodwork to admonish Jackson for his self-indulgent lifestyle -- and no doubt admonish the rest of us for somehow aiding and abetting his excesses.

So how low have we sunk already? Here's a few juicy current examples:

1) Michael's loyal sibling LaToya gave a truly outlandish interview to the tawdry News of the World (first question: Did she get paid? If not, why talk to a scuzzy tabloid?) In the interview, she claims that "Michael was murdered," offering the inevitable conspiracy angle by adding, "We don't think just one person was involved. Rather it was a conspiracy of people." This, of course, is great stuff. If the Kennedy assassination had a one bullet theory, soon the Michael Jackson death will have a one syringe theory.

2) An obscure Michael Jackson biographer (meaning a guy no one had ever heard of before last week) bounds forward to claim that Jackson was gay, presenting as evidence two men he says he interviewed who both said they had sex with the singer. The great touch of telling detail is that the biographer -- Ian Halperin -- identifies one source as a waiter (which, of course, is a euphemism for aspiring actor), the other as (surprise!) an aspiring actor named Lawrence, only supplying his first name (even though the spelling is a tad different, could we say Lawrence as in Olivier?).

3) The same biographer surfaces in another story, in which he claims that Joe Jackson, the late singer's notoriously all-controlling stage dad, was trying to get Michael's children to brush up on their performing skills and hit the road, going on a world tour in 2010 as the Jackson 3 -- presumably with a record deal to follow. 

I'll be watching to see who pops up next, wondering who will tempt the always-easy-to-seduce media with some new fanciful fable of Jackson excess or eccentricity. As in all things media, the only operative question is: How low can we go?

Photo: Michael Jackson at the 2006 World Music Awards. Credit: Dave Hogan / Getty Images.