Treating Michael Jackson with a kid glove

Jonathan Alter

August 31, 1993|By Jonathan Alter

A FUNNY thing happened to Michael Jackson last week on the way to oblivion. Just when he seemed finished, another icon smashed, the darkness lifted a bit, at least until something new ++ comes out.

You could see it in the pictures. Early in the week, TV illustrated the child-abuse allegations with footage showing the part of Mr. Jackson's act where he grabs his crotch.

By the end of the week, those shots had been largely replaced by the familiar happy images of him with children and animals.

Steve Dunleavy, the superaggressive Aussie hatchet man from "A Current Affair," went in one day from lurid speculation to a slobbering puff piece about Mr. Jackson.

Why? Why has Michael so far been spared the full Pee-wee Herman humiliation?

While the coverage ranges from endlessly sensationalist (European tabloids) to laughably fastidious (the New York Times) the bulk of it has been atypically cautious, as if awaiting further signals from the public.

It's not the absence of a smoking gun. That never stopped the media before. What's curious about this case is that the jackals still haven't swooped in for the kill.

After all, two of Mr. Jackson's young friends -- kids speaking in his defense -- casually confirmed on TV that he often slept in the same bed with them.

If the media coverage had been following its usual scandal arc, this would have been juicy material for the ravenous pack.

The next step would likely have been on-camera interviews with psychiatrists and others proclaiming that such behavior is inappropriate, unhealthy, dysfunctional. Mothers would have been sought out for angry sound bites saying they wouldn't let anyone sleep in the same bed with their children, even a pop superstar.

Few if any such interviews took place. Instead, the coverage quickly shifted to Liz Taylor rushing to Jackson's side in Asia and the unfairness of advertisers who might cancel without hard evidence.

The explanation for this almost evasive coverage has to do with Mr. Jackson's peculiar relationship with the public, and the interpretation of that relationship by the press. The feeling is: Michael Jackson may be a space cadet, but he's our space cadet, and we want to keep him. He's the Ronald Reagan of pop.

Michael Jackson has been not just strange, but Safe Strange; not simply weird, but Comfortably Weird. This is a fairly recent development in 20th-century celebrityhood.

Some breaking of society's rules has always been acceptable -- even desirable -- in celebrities, from Babe Ruth's boozing through Frank Sinatra's association with alleged mobsters.

Such misbehavior wasn't deviant; in fact it almost confirmed the celebrity's normality. But by the 1960s, normal meant boring and mass culture began bestowing its rewards on creative weirdness. Fans not only turned a blind eye to strangeness, they celebrated it.

Jackson fits this new esthetic nicely because his strangeness seems genuine. And by blurring his gender, age and race, he universalizes himself as no star had ever quite done before.

But it's not his androgyny or originality that's saving him now. The most powerful ingredient in his survival so far is an old-fashioned trait -- vulnerability. Not just sadness but -- in the tired coin of critics -- ineffable sadness.

From James Dean and Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley, all the really big ones had it. Mr. Jackson's underlying vulnerability makes credible the idea that he was set up.

It even makes credible the idea that there's nothing wrong with having slumber parties with 12-year-olds -- in fact, we should feel sorry for Mr. Jackson, not the kids. Add to that what people know about his childhood, or lack of it, and the pity becomes almost a shield.

It is this fear of offending the public's sense of compassion, not some sudden onset of scruples about unsubstantiated allegations, that accounts for the press's giving Mr. Jackson the benefit of the doubt.

If the tabloids sense that the public isn't quite ready to see someone taken down, they back off. Pee-wee Herman, by contrast, was ripe for ruin. His 15 minutes of fame were about up anyway.

Mr. Jackson's spending time in bed with preteens is clearly more disturbing than Pee-wee's (a.k.a. Paul Reubens) exposing himself in a porno theater. But after 30 years in the American entertainment family, Mr. Jackson's not so easy to expel. The public feels a certain complicity in infantilizing him, because we were so reluctant to watch him really grow up.

There's also a new ambivalence about the whole child-abuse issue. Of course the allegation resonates with Mr. Jackson, as the philandering charges did with Gary Hart.

It plays into what everyone already wonders about him. If the rap had been, say, drunk driving, Mr. Jackson would not be on the cover of Newsweek. Yet American attitudes toward child abuse are more sophisticated than they were five or 10 years ago. The danger of witch hunts is better understood.

If nothing more on Mr. Jackson comes out, it's a good bet that Oprah and the rest soon will book shows with titles like, "Men Who Are Falsely Accused of Child Abuse."

As long as Mr. Jackson is just slightly over the line into unsafe territory, public sentiment can push him back into the sun. Some parents may object, but short of new revelations, most people don't want to see him destroyed.

The press senses that straying too far from this consensus would be unpopular and thus hazardous to its own interests.

"A Current Affair," for instance, changed the emphasis of its coverage in the wake of polls that showed overwhelming support for Jackson among the show's viewers.

But even without polls, the press could tell that the public doesn't want to believe the worst right now.

Like a gyroscope, the coverage shifted accordingly. It could shift fTC again. The hand that guides it belongs not to the media, but to the multitude.

Jonathan Alter is senior editor and media critic of Newsweek.

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