A great artist died on June 25, 2009. For many days afterward, we witnessed a media spectacle devoted to the life and work of Michael Jackson. Television, radio, the Internet, newspapers and magazines joined in an instant canonization. In Canada, the alleged weekly news magazineMaclean’s proffered an embarrassingly shallow instant ‘tribute’ edition. Overall, I found the sum of the coverage very alienating.
Some great artists die young. In popular music, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain are among those that perished tragically young with drug related problems. Jackson’s life was also very troubled but uniquely so. He certainly had a terrible drug problem. More importantly, and what was under emphasized in the coverage that sang his praises as both a great artist and a great human, Jackson had extremely troubling relationships with children – he was quite possibly a pedophile. Yes, he was acquitted of a criminal charge. It is also true that he settled out of court with a significant payment to the family of a young boy who had been in his company. In an interview, he said that he enjoyed having children in his bed.
The general media silence about Jackson’s problem with children troubles me. There were a few worthy exceptions. On July 4, 2009, Bob Herbert, a columnist with the New York Times, wrote a column that featured a chilling portrait of the Jackson that he had met and some sombre thoughts about the cult of celebrity in America. As is often the case, the British magazineThe Economist in its July 2 edition outshone its print competitors with an eloquent, brief, crystalline obituary of Jackson.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will learn more details about Jackson’s autopsy. Some media reports suggest there may be manslaughter charges in the works. We will also learn the outcome of the current bidding war for rights to the video footage of Jackson rehearsals for the tour he was planning. It is safe to predict that the release of the finished production will be one of the television and/or cinematic events of 2010. I wonder at what stage the media might engage in a responsible, thoughtful discussion and investigation into the true nature of Jackson’s relationships with children. That’s hard to do at a canonization.