Michael Jackson’s #MeToo moment

In January, as the Sundance Film Festival aired Leaving Neverland, a four-hour documentary by Dan Reed, police patrolled outside, and healthcare professionals waited in the lobby in case anyone in the audience needed to talk. The film centers the testimony of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim, in horrifying detail, that Michael Jackson abused them when they were children. At the end, Robson and Safechuck came on stage to a standing ovation; one audience member recounted his own experience of molestation and thanked the pair for coming forward. “The energy in the room hovered somewhere between queasiness over what we’d just witnessed and the sense that some sort of turning point about how these accusations play into Jackson’s legacy had been reached,” Rolling Stone’s David Fear wrote at the time. “It was hard not to feel like a bombshell had been dropped.”

Last night, HBO broadcast the first part of Leaving Neverland; the second part will follow this evening. It’s an exceptionally tough watch. Robson and Safechuck—whose accounts are remarkably similar—say Jackson performed sex acts with and in front of them in various locations in his Neverland complex, including, Safechuck says, in a closet rigged with a system of doors and bells to alert Jackson to intruders. Robson says he was seven years old when the abuse started; Safechuck, who Jackson “married” in a mock wedding ceremony, says he was 10. According to Robson, Jackson told him he loved him, but that if Robson told anyone about what was happening, “he and I would be pulled apart, and that we’d never be able to see each other again, and that he—and I—would go to jail for the rest of our lives.”

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Allegations of child sexual abuse have long tracked Jackson: during his lifetime, he settled one case against him (no charges were filed), then was acquitted of a second. Leaving Neverland, however, marks Jackson’s first meaningful entry into the broader discussion sparked by the #MeToo movement. Lately, the sexual abuse of minors has become a bigger part of that conversation: brought to the fore, for example, by Julie K. Brown’s investigation of Jeffrey Epstein for The Miami Herald, and by Dream Hampton’s Lifetime series, Surviving R. Kelly. Tonight, following the second part of Leaving Neverland, HBO will air an interview Oprah Winfrey taped last week with Robson, Safechuck, and Reed in front of over 100 survivors of sexual abuse. Winfrey, herself a survivor, says Reed was “able to illustrate in these four hours what I’ve tried to explain in 217,” referring to 217 past episodes of her show that she dedicated to the topic. “This moment transcends Michael Jackson,” she adds.

There are other reasons why Leaving Neverland looks a particularly significant development in the history of #MeToo. One is the sheer scale of his fame. Another is that Jackson is dead. That doesn’t void the film of sharp, ongoing consequences. Jackson’s legacy is highly lucrative—his estate has sued HBO. His family called the film a “public lynching,” while many of his fans have vigorously defended Jackson and accused Robson and Safechuck of lying. Unlike the reporting on Harvey Weinstein and so many other powerful people accused of abuse, however, Leaving Neverland will not put a stop to continuing predatory behavior; nor will it bring Jackson himself to justice.

The media buzz around the film has included a conversation about how Robson and Safechuck’s claims should influence our interactions with Jackson’s artistic legacy. That’s not a function of Jackson’s death: since #MeToo began, similar conversations have tracked artists who are alive, and, in many cases, still working. In Jackson’s case, it’s especially hard to separate the art from the allegations. “Children and childhood loom enormously over the whole of Michael Jackson’s work. No other adult pop star has ever been so blatantly preoccupied with children and childish things,” Slate’s Jack Hamilton writes. “Children are everywhere in Jackson’s audiovisual oeuvre, deployed incessantly as sidekicks, props, and foils.”

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As important as that debate is, however, it’s not the central prism through which to view Leaving Neverland. The #MeToo moment has allowed victims to tell their stories, and—as in the cases of Robson and Safechuck—start to try to process them. Leaving Neverland shows, with absolute clarity, that victims are central whether their abusers are held accountable or not. As Amanda Petrusich writes in The New Yorker, “It feels important that these men are able to tell their stories, however many years later, in whatever way they choose.”

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Below, more on Michael Jackson and #MeToo:

  • Michael Jackson: “The question now, of course, is what do we do?” Wesley Morris asks in The New York Times. “It’s the question of our #MeToo times: If we believe the accusers (and I believe Wade and James), what do we do with the art?” Jackson’s music, Morris notes, is everywhere. “Where would the cancellation begin?”
  • R. Kelly: Last week, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan explored the power of the documentary film format in amplifying the abuse allegations against R. Kelly. “Some of what has happened was simply the power of how the story was told in the TV series, and whom it reached—a younger, more diverse audience than that of traditional journalism, told in text, whether on newsprint or online,” she writes. 
  • Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein: Pretrial hearings begin today in a sexual assault case against Kevin Spacey. A pretrial hearing in Weinstein’s case is expected on Friday, though his trial was recently moved back from May to June.
  • Jeffrey Epstein: The press may be barred from covering parts of this week’s New York court hearing related to Epstein’s alleged trafficking of underage girls. The Miami Herald’s Brown reports that a lawyer for Alan Dershowitz, who is involved in Epstein’s case, suggested media should be excluded from oral arguments around the release of sensitive documents.

Other notable stories:

  • At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, President Trump delivered a two-hour, scorched-earth speech in which he hugged the flag, flipped through nonsensical claims and impersonations, and referred to the Russia investigation as “bullshit.” Trump wasn’t the only one on freewheeling form. “CPAC has always been a representation of where the Republican Party is,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy said yesterday. “It has, in recent years, become more like Trump. It’s a celebration of Trump. And so you see a lot of grifters: people throwing red-meat rhetoric out at crowds to raise their brand.”
  • There was a different atmosphere behind closed doors on Saturday night, as journalists and politicians, including Ivanka Trump, exchanged bons mots at the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington. “Could a group of reporters mingle with their sources in an era where the Big Boss routinely derides them as fake news and an enemy of the American people?” the Post’s Emily Heil asked. “A decided yes to that one, as top members of the media mixed comfortably with Trump administration types, including Mick Mulvaney, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders, Steven Mnuchin, Ben Carson and Kirstjen Nielsen.”
  • The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has a new deepdive on the symbiosis between the Trump White House and Fox News. According to Mayer, Trump has been known to rate Fox hosts’ fealty to him out of 10: Steve Doocy, the co-host of Fox & Friends, is so loyal he scored a 12. ICYMI last week, Molly Langmuir profiled Mayer for Elle.
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach profiles the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, which has broken numerous news stories including Julian Assange’s 2018 indictment, a Los Angeles City Council corruption investigation, and, most recently, Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson’s plot to kill journalists and politicians.
  • AT&T, whose acquisition of WarnerMedia was confirmed by a judge last week, is planning to shake up the digital arm of CNN, which is a property of WarnerMedia. John Stankey, the AT&T executive responsible for WarnerMedia, believes CNN’s digital output “isn’t reaching its potential and requires more investment in product development and data analytics,” The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reports.
  • Following Jorge Ramos’s detention and subsequent expulsion from Venezuela last week, Isaac Lee, Univision’s former president of news, charts Venezuela’s withering press freedom climate for CJR. “The Chávez and Maduro regimes have managed to eliminate most of Venezuela’s independent media by shutting it down, imposing censorship, blocking their digital presence, or having government sympathizers acquire the media companies,” Lee writes.
  • Last summer, police arrested two Northern Irish journalists and accused them of stealing confidential documents related to the 1994 murder of six people in an Irish pub. The journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, included an unredacted police report, which they say an anonymous source leaked to them, in a documentary alleging an official cover-up. Last week, police failed in a move to tighten the pair’s bail to bar them from talking about their case, The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports.
  • Yannis Behrakis, a Reuters photographer who reported from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Egypt, and led Pulitzer-winning coverage of Europe’s refugee crisis, has died aged 58. In 2000, Behrakis survived an ambush in Sierra Leone during which colleagues from Reuters and the AP were killed. You can see some of his photos here.
  • And for our new print issue, Steven Greenhouse talked to five union members from across the Rust Belt on their eroding faith in the press. “The American worker has been put on the back burner” by the media, one steelworker told Greenhouse.

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Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that members of Michael Jackson’s family, and not his estate, called Leaving Neverland a “public lynching.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.