Once the dust has settled, Dan Reed’s calculated storytelling in Leaving Neverland reveals itself to be a continuation of the anti-Michael Jackson narrative bias in news media; cynical emotional manipulation built on lies and ulterior motive. Don’t believe me? See if this doesn’t change your mind…
When I posted my reaction to Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland, one person on Twitter said it was fake news, that, by extension, I was wittingly contributing to an anti-Michael Jackson media bias. That was certainly not my intention. However, by choosing to highlight the impact of the sordid events alleged by Wade Robson and James Safechuck I was stoking the fires of a narrative that is predisposed to accept the iconic pop singer’s guilt without questioning the facts.
And because Reed’s film is so one-sided – and admittedly effective in piecing together a story that, at face value, appears genuine – we must give ourselves a chance to allow the emotional manipulation of clever storytelling to settle. To take a step back. To consider other factors and other opinions and other potential witnesses and even undisputed facts that, according to investigative journalist and long-time reporter on matters related to Jackson’s life, Charles Thomson, “catastrophically undermine these men’s accusations”.
It is Thomson, author of One of the Most Shameful Episodes In Journalistic History (about media bias in relation to the pop singer’s 2005 trial), who is one of the few commentators acknowledging the holes in Reed’s film. Not only must we consider them given the severity of the crimes alleged, but we must also question if the film is riding a wave of #MeToo hysteria where “truth” is garnered from whatever gains viral traction.
The Truth Needs Only Sensationalism & The Appearance Of Validation
Not only does the film present a compelling story but a search on the internet quickly reveals supposedly supportive conjecture from sources that boast credibility (including Vanity Fair’s 10 Undeniable Facts About the Michael Jackson Sexual-Abuse Allegations) One article published on the BBC’s website questions whether Jackson’s legacy is forever tarnished but this twists public perception away from questioning where this concept originated (the hoopla surrounding Reed’s film) and fuels the Jackson-Is-Guilty narrative by peddling emotion with sensationalist stories of his songs being cut from radio playlists and his Neverland house price dramatically dropping.
His guilt is assumed in this viral cooking pot of media dissemination because, oh, look Canada isn’t playing his songs anymore, The Simpsons aren’t playing the Jackson episode anymore, and his house has dropped in price. All these factors detract from a considered look at what Leaving Neverland said happened. And they detract from accepted truths in a court of law: the fact Jackson was acquitted on child molestation charges in 2005 after the jury unanimously found him not guilty of all charges.
With no right to reply afforded anyone in defence of Michael Jackson, Leaving Neverland is understandably effective in weaving a seemingly credible story of guilt (but one that relies on carefully orchestrated cinematic technique to provoke emotion, favouring sentiment in order to massage supposed truths). Under the guise of being a “documentary” and offering the viewer the freedom to make up their own mind, Reed, Safechuck and Robson conspire to make up your mind for you. As John Ziegler says in his podcast World According to Zig, at the very least this film is completely unfair.
Reed has tried to counter the criticism of bias by saying he showed archive footage of Jackson’s own denials. But as Charles Thomson says, because these allegations were made after the singer had died, the only people who could offer a genuine counter argument were the people who had been litigating the two accusers over the past few years.
Fact: Wade Robson & James Safechuck Are Liars (But Which Lie Do You Believe?)
Oh, did you know Robson and Safechuck had been suing the Michael Jackson estate since 2013 for hundreds of millions of dollars? “This has generated thousands of pages of court documents – deposition transcripts, witness statements, disclosure motions, etc.,” notes Thomson. “That litany of paperwork includes so many contradictions. Their stories are constantly changing, they contradict their own prior versions of events, and one of them was caught lying under oath so brazenly that the judge ruled that no rational juror could believe his story.”
I’ll repeat that. A judge, experienced and qualified in discerning truth-tellers from fakers, said one of these men’s stories could not be trusted.
That, after the release of Leaving Neverland, was corroborated by Brandi Jackson, Michael’s niece, who declared Wade Robson a liar. Another convenience ignored by Reed’s film is the fact Brandi dated Robson. She told The Kyle and Jackie O Show: “When I was watching [Leaving Neverland], I was completely sickened by it, to be honest with you. The things that he was saying were so over the top and so ridiculous.”
Saying she did not believe her uncle was a paedophile, Brandi added: “[Wade] was not describing my uncle. He was describing a totally different person, but not my uncle. And that’s why this is a narrative that has changed… over the last 15 years. Everything that he’s ever said about my uncle is the complete opposite of who he was painting in this documentary.”
While Reed reveals the fact Robson twice testified under oath (once in 1993 and again in 2005) that Michael had never sexually molested him or behaved inappropriately, arguing, in hindsight, that he didn’t understand the inappropriate nature of his relationship with Michael as a child and thus believed it to be innocent, the filmmaker doesn’t question whether Robson now feels any guilt around missing the opportunity to stop an abuser of children when he appeared in court as an adult in 2005.
Brandi, who was in a relationship with Wade for a decade, is adamant her ex-boyfriend is lying. She says he and James Safechuck are solely motivated by money. The film is perhaps their final attempt to get money out of the Jackson estate having been trying for the last seven years.
The Witnesses That Dan Reed Conveniently Ignored
Says Ziegler, “In my opinion, if you simply listen to the interview with an open mind, Brandi’s credibility speaks for itself. There will still be people who will understandably still believe Robson’s version, but there is no doubting that Brandi’s narrative makes a whole lot more sense. But again, the primary question here is, why was her existence censured from Leaving Neverland and why hasn’t she been interviewed on network television about all of this?!”
Taj Jackson, Michael’s nephew, has also questioned why Wade would be with Brandi if he was being abused by Michael (and, according to Wade, being discouraged from dating women). “He dated my cousin for over seven years and it’s really interesting because they left that out of [Leaving Neverland] – and he dated her during the time period that he’s getting supposedly molested by my uncle. I think it’s ridiculous especially since my uncle Michael was the one that basically brought them together. And so it throws off the whole narrative of Michael Jackson only wanting [Wade] for himself or teaching him to hate women.”
Taj is now developing a a counter-documentary according to NME to dispute the claims made in Leaving Neverland which will likely feature other children who befriended Michael Jackson – such as Macaulay Culkin and Corey Feldman – and who have stated that they neither witnessed nor were the victim of sexual abuse. Singer Aaron Carter, who was friends with Jackson when he was a teenager, told TMZ he had the “time of my life with Michael”, adding “I hung out with Michael Jackson, I stayed at his house, I stayed in his bedroom … it’s hard for me to understand [the accusations in Leaving Neverland] – how am I supposed to understand that when my own personal experience with him was gentle and beautiful and loving and embracing.”
What is ultimately revealing in the fallout of Leaving Neverland is how news media is failing those it purports to inform. “One of the many difficulties in telling a version of events which is contradictory to someone the news media — as opposed to the courts — has determined is a “sex abuse victim” (especially those who, like Robson and Safechuck, have been sanctified by Oprah Winfrey on HBO) is that, particularly post #MeToo, no one data point can ever been seen as a “smoking gun” that their allegation is false,” notes Ziegler.
“However, when viewed in the full context of Robson’s already suspect narrative, I strongly believe that Brandi’s version of events comes as close as possible to being just that (as do many other non-Jackson fans who have spent the time to hear her, and her cousin Taj, out).
For Charles Thomson, this is a continuation of a news media bias that has been peddled for years. Speaking about the coverage of the 2005 trial, he says: “It seemed to me that the media was just loathe to accept the possibility that Jackson could be innocent. Most reporters seemed to already be convinced of Jackson’s guilt because they thought he was a weirdo.”
It almost didn’t matter that Michael Jackson’s innocence was proven in a court of law (“All too often you see right-wing pundits making comments like, “Not guilty is not the same as innocent.”) Indeed, Thomson notes how the prosecution had every advantage to win their case (but “failed to produce a single piece of tangible evidence connecting Jackson to any crime”) and ended up parading witnesses who “collapsed under cross-examination” with the other half “helping the defence rather than the prosecutors.”
He remembers a story by reporter J. Randy Taraborrelli, who was covering the trial and said he was with the press pack queuing for their court passes when a well-known female reporter from a big magazine said: “Does ANYONE here believe Michael Jackson is innocent besides J. Randy Taraborrelli!?”
That story, argues Thomson, “sums up much of the media’s attitude towards the trial: “We know he’s guilty. This is a waste of time. They should just lock him up now.” It tainted their reporting, consciously or otherwise.”
Setting The Narrative, Disregarding The Truth
Leaving Neverland has stirred up similar misreporting and misinformation around Michael Jackson that makes Reed’s effort – supposedly giving sex abuse victims a voice – at the very least distasteful, at worst, as Thomson states, “shockingly unethical”.
“Looking back on the Michael Jackson trial, I see a media out of control,” said the writer of One of the Most Shameful Episodes In Journalistic History. “The sheer amount of propaganda, bias, distortion and misinformation is almost beyond comprehension. Reading the court transcripts and comparing them to the newspaper cuttings, the trial that was relayed to us didn’t even resemble the trial that was going on inside the courtroom. The transcripts show an endless parade of seedy prosecution witnesses perjuring themselves on an almost hourly basis and crumbling under cross examination. The newspaper cuttings and the TV news clips detail day after day of heinous accusations and lurid innuendo.”
We’re seeing some of the same things now. Says Ziegler, “Not being armed with even the basic facts (inexplicably, and quite tellingly, Brandi Jackson is not even mentioned), the audience, including the media, was easily manipulated into being able to disregard even the biggest holes in their stories, and to gladly accept even the most bizarre rationalisations for their nonsensical actions. Once Oprah, an abuse victim herself, effectively validated their stories (even as Safechuck, who barely participated in the post-movie interview, sweated noticeably right in front of her), the preferred narrative was set, and nothing would then be allowed to credibly contradict it.”
Instead of the trial vindicating Michael Jackson, the media’s irresponsible coverage made it impossible. “The legal system may have declared him innocent but the public, on the whole, still thought otherwise. Allegations which were disproven in court went unchallenged in the press. Shaky testimony was presented as fact. The defence’s case was all but ignored,” notes Thomson.
Being critical of Leaving Neverland is not about silencing or shaming victims. That is despite British journalist Louis Theroux, a documentary filmmaker I admire, saying the exact opposite. But if we consider all the facts – facts that we’re not privy to in Reed’s film – we are likely to conclude Leaving Neverland does far more harm to abuse victims than it does good.
Diana Michaels, in her piece entitled “Leaving Neverland Debunked in 10 Minutes or Less”, states: “Abuse survivors need our support, and they especially need to be listened to when they are brave enough to speak out. However, we have to be cautious to not let the #MeToo movement jump the shark. If we accept all allegations without turning a critical eye when necessary, and we allow the #MeToo movement to justify putting the dead on trial, we won’t be doing anything but opening Pandora’s box. And real survivors of abuse deserve better than that.”
The sadness and anger that I felt after watching Reed’s film because I, at first, believed the accusers now remains for a very different reason. I’m angry that Leaving Neverland had that impact on me because I now feel duped, and I’m saddened that Jackson’s family and children have to endure such a negative media circus while his legacy is questioned. If there are stories to be told from behind the closed doors of Michael Jackson’s bedroom, Reed’s film is not the place to start hearing them.
[Edit] The original article referenced the Neverland ranch’s “value” as dropping but this has been changed to “price” as the term is more accurate.