Feasting on Jackson


On the witness stand at the Michael Jackson trial, Stan Katz, the psychologist to whom the ex-pop king's accuser initially told his tale of molestation, mentioned that his book, The Co-Dependency Conspiracy was available on www.Amazon.com. It was crass, tactless and unabashed hype, but it was no surprise that he pitched himself. It was simply good business in a hyped, over-commercialized age. In the past decade, few things have been more hyped, and commercialized than celebrity trials. The tabloids have feasted off of every one of these trials to bump up ad sales. They licked their chops at the prospect of making an even bigger killing off Jackson.

The Jackson case has turned mid coastal, suburban Santa Maria into "Jackson-ville." The national television networks erected two plywood and metal pipe towers near the court, and paid the city thousands in rental rights for the use of city space. NBC agreed to spend $1 million in insurance to reseed the grass in the park near the courthouse where it parked its equipment after the trial, cover any property damage, and to cover the cost of treatment to injuries to its employees at the site.

City officials didn't stop there they demanded that news outlets pay nearly $1 million to help cover the estimated $40,000 per day it might spend on police and emergency services, street maintenance, the installation of physical improvements such as barricades near and around the courthouse, portable toilets and an overflow room for the journalists that could not get into court. The overall cost of Jackson's trial could soar to $4 million. Some of the news outlets squawked loudly that the trial price tag was a shakedown, and tantamount to a media tax that they were being forced to pay.

The cost of a day or two in the Jackson trial has matched or exceeded the cost of one month of the Scott Peterson trial in San Mateo, County California. City officials everywhere rightly reasoned that if the TV and radio networks could milk celebrity trials for ratings and cash, than they should reap some of the financial goodies too. The Jackson trial has also generated thousands of dollars in sales for vendors that camped near the courthouse each day hawking tee shirts, buttons, placards, and souvenirs of Jackson and the trial.

Jackson has spawned a growth industry for talking head commentators and trial experts. They have filled the airwaves theorizing, speculating, and laying out every salacious detail of the trial proceedings. The gag order imposed on the prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case has created even more opportunity for them to fill in the blanks and dead spots about the trial and Jackson.

The jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial as in other celebrity trials were hounded by agents and book publishers to give their sensation spiced account of what went on in the jury room and what thoughts coursed through their heads, and the words they spoke as they grappled with the evidence and testimony during the trial, and more importantly in coming to their verdict. The Jackson trial jurors will be beset upon to do the same. Publishers and agents hungrily anticipate churning out another batch of insider kiss and tell books that rehash the case, the trial, the life of Jackson, his family, the prosecutor, and the defense attorneys.

The commercialization of Jackson as a criminal defendant is merely an extension of the commercialization of Jackson as a star entertainer. His legal woes have made him even more of a bankable commodity. In a free market society, though, commodities come with a price tag. If the tabloids, book publishers, news outlets, vendors, and even Santa Maria officials see a chance to grab at cash in his case than it is routine business.

That routine business depends heavily on the insatiable lust of millions for the latest celebrity gossip and chit chat. In early 2003, and again two weeks before Jackson was arraigned in November 2004, two separate teams of psychologists published parallel studies in the United States and Britain on celebrity worship. They constructed a "celebrity worship attitude scale" based on their respondent's answers. For nearly one-third of the respondents, celebrity worship went way beyond what was considered normal light diversion. A smaller but significant number of these star trippers were "intense-personal" or "borderline-pathological" in their celebrity worship. They were far more likely to suffer anxiety, depression, and dysfunctional behavior up to and including stalking.

Celebrities became for them objects not just of fascination, but obsession, fixation, and fantasy. They merged their identity with that of the celebrity. They kept pictures, souvenirs, and memorabilia of a celebrity they were obsessed with. If it was a pop artist, such as Jackson, they followed him to all his concerts and appearances, and were a constant presence wherever he turned up in public.

Now that Jackson has turned up in a public courtroom, they'll follow him with just as much intensity. The cash registers will jingle even louder.

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