Michael's Media Circus

The debacle known as the Michael Jackson case is finally over, with the pop star acquitted of all charges, and the country is the worse off for it. It didn't have to be this way. We could have learned something.

At its heart, the case was about one of the most despicable of crimes: child sexual abuse. It's difficult to think of anything worse a human being could do than prey on an innocent, defenseless child. In prison, child sex abusers are the bottom feeders, below even murderers. They must often be separated from the rest of the population for fear of being killed by other inmates.

But precisely because of its taboo nature, there are also few topics the public is more fascinated with. Daily news reports on the Jackson trial fed this obsession: A former security guard claimed he saw Jackson kneeling to perform oral sex on a naked boy. The younger brother of the accuser said he saw Jackson masturbating with his hand down the accuser's pants. Police found a pornographic book with nude prepubescent boys in suggestive poses at the ranch. The sordid details went on and on.

And then, somehow, it was suddenly okay to joke about kids being molested. "Saturday Night Live" comedian Amy Poehler joked, "The judge in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial selected 250 candidates for the jury pool, while Jackson himself has selected 20 for the kiddie pool." An online movie showed an animated Jackson singing, "Hey little Billy with the high tops on, Check out this nudie mag but please don't tell your mom; Let's have a party at Neverland, pay no attention to where I put my gloved hand."

Another website featured a game called "Escape from Neverland," in which players could shoot little boys trying to flee from the ranch. Jay Leno was the worst of all, with nightly routines like, "Michael Jackson is broke and can't even afford the payroll at Neverland Ranch. So the next time you see Michael with his hands in a 12-year-old's pocket, he might just be looking for lunch money."

The barrage of nauseating particulars by day, coupled with the merciless jokes by night, served to desensitize Americans to the seriousness of the allegations. Amidst all this, the media gave up the opportunity to focus responsibly on what was at the heart of the case.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys are molested before the age of 18. Sixty-seven percent of all reported victims of sexual assault are minors, and 34 percent of those victims are under the age of 12, according to the National Incident-Based Reporting System -- and these figures are considered low. Ninety-three percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker. Media and community groups might have encouraged more responsible awareness of the issue, while avoiding the climate of near-hysteria in cases such as Elizabeth Smart's abduction. There is a precedent for such public information campaigns; when O.J. Simpson was tried for allegedly killing his wife after many incidents of violence towards her, the topic of domestic violence was spotlighted in the media. But in this case, the public, and the press, were too busy focusing on what was in the King of Pop's porn collection.

Now, it's all over. Jackson will remain a social pariah. The prosecutor who spent 12 years trying to get him has lost face. The 15-year-old known only as "the accuser" will likely continue to suffer the consequences of irresponsible parenting; a mother who put her son in harm's way and seemingly cost him the case; and a father who pleaded no contest to child cruelty charges in 2002.

Yet another media circus has made us even more desensitized, and increased our appetite for destruction.


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