The Journalist and the Pop Star

DEEP INTO THE SARDONIC GULF WAR THRILLER Three Kings, an American sergeant played by Mark Wahlberg is captured by an Iraqi soldier. The scene is grippingly tense until his captor suddenly turns to him and asks in very good English, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson?"

It's a question that, like war with Saddam Hussein, is currently staging a big comeback. There's no doubt which subject Americans prefer thinking about. ABC's broadcast of the British documentary Living With Michael Jackson drew 27 million viewers and had folks yakking all over the country. People who didn't peep when Bush proposed cutting millions for children's programs became obsessed with the way the singer treats his kids. For his part, the "devastated" Jackson moaned that he was betrayed by filmmaker/interviewer Martin Bashir. He believed the journalist was his friend. I guess poor Michael had never heard Oscar Wilde's warning: "It is always Judas who writes the biography."

You can't blame audiences for wanting to watch the show. Even by today's hallucinatory standards of celebrity (fat Elvis, loopy Liza, polyethylene Cher), Jackson is the mother lode of gossip-worthy follies — his oddball marriages, Neverland Ranch, friendship with Liz, accusations of child abuse, chimp named Bubbles, silly glove and, of course, his spectral visage (soon to be the subject of an hourlong Dateline NBC). If his music hadn't been so popular, his obvious desire to transcend ordinary categories — black and white, male and female, young and old — might've turned him into an avant-garde visionary instead of a tragic loon. (Nobody was as mean to David Bowie.) As Jackson quite rightly told Bashir, "Everything can be strange to someone."

Jackson's story is so semiotically rich that one could easily spend years plumbing its depths: why his face (like Garbo's in Roland Barthes' acclaimed essay) packs the resonance of myth; how his desire to escape his blackness compares to the passing-for-white hero's motives in Philip Roth's The Human Stain; trying to turn white in an era when even that cute Justin Timberlake is cannily heading in the other direction. I'll let future Ph.D. candidates in Michael Jackson Studies ponder such mysteries, for the most striking thing about Living With Michael Jackson had very little to do with the King of Pop.

Early in the program, the 44-year-old star watched film of his 10-year-old self singing "ABC," and the canyon dividing the two Michaels was so poignant you might have thought that, despite its superficiality, the show was going to be a sympathetic portrait. Guess again. Living With Michael Jackson didn't teach me anything about Michael Jackson, but it sure taught me a lot about Martin Bashir. What a creep! Working in the self-aggrandizing doc-mode made famous by Nick Broomfield, Bashir spread himself over the movie like oleo — his voice-overs brimmed with "I," "I," "I." He cajoled and wheedled to get what he wanted, put words in Jackson's mouth (as Slate's Virginia Heffernan shrewdly noted) and then treated the results as a "gotcha." Worst of all, he ended up sounding like a D.A. prosecuting a child-abuse case for which he had no evidence. We see Bashir asking Jackson easy questions onscreen, then nailing him with the filmmaker's ultimate weapon — the toxic voice-over. After, Bashir was interviewed by PrimeTime Thursday's Chris Wallace, who listened with a scrupulous deadpan as Bashir, suddenly all moral concern, talked about how "disturbed" and "worried" he was by Jackson's relationship to kids: "I never saw him do anything offensive to a child ever. BUT . . ." — and here came the insinuating payoff — "goodness knows what goes on in the boundaries of Neverland when no one is there." How true.

Goodness also knows that such an approach is the classic style of the British tabloids, which milk every drop of prurience from a story even as they moralize about it. (London's daily Sun, which runs photos of nude women on Page 3, never tires of attacking public figures for their immoral sex lives.) An entire journalistic code springs from this double-helix of hypocrisy, which has come to dominate much of British television.

On Sunday, Jackson announced that he intends to expose Bashir's double-dealing ways by releasing footage of the filmmaker telling Jackson he's a good father and sympathizing about how unfairly the world has judged him. I can easily believe that such footage exists and look forward to seeing it broadcast. The public would be amused, and perhaps edified, to glance behind the scenes of this kind of journalism.

Anyone who's ever conducted an interview knows that the trick is to appear to be on the side of your subject — that's how you get folks to talk. This process becomes infinitely trickier when you're dealing with world-famous celebrities, who, surrounded by yes-men, expect your boundless approval and self-effacement. Bashir spent eight months shooting with the famously paranoiac superstar, and one can just picture the Uriah Heep servility he must have displayed proving his benevolence, not to mention the many ways that the self-absorbed Jackson, like all stars, would have made things hell — abruptly shifting schedules, suddenly changing the ground rules, maybe threatening to scuttle the project at the very last minute. Bashir spent the better part of a year living at the pleasure of the singer's whims, so it's no surprise that the finished film should be so two-faced.

In her book The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm is brutally frank about the bad faith that permeates the relationship between journalists and their subjects: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

I can't exactly see the Gloved One as a wholly innocent victim — he knows all about cameras. The one sure-fire way of not being betrayed by sleazy TV crews is to stop them from coming into your house in the first place. Jackson obviously let Bashir in because he had his own agenda — to jump-start his fame, to present himself as a human being rather than a freak. And when he disliked how he came across, he did what stars nearly always do — he ran protesting to the media he normally disdains. Naturally, Jackson's English record sales went up around 400 percent after the show, and London's Independent suggested that his outrage over Bashir's show may be just another way of keeping his PR machine going. Which was to say, Jackson probably got what he deserved.

Maybe so, but the program still gave me the creeps. Normally, I'm fine with celebrity journalism because it's so patently staged and insipid that nobody cares — think of Access Hollywood or those gauzy-filter Barbara Walters specials. Here, a lost soul's pain and delusion were broadcast to the world in the interests of nothing — no ideas, no compassion, no love for anything. I understand why Jackson would be foolish enough to do this show — he's a damaged man with a tenuous hold on reality. But what's the problem with Martin Bashir?


Wedgies All Around

Bill Clinton's been out of office for two years, but the coverage hasn't changed a bit. His post-presidency is being praised (sort of) by liberal James Atlas in The Atlantic's new issue, tweaked by right-wing P.J. O'Rourke (again, The Atlantic) and viewed as ruinous to a progressive Democratic Party by William Greider in The Nation. When the ex-president did his show last week, adoring Larry King traded in his trademark softball questions for marshmallow ones. Clinton clearly loved being there (he's a sucker for fellatio, even when it's only metaphoric), and predictably, King posed none of the hard questions a sentient interviewer might ask: Is our economic slump really the result of Bush's policies or were the Clinton years a phony boom? What exactly did our former president do about the corporate malfeasance that actually mushroomed on his watch? Did he work hard enough against Saddam and al Qaeda, or was he hindered by his wag-the-dog problems? I'm sure Bill would have had good answers to all these, good answers being, we all know, his true genius . . . Over at CBS, 60 Minutes II broadcast snippets of the first Western interview in 12 years with Saddam, conducted by the famed British leftist Anthony Wedgeworth Benn, known as "Wedgie." Although Benn was savaged in London for being soft on Saddam, Channel 4 still showed the interview in its entirety. Not so CBS, which kept cutting away so that correspondent Bob Simon and florid-tongued analyst Fouad Ajami could inform us that Saddam wasn't merely lying but looked mighty comfortable doing it. Were they afraid we might actually believe him?

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