Is it just me? Is it only me who’s disturbed that Thomas Massereau, Michael Jackson’s attorney, did not do a press conference immediately after the verdict but has granted an exclusive interview to Larry King—Lary King who agreed to be a witness for the defense. Ok, so he didn’t end up testifying, but still, aren’t the lines blurring here just a bit?
So I come home this afternoon and bam! Michael Jackson everywhere! Every broadcast network and every cable news network is carrying the Michael Jackson verdict live. My favorite comment came, of course, from Fox News. While the real news channels were trying to analyze the verdict, a Fox commentator said that instead of being called the King of Pop Michael Jackson’s new name should be “The Teflon Molester” (I guess that’s the working version of “Fair and Balanced”). When interviewing the jurors the Fox reporter tried to get them to say that they thought the accuser’s family was a bunch of liars and cheats. We report, you decide. I think they’re really disappointed that the story is over.
So what about this story? What do we think about Michael Jackson? That he was tried and convicted in the press but tried and acquitted in a courtroom? It wasn’t a racially motivated verdict—there wasn’t a black person on that jury. The jury behaved with class and dignity throughout their press conference, and said again and again that they carefully weighed all the evidence and read and re-read the 93 pages of instructions and came up with reasonable doubt. I thought it was a brilliant performance, even though some stupid talking (air) head on CNN tried to make it sound like the jury had a vendetta against the alleged victim’s mother.
The DA’s news conference, but contrast, was an embarrassment. He looked those reporters in the eye and said that he had no vendetta against Michael Jackson. What a lying sack of (excrement). One expert (and I don’t know which network, I was flipping between all of them) noted that for him the turning point in the case was when the lead investigator was asked under cross examination whether or not the case was investigated before the arrest warrant was issued, and he admitted that as soon as the complaint was made they issued the arrest warrant-before they investigated. As somebody else said (I think on MSNBC) “This Guy was playing God.”
And he was. In 1993, the first time this DA went after Michael Jackson, I was standing in line at the Cala Foods on Geary Street in San Francisco and the checkout clerk asked me what I thought of the Michael Jackson case. I said “Michael Jackson is getting the Fatty Arbuckle Treatment.” Some guy behind me, who looked like Abbey Hoffman at 19, said “Fatty Arbuckle was guilty.” I was amazed not only that someone had actually heard of Fatty Arbuckle, but that he had an opinion, and an opinion that nearly every historian and criminologist now agrees is dead wrong. Arbuckle was innocent.
Of course, I’m assuming that you, gentle readers, know who Fatty Arbuckle is and why his case was such a scandal.
Fatty’s was the first sensational celebrity murder scandal of the mass media age. It predates Roxie Hart, even. Arbuckle, at the time the biggest star in Hollywood, was accused of raping and causing the death of a young starlet at a drunken party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on Labor Day weekend, 1921. The DA, Mathew Brady (whose name somehow became the name of the prosecutor in Inherit the Wind, a thin caricature of William Jennings Bryan), went after morally decrepit Hollywood in the form of the fat man, and tried to build a political career on his conviction. The news media, particularly Hearst, went wild in their denunciations of Arbuckle and demands that Hollywood be cleaned up. Public and congressional outcry against vile, evil, morally bankrupt Hollywood (I hope this is all sounding familiar) led to the formation of the Hayes office and, eventually, the production code. After three trials Arbuckel was acquitted. The third jury was so outraged at the prosecutor they felt obliged to make a statement condemning the prosecution as baseless. Arbuckle’s career was essentially over, and the Hayes office for a time blacklisted him. Hearst tried to crucify Arbuckle throughout his three trials. He made no pretense of covering the Arbuckle scandal objectively, and said years later that he didn’t care what Arbuckle had actually done he was only trying to sell papers (this statement was made to Arbuckle himself when Hearst was one of the few people willing to give Arbuckle a job after the scandal). I’ve always said Murdoch was the new Hearst (and so have a lot of other people). The Arbuckle case proves that celebrity’s can be targeted for unfair prosecution just because they are celebrities, and that the Press will nearly always convict them in the court of public opinion, with absolutely no regard to either truth or justice.
To me the Arbuckle case is interesting because it laid the groundwork for all future celebrity trials. I have in the past argued that “celebrity justice” is an oxymoron. The fact of celebrity makes justice much harder to obtain. Celebrities are easy marks for malicious prosecution by DAs hoping to further their careers or just grind an ax. That was certainly the case with Arbuckle and seems to be the case with Jackson—at least from the Jury’s point of view. With acquittals of Robert Blake, Jackson, O.J. Simpson, and Kobe Bryant (who’s case was dismissed, which I don’t think is actually an acquittal but amounts to the same thing), many people are arguing that Celebrity’s got off scott free—but this is mostly because the accused have all been tried and convicted by a rabid tabloid press that feasts solely upon misery, sensation, and scandal. Fox was screaming that Jackson guilty (just like Doonesbury did Nixon) throughout the trial, as were most of the talking heads. They screamed even louder when he was acquitted. And why not: not only is Jackson a freak, but an acquittal would be a very anti-climactic story. Guilty would sell a lot more papers. And that is, after all, the idea.
So can celebrities get justice? I mean, guilty or innocent, can the system fairly prosecute or exonerate them? The media circus surrounding these trials, combined with money, combined with the fame of the accused, makes it hard for justice to remain blind. A guilty celebrity has a whole arsenal of fame and money to help him get away with it, while an innocent celebrity is an easy target for some wannabe congressman and will likely never recover from the harm done to his reputation by a scandal hungry tabloid press. (and have you seen State and Main? See it!) My very favorite thing about the Arbuckle Case is how it ties in with my favorite San Francisco writer, Dashiell Hammett. Hammet was one of the Pinkerton detectives assigned to protect Arbuckle during the trial. He intensely disliked Arbuckle, so much so that he made Arbuckle the basis for one of his greatest creations, the arrogant villain Casper Gutman from The Maltese Falcon.” Nonetheless, Hammett insisted that Arbuckle was innocent, saying “The whole thing was a frame-up arranged by some of the corrupt local newspaper boys. Arbuckle was good copy, so they set him up for a fall.” (from http://www.cwru.edu/artsci/engl/marling/hardboiled/Hammett.HTM#FOOTNOTE 13). When the local newspaper is Hearst’s flagship operation that’s a lot of juice. Hammett succinctly sums up the heart of celebrity justice: it’s good copy.
But what are we going to do, just release (or execute) every celebrity that gets arrested because justice is hard? It’s hard, but is it impossible? The jury in this case, as in the third Fatty Arbuckle trial, seems to have acted with a great deal of thought. I really believe justice was served in this case. I have my own opinion about Blake, Simpson, Bryant and Jackson (maybe guilty, maybe guilty, railroaded and set up) but none of that matters because in spite of its flaws we have to trust the system. The alternative is to have Fox News decide who should go to jail, or else to have each of us just have the right to gun down anyone we believe to have wronged us. The justice system is not really about right and wrong, nor is it about vengeance; it is a set of rules we agree to live by, one in which one side (the state) has a lot of power and so the other side (the defendant) is given a lot of protection; it is designed to get at the truth but it sometimes gets it wrong.. It is designed to be fair at the expense of always being just, and to err on the side of caution. That’s the idea behind “reasonable doubt,” innocent until proven guilty, and unanimous verdicts: it’s better to let a guilty person go then to wrongly convict the innocent. But right or wrong it is the system, and not the result, that is important. This is one thing the prosecutor understood. In his press conference he kept insisting that he accepted the verdict because he believes in the system. He refused to attack the jury, the judge, or even the defense; and (unlike the rabid wolverines at Fox News) he was right.
Ah, but the job of the press is to be neither just nor fair. It is to sell as many papers or attract as many sets of eyes as possible, and the best way to do that is to scream about weird celebrity pedophiles getting away with it. Scandal sells, it’s as simple as that.
The best places to research crime on the web (including Fatty Arbuckle) is at Court TV’s www.crimelibrary.com
Paul Henry’s fairly good analysis of media coverage of the Fatty Arbuckle trial is at http://www.phenry.org/text/arbuckle.txt
Finally, I am a hard core San Franciscan. I used to hang out on Nob Hill where most of the Maltese Falcon took place, I eat at John’s Grill, and every time I give somebody a tour of the city the spot where Miles Archer was killed by Bridget O’Shaunessy is always the top spot I take them to. Don Herron leads a Dashiell Hammett walking tour that everyone should take is the make it to San Francisco. The website is http://www.donherron.com/tour.html