Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amid the glitter, some troubling questions remain

Amid hype, troubling issues about conduct with children
By Gene Warner
Updated: July 08, 2009, 7:59 AM / 7 comments

As thousands flocked to Los Angeles on Tuesday, just for the chance to attend Michael Jackson’s memorial service, some people here and across the country wondered what all the fuss was over an aging pop star.

Especially because of the accusations that Jackson sexually abused children.

Advocates for child victims seem to be having an especially tough time accepting the never-ending tributes, the nonstop coverage.

“As a professional dealing with the victims of child sex abuse for 14 years, I can’t pretend not to know what I know about Michael Jackson, all his artistic abilities aside,” said Lt. David F. Mann, commander of the Buffalo Police Department’s Sex Offense Squad.

“It’s just difficult for me to watch. It’s difficult to see people I otherwise respect caught up in the hype.”

Dr. Jack F. Coyne, medical director of the local Child Advocacy Center, said he has had “major problems” with all the accolades.

“We’re applauding this guy for the artist that he was. I don’t have a problem with that,” Coyne said. “But they’re also applauding him for the man that he was, for the whole being that he was. That leaves his victims — and others who have been victimized — with an empty feeling, with a loss.”

Coyne testifies in local trials, often citing the emotional wounds in sex-abuse victims as young as 6 and the scars that endure.

That’s why he was stung by reports that tickets to the Michael Jackson memorial service were being sold for thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars.

“How could we idolize someone who has caused all this pain to children?” Coyne asked.

‘Creepy and weird’

While he emphasized that he can understand the pain Jackson might have felt himself as a child-abuse victim, Coyne has other concerns. “My issue,” he said, “is the children who are left with these scars.”

The Michael Jackson story has refused to die, 13 days after his death.

Newspapers continue to run front-page articles, even when there’s little new. National television morning-show hosts joined the masses in Los Angeles. And local TV newscasts, even thousands of miles away, blanket the story with team coverage day after day; one local station devoted the first six minutes of its newscast to Jackson on Monday, the day before the memorial service.

Jackson was an accused child molester, although he never was convicted of abusing children. He was acquitted in a 2005 trial, after jurors heard that Jackson had paid a reported $20 million to the family of another alleged victim. Afterward, two jurors were quoted as saying they believed that Jackson had molested boys.

And in 1993, Jackson’s sister LaToya said her brother had molested children for years, a statement quickly branded as a lie by other family members.

“They’re treating the passing of Michael Jackson as if he’s the guy who cured cancer,” Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said. “He wasn’t.

“I don’t understand why we’re paying so much attention to someone who’s that creepy and weird. If the alleged pedophilia wasn’t there, I think he would be just viewed as an eccentric, like many other celebrities. I think the allegations of pedophilia, in combination with these eccentricities, bring it to a whole new dimension, a whole new level of creepiness.”

Media called culprit

The main culprit, according to five professionals interviewed Tuesday, is the media.

Several people used the term “media hype,” noting that TV and radio stations and newspapers can increase their ratings and sales by bringing more viewers and readers into the Michael Jackson story, with all its accomplishments and warts.

“None of this has anything to do with Michael Jackson or what he did,” Mann said. “It’s a calculated bet that people will sit in front of their TV sets and watch this for hours—or days.”

But the media coverage would be scaled back as soon as the ratings falter. So what keeps so many people thirsting for every last morsel of information or opinion?

“I think there’s a voyeuristic piece of us that wants to look into the lives of rich and famous people,” said Sharon Sisti, a social worker who is chairwoman of Hilbert College’s social science department. “I think there’s a tremendous curiosity about that.”

But Sisti, who called the media coverage “excessive,” also thinks there’s another reason we’re all so fascinated with the Jackson saga.

“We also want to understand him,” she said. “On one hand, he was accused of having inappropriate relationships with children. On the other hand, he did many wonderful things. There’s a curiosity about what made this person tick.”

The Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church and a community activist, had another explanation.

“I think what people are celebrating now is the celebrity Michael Jackson,” Pridgen said. “His celebrity is so huge that the accusations at this point are on the back burner, although I think they’ll soon be on the front burner.”

Selective memory

In that way, America is treating Jackson the same way it treated other celebrities with warts who died, everyone from James Brown to Richard Nixon to Elvis, Pridgen suggested.

“I think that death has a way of erasing some memories and allowing people to embrace the good of a person,” he said. “We let them rest in peace.”

Pridgen was asked about the teachable moment that Jackson’s death can provide.

“No matter who you are, whether a star or a street sweeper, every person dies with accolades and accusations,” Pridgen said. “Let the accolades be true, and the accusations be just that.”

The critics of the endless tributes got their spokesman Sunday, when Rep. Peter T. King, a Long Island Republican, lashed out at the media coverage in a two-minute YouTube video. King railed at the universal coverage of Jackson’s death, while others who have sacrificed so much for our country— soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, cops, firefighters, teachers and volunteers — rarely get much credit.

“This guy was a pervert,” King said of Jackson. “He was a child molester. He was a pedophile. And to be giving this much coverage to him, day in and day out, what’s it say about us as a country?”

King’s comments have unleashed a firestorm of reaction, pro and con.

As Sedita said of King, without commenting further, “I think he struck a nerve with a lot of people.”

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