Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Interview with Tom Mesereau

Tom Meserau was not sure he wanted to be a lawyer; in fact, his first career choice was journalism. But after taking his father’s advice, Tom graduated from Harvard University (cum laude) with a major in International Relations; he received a Master of Science from The London School of Economics and graduated from The University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

He first gained national attention in the Robert Blake murder case preliminary hearing which was widely televised, and became internationally known for acquitting Michael Jackson in a case seen by many as unwinnable. In one year alone, Tom Meserau obtained 7 acquittals and 2 hung juries. Now he is deemed as one of the best trial lawyers in the country and the recipient of many public service awards and honors. But there is another side to Tom that he sees as perhaps his greatest accomplishment in a career both long and distinguished, and that is his humanitarian and charitable work.

Apart from his pro-bono work, Tom operates a free legal clinic in south central Los Angeles, called “The Mesereau Free Legal Clinic” and donates his time to such inner city organizations as the N-Action Family Network, Save Our Sons, Women of Watts, and Families to Amend California Three Strikes.

In this exclusive, heart-to-heart interview, Tom gives us his insight not only into the upcoming trial of Conrad Murray, his “lawyer” persona and Michael Jackson, but also into the man he is inside; a man dedicated to justice, the community and educating the young against gang violence, and to giving people a sense of worth and value in lives that might seem to them hopeless and pointless.

Transcribed by Valmai Owens

Valmai:  Tom, you were educated at Harvard University (cum laude), The London School of Economics and The University of California’s Hastings College of Law. Was it always in your heart to become a lawyer?

Tom:  No, actually. My father was a graduate of The United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, and he took a law course while he was in college. He always said to me, "Consider law school, particularly if you’re not sure what you want to do; it’s a great background for many things." I always had it in the back of my mind, but I never was sure that I wanted to be a lawyer; in fact, I thought seriously of being a journalist.

My major in college was government; I concentrated in International Relations. After college I tended bar in Denmark for the summer, and then I was a speech writer for a United States Congressman from New York. Then I went to The London School of Economics and received a Master of Science in International Relations. So I applied to law school; I still thought about being a journalist, but ultimately I decided to be a lawyer.

Valmai:  Well, we’re awfully glad you did.

Tom:  Well, thank you.

Valmai:  Now you specialize in both criminal and civil trials and are widely recognized as one of the best trial lawyers in the country. You have also received many public service awards and honors. What do you consider as being the greatest achievement of your career to date?

Tom:  Well first of all, you have to understand that every life is valuable; I don’t value one life as more important than another life. So whether the case is high-profile or low-profile, a life is a life. When I save a life, it’s just as important to me whether the person is rich or poor or known or unknown, valued or not.
But I would say, to answer your question, my greatest accomplishment has been my ability to blend the practice of law with charitable work. I do a lot of pro-bono work. I founded my own free legal clinic in South Central Los Angeles, called The Mesereau Free Legal Clinic, where judges, lawyers, law students, college students and activists donate their time at least two Saturdays a month, to assist the poor who have legal problems. I’m talking about every kind of legal problem, both civil and criminal. It could be landlord/tenant, it could be healthcare, it could be Social Security, it could be probate or criminal, you name it.

I think because I’ve gotten to be a high-profile defense lawyer, it’s made it easier for me to spread the word that lawyers must get back to the community, that we can make a tremendous difference and that a lot of the idealism we had in law school that we lost through the hard knocks of living can be recaptured. So I think my greatest accomplishment has been to serve as an example of lawyers who get back to the community.

Valmai:  So that would be your motivation behind your civil rights and pro-bono work,  to get lawyers back to the humanity of law?

Tom:  Yes!  First of all, there’s a selfish motivation as well as a charitable motivation. The selfish motivation is that I feel better as a person and I feel better as a lawyer. It’s good for the soul; it’s good for the spirit. So, when I talk to law students and lawyers about the need for pro-bono work, the need to find a certain percentage of your practice that is devoted to giving rather than receiving, I always tell them there is a selfish component: You will feel better as a human being.

Valmai:  You also assist local organizations and churches in drug recovery and youth counseling?

Tom:  Yes, I speak at schools whenever I can, including middle schools and high schools, about the need for education. I try to encourage students to consider being lawyers, and I also speak out against violence, particularly gang violence. I try to educate kids on the justice system because Los Angeles is the gang capital of America. The gang problem is worse here than any other city in the country. Some of these gang families are now multi-generational. The grandparents, the parents and children have been associated with violent street gangs, and because it is so deep in a cultural way, I think people have to direct these young people as to what is really going on in the justice system when it comes to gang arrests and gang prosecution. A lot of these kids don’t realize that the tattoos they put on themselves or the nicknames they have, the way they conduct themselves, could get them convicted even of crimes they didn’t commit. There is such an anti-gang fervor in Los Angeles, it’s considered to be a form of urban terrorism.

I also just try to give positive direction to young people to let them know they have value, that they’re brilliant, that they’re smart, that they’re creative and that they should have high goals for themselves. I look at a lot of these young people and they can’t believe that someone is telling them they can be a lawyer, because no-one ever has. So I do like to go to the schools whenever I can.

I also counsel people at my clinic. Very often parents will bring young people in who are troubled, and I will do what I can to talk to them. I also have associated with various organizations that deal with youth. I march through the Projects once or twice a year with the Women of Watts and their children, against gang violence. These are some of the most violent Projects in Los Angeles. We usually march in June through the city with the police department, and we sometimes have shorter marches through individual projects, where we will light a candle on a spot where a young person was shot to death in gang violence and say a prayer. We try to focus attention on just what is wrong with all of this.

I’m also on the advisory board of a group that deals with women and drug recovery or who are in jail, and also homeless children, particularly children whose parents are in jail. So we try to do what we can to help people transition into a better form of life. I get called from time to time to participate in various functions that deal with issues like this in the inner city.

Valmai:  Tom, what is your advice to young people with drug problems or going through recovery?

Tom:  Well, I don’t pretend to be an addiction expert. I can only give people the advice that I think is helpful. I try to let people know they’re not the only ones who are troubled, that all of us as human beings go through ups and downs. We all have our problems. Their problem might be drugs; for other people it may be emotional or it may be depression, maybe self-esteem. They may have turned to drugs for a reason; other people turn to other forms of anti-social behavior. So I try to let them know, don’t be down on yourself because you have this problem. All of us have similar types of problems in one form or another.

I try to tell them that they are very special people. They have value. They have uniqueness. This is just one obstacle to overcome. I do the best I can to let people know they have value because very often, young people come out of family situations, you know, where the recurring message is, "You have no value. You’re not special. You have nothing to contribute." When you hear messages like this directly and indirectly for a long period of time, it can do damage. I learned a long time ago that I had an ability to let people know how special they are and let them know what they can accomplish.

I remember a number of years ago when I spoke at a small middle school. It was for very troubled youth in Los Angeles, and these were young people who had been kicked out of every school. There was no other school left for them to go to; this was the last school that would take them. It was in a low-income neighborhood, a lot of poverty, a lot of violence and gang activity, and I was telling these students they should consider being lawyers. They first looked at me like I was crazy; they couldn’t believe I was telling them this.

So at the end of this talk, a young African American girl came up to me who had had a terrible upbringing, and she had bullet scars on her forearm and shins where she had survived drive-by shootings on the street. She said to me, “I want to be a lawyer. I didn’t know I could be.”  So I told her, “Yes you can. I think you would be a very good lawyer.” I saw the look on her face, and I realized that no one had ever told her anything like this.

A lot of these young people in the inner city need to be told they’re special, need to be told they’re brilliant. They have to be told they have value and that they can accomplish things. Nobody has ever told them this. Every message they’ve ever gotten has been quite the opposite.

So this is something I strongly believe in, in the way I conduct my personal and professional life. I very much believe that you have to find a way to let people know they have value.

Valmai:  I guess if you’re told something often enough, if you’re told you’re stupid or ugly or worthless for example, you start to become the label you are given; you start to live it.

Tom:  Yes! And also remember, as I said before, that Los Angeles is the gang capital of America. This is where the Crips and the Bloods were founded and it’s now into its third generation. A lot of these young people don’t have families. They’ve been turned out on the street early. They’re being raised by one parent who may be a crack addict or have all sorts of other problems, and the gang becomes their family. People want to have a family and they do their best to find it somehow.

So the gang becomes their family; their identity for protection, their direction, their religion, and it’s not all their fault. Someone has to do what they can to break that cycle, to let them know that there is an alternative which values them as people because too many of societies messages are, "You don’t count."

Valmai:  Yes, it’s very sad. We actually have the Crips and the Bloods where I live. Tom, are you following the Murray trial in this lead-up phase?

Tom:  Well, I’ve been following it in the media, but I’m not involved.

Valmai:  Are you able to give a professional opinion at all on the defense tactics?

Tom:  I’m hoping he’s convicted; I admit I’m not objective. My opinion is that he acted very improperly; he should never have been administering propofol and certainly not allowing it to be in the home. That’s ridiculous! 

I didn’t know until the preliminary hearing that there was evidence that he had allegedly tried to clean up the crime scene. I didn’t know that there was evidence that he allegedly did not tell paramedics and police about the propofol, at least initially. I was very surprised to hear that.

But you know, I’ve followed too many celebrity cases... Elvis Presley, Anna Nicole Smith, and you find these physicians become enablers. They’re afraid to deny the celebrity what they want for fear that they’ll be out of the fold, and I think it’s something law enforcement has to take very seriously.

Valmai:  Well how do feel about the defense strategy in saying that Michael killed himself?

Tom:  I think it’s ridiculous! I’ve already been on television saying it’s absurd. The Michael Jackson I knew was not suicidal. The Michael Jackson I knew had problems; you know I met him during a very difficult period, his anxiety, his sleeplessness, his depression was very acute, you know, as he was on trial for his life for things he never did. Anyone in that position would probably have needed some sleep medication or some anti-depressants, and I don’t know what he was using because I never saw him use anything. Nevertheless, I met him during a very difficult period, a very stressful period, but the Michael Jackson I knew was not suicidal and would never have wanted to leave his children. So I think it’s absurd!

Valmai:  Yes, I think we all agree with that, but I think it’s safe to say that what we can expect from the defense is the portrayal of Michael as suicidal.

Tom:  Well yes, defense lawyers have an ethical and professional obligation to vigorously defend their client. From a strictly professional standpoint, the lawyers appear to be acting in a professional way consistent with their obligations. However, I disagree with what they’re doing and I think their client is guilty.

Valmai:  Another point we agree upon. Tom, have you had any experience with Judge Pastor? Do have an opinion on him?

Tom:  Yes I have. He’s a very, very smart judge, very experienced, very intelligent, very wise and I think he’s going to be a very good trial judge.

Valmai:  Well I’m a layman; I’m not that familiar with the judicial system or the law. Many of the fans aren’t. Can you tell me how much leeway does a judge actually have in his decisions regarding subpoenas, who testifies, and how expansive or restricting questioning can be?

Tom:  Well judges have considerable leeway to direct the course of the trial. They have tremendous power to do what they think is necessary to keep the trial orderly, to keep it dignified, and depending on who the trial judge is can have a tremendous effect on what happens.

Valmai:  The defense requested that Michael’s financial records be made available. Do you think they were aware the judge might deny this motion and this is why they have called Dr. Tohme as a witness?

Tom:  I don’t know if they were aware the judge might deny it. I think they are on a fishing expedition; I think they are desperate to try and find some kind of defense theory that might seem plausible. I’m very happy the judge denied the request to pursue a fishing expedition into Michael’s finances. I think Michael’s finances have absolutely nothing to do with what Conrad Murray allegedly did.

Valmai:  No they don’t. I agree with that, but I think what they are trying to prove is that Michael’s finances were in such disarray, that he was in so much debt and so stressed out, this is why he allegedly killed himself.

Tom:  That’s absurd! It just shows how desperate they are to come up some kind of defense.

Valmai:  Do you think Murray will be called to take the stand?

Tom:  I don’t know the answer to that. I think that’s just going to depend on how the trial progresses and how well the defense believes they are doing. Trials always have surprises. No matter how prepared you are, you always know that certain witnesses are going to come up with things that no one expected them to say or do. I don’t think they’ll make that decision until the end.

Valmai:  Tom, what are your feelings about the lawyer hired by the defense who was peripherally involved in Michael’s 2005 trial? Do you see this as a conflict of interest?

Tom:  Well, I don’t know what he had access to, I really don’t. The judge apparently did a thorough investigation into the issue, and concluded there was no actual or potential conflict interest. So I have to assume in his confidential discussions with the attorney, that he concluded the attorney had no information that would create a conflict. But I really don’t know what this lawyer had access to, I really don’t.

Valmai:  What do you think about the decision to televise the trial? Do you see it becoming the same media circus as it was in 2005?

Tom:  Well, they didn’t televise the 2005 trial. I think there will be tremendous media interest in the case, particularly because it’s televised. It will give the public the opportunity to really look at these witnesses and see how they behave, and to really look at the evidence that the prosecution thinks should result in a conviction. So I think there will be tremendous interest around the world. Michael was the best-known celebrity on the planet, and much loved all over the world, on every continent.

Valmai:  I think what a lot of people are concerned about is the way the media portrayed Michael, especially in 2005, and whether they are going to do the same this time round. I know in 2005 the trial wasn’t televised, but the media weren’t exactly impartial in the way they reported on it. If fact, some were quite cruel.

Tom:  Well the media are not interested in justice or fairness, they are interested in business, and business to them is revenue and ratings. They love shock value, they love controversy and you have to look at the media with that in mind. To them this is entertainment. It’s not a quest for justice; it’s not a quest for fairness. In their mind it’s strictly entertainment, so they will focus on whatever they think entertains, and that makes themselves profitable.

You have to be very wary of the reports you hear about trials when those reports come through the media. At least in this case people will be able to watch it, as opposed to listening at the end of the day to very shallow, short summaries from the media.

Much of the reporting in the Michael Jackson trial in 2005 was dreadful. They simply weren’t being accurate. They were just trying to report what was sensational and shocking. They would sometimes report what a witness said under direct examination, without even waiting to hear the cross-examination from the defense. So I think they presented a very illegitimate, a very awkward and poor portrayal of what was happening in the courtroom.

Valmai:  Will you be making yourself available to news outlets if they request your input on the proceedings? 

Tom:  It depends on who they are, who the outlet is and if I think it’s going to be a professional type of situation. I’m available for that.

Valmai:  Tom, how do you see this trial ending?

Tom:  Well, I have no way of knowing; I’m not involved in the case and I haven’t seen the evidence. I’m hoping that it ends with a conviction. I’m hoping that he is held accountable for what I think in my opinion, was a very unprofessional, very selfish and very foolish way in treating his patient.

Valmai:  You spent many, many hours with Michael during what was one of the most traumatic periods in his life. What do you remember about his personal strength and composure?

Tom:  Michael was one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever met, and my law firm partner Susan Yu, feels exactly as I do. He was nice. He was kind. He was well-meaning. He liked to see people do well, and he liked to use his reputation and resources to help disabled people, children from the inner city who grew up in poverty and violence. He liked to see people happy. He could have taken his wealth and prestige and just not dealt with children, not dealt with worthy causes. He could have been purely selfish if he wanted to, but that wasn’t what he chose to do. He truly wanted to make a difference. He wanted to bring people of all races, all religions and all nationalities together. You can see this in his music; you can see this in the way he lived. He had a great empathy for animals because he was such a kind person and he wanted to make a difference.

He was somewhat naive when it came to the forces of evil circling around him and trying to destroy him. He didn’t quite believe that was going to happen and unfortunately, they put him through a nightmare.

Valmai:  Did you stay in touch with Michael after the trial?

Tom:  Off and on for about 9 months after he moved to Bahrain. Susan Yu and I were helping him out, but he was talking to Susan much more than me. We did help out for about 9 months with the transition and then we moved on to other things.

Valmai:  How do you think your life has been affected by Michael? What do you remember most about him?

Tom:  Well as I said before, what I remember most is a very, very kind, decent, sensitive person. One of his great gifts was to make a positive difference in the world. He could have been more selfish. He could have simply rented a home on the Riviera and party if he’d wanted. He could have been purely self-centered, but that wasn’t the way he wanted to live. He felt that God had given him wonderful gifts and wonderful success, and hoped to change the world in a positive way. I believe he did.

Valmai:  Well, I agree most certainly with that. Tom, the MJTP and all the fans just want to thank you for believing in Michael, and for all the wonderful humanitarian work that you do. We love and respect you very much, and I thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me.

Tom:  Well thank you very much. I’m honored and privileged to speak to you about all this and I wish everyone the best. He was a very special person, and I’ve always said repeatedly that he was one of the nicest, kindest people I ever met. I will always say that because it’s true.

by Valmai Owens
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This interview appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive,
and its content is the property of the authors and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Articles and exclusive interviews are copyrighted; therefore there should be no republication without permission. You may email with any requests for republication. If permission is given, credit must be given to the author, Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael's Legacy Alive and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait.

Interview with Matt Semino: Attorney and Legal Analyst

We are very happy to present an interview with Matt Semino, a New York City attorney who has written extensively on various legal issues, including the upcoming Conrad Murray trial. Matt has kindly agreed to share his thoughts and opinions on a number of topics, many of which address our deep concerns about the court system and potential issues and strategies to be faced in the coming weeks. Matt shares with us his strong support for Michael and a legacy of enormous impact on world culture. Intelligent, educated and experienced insight is surely welcomed and necessary during this difficult time. Please welcome Matt, as he hopes his words and input are informative and helpful to all. 

Lauren:  Matt, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Would you give us an idea of your background, what area of law you practice and what your current interests are in legal matters, media or journalism in general?

Matt:  I am a private practice attorney in New York City, where I advise domestic and international clients from the entertainment, real estate and finance industries on a diverse range of legal matters, including strategic business transactions, compliance with government regulations, policies and investigations as well as complex litigation. As an attorney, I have also provided pro-bono legal defense and advocacy representation to U.S. political asylum seekers, and economically marginalized clients through New York based human and victim rights organizations. 

As a legal analyst, I write and provide commentary on high-profile cases, trials and legal topics in the national media. My analysis is informed by my experiences as an attorney, as well as my work in the fields of entertainment, finance and public policy. I am fascinated by the frequent intersection of law with celebrity culture, as well as the tremendous power of media to shape public discourse on social, economic and political issues through popular legal stories.

My interests in law, policy, entertainment and media were initially shaped through my earlier educational and work experiences both in the United States and abroad, and have developed further through my legal practice.

I graduated from Columbia Law School and Cornell University, and studied at the London School of Economics. Prior to attending law school, I was a Fulbright Scholar in Southeast Asia. I gained exposure to the political and legislative system by working in Washington DC in the United States Senate for the late Senator Edward Kennedy, in the Justice Department under Attorney General Janet Reno, and in London in the British Parliament for parliamentarian Quentin Davies. My experience in the entertainment industry includes hands-on work with several film and television productions in New York and Los Angeles.  

Lauren:  Besides The Huffington Post, what other outlets do you contribute to?

Matt:  In addition to my legal column on The Huffington Post, my commentary has been featured through such national media as FOX, CNBC, CBS, Forbes, Business Insider, Daily Candy and Bloomberg online, among other domestic and international media outlets. I also contribute stories to the national news site Examiner, which are focused on entertainment, celebrity and society topics.

As a New Yorker, I support and serve on the committees of a variety of philanthropic and arts organizations, and have appeared in Town & Country, Gotham, Hamptons, Avenue and Quest magazines as well as New York Social Diary, in connection with my involvement through these cultural endeavors. 
I am excited about future opportunities to share my legal analysis and commentary, particularly on the Dr. Conrad Murray trial, through The Huffington Post as well as other print media, radio and television sources.   

Lauren:  What was your experience like as a Fullbright scholar?

Matt:  My time as a Fulbright Scholar was one of the most personally and intellectually enriching experiences of my life. From 1998-1999, I had the opportunity to attend the National University of Singapore as a research fellow through the generosity of the Fulbright Program. The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and is the U.S. government’s flagship educational exchange program.

As a Fulbright Scholar, I conducted research on the currency crisis that was occurring during that period of time in Southeast Asia. I examined the impact of that financial crisis on human rights, democracy and monetary policy throughout the region. Through my academic and field research in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, I concluded that although the economic and social upheaval in the region had caused tremendous economic suffering and led to increased violations of human rights, it also generated powerful calls from citizens in these countries for greater governmental transparency, democracy and institutional reform. These citizen led movements created positive and lasting policy changes. In addition to my research in Southeast Asia, I had the opportunity to travel and gain exposure to the cultures, religions and societies in such countries as Tibet, China, India, Russia, South Africa and Bolivia, among others.

Lauren:  What musical interests do you have?  

Matt:  As a child of the MTV generation, I have always been drawn to pop music and videos. However, if a song or an artist moves me, I will listen and explore no matter what genre. I am addicted to iTunes which makes discovering new music very easy! New York City is also home to some of the best musical performance venues in the world. Living in Manhattan, I have heard live performances of and developed an appreciation for classical, Broadway, opera, Latin, world, rock, alternative and jazz music as well. 

Lauren:  When was your first experience or knowledge of Michael Jackson?

Matt:  I was hooked when I first heard “Thriller” on the radio and saw the epic video for that song on MTV. The rest is history!

Lauren:  Do you have specific favorite songs, films, albums or other artistic work?

Matt:  In terms of sheer pop classics, dancing and Michael Jackson iconography, the music and videos from the albums Thriller and Bad stand in the forefront of my mind as favorites. To me, they truly represent Michael Jackson as the ultimate showman talent. However, the somewhat darker, more emotional and political albums Dangerous and History, offer an authentic glimpse at what I believe was a deeply thoughtful, caring man and humanitarian. The music and videos from these albums are interesting to me because of their nuanced artistic and psychological layers, as well as their socially conscious messages. Specifically, “Man in the Mirror,” “Heal the World,”Black or White,” “Scream”, “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Earth Song” best capture for me Michael Jackson’s human complexity, his compassion for the world and his personal struggles. These works make you feel and think all at once which, in my opinion, is the beauty of true art.

Lauren:  How have you personally been affected by his artistry and body of work and the kind of person he was?

Matt:  Michael Jackson’s artistry as well as his humanitarian efforts, unwavering commitment to social justice and generous contributions to charitable organizations throughout the world, have served as an inspiration to me to follow my dreams with the goal of having a positive impact on society. His example of always looking to assist those less fortunate and of using one’s given talents to improve the state of the world in any way, large or small, are examples that I strive to follow in my everyday life.

When I was a child and young adult, Michael Jackson’s creative body of work and public service actions shined an even greater light for me on such difficult but timely issues as homelessness, environmental degradation, AIDS, famine and racism, among other salient topics. Jackson demonstrated that if you want to create positive social change, it is entirely possible. Motivated in part by the philosophical underpinnings of his messages, I was drawn to the law because I know it is a powerful tool that can be used for helping others and working toward solving some of the world’s most complex problems.

Lauren:  As an attorney, what was your general impression of the prosecution and trial in 2005?

Matt:  I believe the case People vs. Jackson and the 2005 trial involving Michael, represented the culmination of anti-Michael Jackson sentiment that had been building for years within certain segments of American society. Michael Jackson was tainted by the Chandler family’s accusations against him from the early 1990s, and as his music and persona evolved over the decade, the once adoring public and media generally began to turn their back on him. Sorely misunderstood, a variety of actors in law enforcement, the legal system and the media seemed convinced that Michael Jackson’s actions, lifestyle and public image painted the picture of a guilty man. They wanted him to be put away for good and would not stop until that happened. The 2005 trial was a modern day witch hunt. 

Fortunately, the prosecution’s case against Jackson revealed that the accusations lacked any substance or element of truth. Sloppy investigative work, extremely weak and conflicting evidence, disastrous witness testimony as well the accusing family’s history of attempting to extort celebrities, were all factors that contributed to the prosecution’s inability to convince a jury of Michael’s guilt. Yet, despite being found not guilty on all charges, Michael Jackson was still unfairly vilified by segments of the media in their hungry quest for ratings. This type of abysmal treatment by elements of the public and media, in my opinion, only led to further destruction of his image, career and soul.      

Lauren:  Have you studied or researched or simply had an interest in Michael as a person and artist and his difficulties in life?

Matt:  As a Michael Jackson supporter, I followed his artistic career, humanitarian endeavors and the various stages of his life since childhood. As an attorney, I have always been intrigued by Michael Jackson’s complicated legal and financial history, as well as his business dealings during the course of his adult life. Since his untimely death, I have studied and conducted extensive research on the events and circumstances leading up to that tragic moment, as well as the complex cultural legacy and impact Michael Jackson has had and will continue to have in modern society. 

More specifically, I have recently been focusing my attention on the criminal charges against Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, in connection with his death. Through each stage of the Dr. Murray case, I have been following and evaluating the hearings, evidence, witness and media accounts, the jury selection process and anticipated legal strategies of the prosecution and defense as it proceeds to trial. I have also been providing legal analysis and commentary on the case through a variety of media outlets, particularly on The Huffington Post

Lauren:  What are your thoughts or impressions of Michael?

Matt:  Michael Jackson was larger than life. He is arguably among one of the most famous individuals in modern popular culture. The intensity and magnitude of his celebrity, talent, wealth and notoriety, allowed him to touch and connect people across the world through a common creative language. Yet at the same time, the amalgamation of these characteristics built a complex man who, although loved and adored by millions, was an enigma to many. Sadly, the combination of his extreme power with his extreme vulnerability made Michael Jackson an easy target for the unscrupulous. While Michael Jackson’s enormous and positive impact on culture and humanity will be felt by future generations, his life story is ultimately a modern-day Greek tragedy. It was a tragedy though that did not have to happen.   

Lauren:  Can you speak to the issues in the upcoming Murray trial, physician responsibility, financial gain, power, celebrity?

Matt:  The Dr. Conrad Murray case represents the potentially lethal power that celebrity, power and greed can have on the patient/physician relationship in Hollywood, and in communities beyond the exclusive enclaves of the stars. When accepted standards of professional practice and ethics are abandoned in the pursuit of fame and financial gain, the human toll is disastrous.    

In my piece Dr. Conrad Murray Trial, a Bitter Pill to Swallow that was recently published on The Huffington Post, I examined what I believe are some of the most salient issues that this high-profile legal story touches upon. 

As this is a case about the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, one of the most famous figures in the world, it will no doubt set precedent. The outcome of the case will be particularly influential in connection with the medical establishment's future oversight of the private patient/physician relationship, and in the regulation of routine sales of potential addictive and lethal drugs to medical practitioners.

Hopefully, some of the important legal and social questions that this trial will address include; (1) What are the permissible professional and ethical boundaries of the physician/patient relationship, particularly those of a private nature? (2) What are the expected standards of care that a physician owes to his patient, and how can these standards be better enforced by the medical establishment and legal system? (3) How can the sale of excessive amounts of harmful medications and drugs to physicians, be better regulated to prevent systemic abuse and ultimately harm to patients? (5) Does the power and allure of celebrity and the prospect of financial gain contribute to unethical professional practices in Hollywood and beyond? If so, what policy steps can be taken to prevent future tragedies?

Lauren:  Many fans, friends and advocates for Michael are angry, and feel powerless to stop the anticipated smear campaign by the defense. What are your thoughts on that issue? Is there any concrete action that can be taken to avoid or lessen this trauma?

Matt:  In order to convict Dr. Conrad Murray on the charges of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution through the presentation of its case, must convince a jury of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Reasonable doubt is a standard of proof used in criminal trials. In a criminal case such as that of Dr. Conrad Murray, if the jury has any reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt the jury should pronounce the defendant not guilty. Conversely, if the jurors have no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecution has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty.

The sole object of Dr. Murray’s defense team will be to present its case in any manner that it believes within permissible ethical and legal boundaries, will place reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors to ensure that their client is found not guilty.

To the distress of many of Michael’s fans, accomplishing this will likely mean that the defense will dig up and play to past negative stereotypes and public perceptions of Jackson. The defense will also likely paint a picture of Michael Jackson as a demanding, drug dependent pop star who used the power of his celebrity to force Dr. Murray to obtain, and give him excessive amounts of propofol and other prescription drugs. It is also anticipated that the defense is planning to go as far to claim that Jackson injected himself with the lethal dose of propofol while Dr. Murray stepped out of his bedroom. While Dr. Murray’s legal team has every procedural right to present the strongest case possible, their arguments will no doubt be grounded in a classic ‘blame the victim’ defense.       

It is inevitable that some segments of the media will cling to the defense’s less than favorable depiction of Michael Jackson. However, Jackson fans can take concrete actions in response. As the trial proceeds, fans can continue to petition and peacefully campaign against and/or boycott news programming and reporting that is perceived to support the distortion of facts, and that blurs the boundaries of ethical journalistic practice. The Michael Jackson fan base was highly successful in preventing the airing of a Discovery Channel show depicting a simulated autopsy on the star through these powerful means of collective action. Fans should continue to employ such tactics wherever they see factually false stories or inaccurate depictions of Jackson being presented to the public.

The Michael Jackson fan base can also engage in its own form of citizen journalism and attempt to shape the news through their personal interpretations of events. With the explosion of online media and blogs, there are many new opportunities and outlets for individuals with a viewpoint to share their perspective with a global audience. Such venues can provide vocal and informed Michael Jackson fans with a platform to counter what they believe is tabloid journalism by some mainstream media outlets. Finally, the Michael Jackson fan base can seek to promote and place into the mainstream media those journalists, commentators and media personalities that they believe best exemplify integrity and ethical practice in their reporting, and who will provide balanced analysis of the issues at hand.        

Lauren:  Given what is known about this case, what are your thoughts on the charge of involuntary manslaughter vs. murder II or a higher charge?  

Matt:  Many Michael Jackson supporters have expressed to me their anguish and disbelief that Dr. Conrad Murray was only charged with involuntary manslaughter, and not a higher charge such as second or even first-degree murder. They also believe that it is a slap in the face to Jackson, his family and his fans that he would only face a maximum of four years in prison if found guilty on the charges, particularly for a physician who acted so negligently in the care of his patient. 

I do understand and empathize with the thoughts of many of the fans on these issues. It all looks to be quite unjust on its face. However, when looking at these charges it is necessary to understand the legal distinctions between various degrees of criminality in the law of homicide.

The reason Dr. Murray was only charged with involuntary manslaughter and not a higher charge boils down to what his likely state of mind was in the commission of the alleged crime, and what level of charge the existing evidence in the case will best support for the prosecution to ensure a conviction. 

The law generally differentiates between levels of criminal culpability based on the mens rea or the state of mind of the accused. Within the law of homicide murder requires (i) either the intent to kill (with a state of mind called malice) or (ii) knowledge that one’s actions are likely to result in death (with a state of mind called malice aforethought). On the other hand, manslaughter requires a lack of any prior intention to kill or to create a deadly situation that may lead to death. Manslaughter is usually broken down into voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Dr. Murray’s charge of involuntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought. Involuntary manslaughter is distinguished from voluntary manslaughter by the absence of intention.

In my interpretation, the evidence that has been collected and presented so far in the Murray case indicates that Dr. Murray violated his Hippocratic Oath, deviated greatly from proper standards of medical practice and professional ethics, and acted in a manner that was so negligent that Michael Jackson died under his watch. 

However grossly negligent Dr. Murray was in his care of Jackson, that same body of evidence though does not seem to indicate that he actually had the intent to kill or the intent to cause serious harm to Michael Jackson, the necessary state of mind under the law to warrant a higher charge in this case. In order to increase their odds at a conviction it is likely for this reason, the lack of demonstrated intent, that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office did not seek a higher charge against Dr. Murray.

Lauren:  Patrick Treacy, Michael's physician when he was in Ireland, is quite definite about the inevitable shredding of Michael's reputation once again. Do you have any suggestions from a legal standpoint on how Michael's fan base can brace or respond to this onslaught by the media?

(Below is Treacy's interview with Aphrodite Jones)

Matt:  From a legal standpoint, one of the most effective means for Michael Jackson fans to address any social, political or economic issues that are of importance to them or that effect them as a group now and into the future, is to directly address those issues through the legislative process. If the fan base perceives that greater media regulation and reform is needed in the United States, then they should continue to build advocacy organizations and lobbying groups that will vocalize the importance of these issues to their elected representatives in local, state and federal government. With effective leadership and strategic action by the Michael Jackson community, such organizations and groups may ultimately be able to influence the legislative process and have laws and policies enacted that can achieve the desired reforms.

Lauren:  Michael's fans are repeatedly marginalized in the media as 'crazy'. What has been your experience with those you have had contact with?

Matt:  Michael Jackson fans across the world are passionate people. Rightly so, millions of them are emotionally connected to what he symbolized as an artist, a humanitarian and a man who faced his own personal struggles throughout life. People from all races, religions and nationalities feel that they can relate to Jackson on many different levels and for a diverse range of reasons. Ultimately, he connected humanity. 

Because Michael Jackson truly inspired and gave tremendous hope to so many people around the world, fans are angry that he was taken so soon by circumstances that could have easily been prevented. They are justified in their emotions. Michael’s fans have felt distressed for a number of years that a human being who they viewed was so talented, compassionate, kind and generous could be bullied in such a highly destructive manner by certain elements of society. Michael’s fans see injustice, and because they are highly vocal and visible they have been incorrectly labeled as ‘crazy.’ 

Since I began to write about Michael Jackson following his death, I have been contacted directly by legions of his fans from every corner of the earth. From Russia to Egypt, India to England and everywhere in between, the Michael Jackson fans that I have communicated with are some of the most sensitive, caring, thoughtful and eloquent people I have ever spoken with. Each has shared personal stories with me about how Michael Jackson touched their lives and how he gave them hope amidst their own personal challenges. They have also expressed to me highly intelligent thoughts and analysis on why they believe Michael’s rich life was cut short, and have offered their interpretations of the facts in the Dr. Conrad Murray case helping to shape my analysis along the way. 

One of the most impressive aspects of the Michael Jackson fan base has been their ability to peacefully organize through the establishment of a powerful online community and tangible advocacy groups, to further Michael Jackson’s cultural legacy and humanitarian efforts. They should continue these activities also through the establishment of nonprofit entities that will advance the causes Michael Jackson supported. 

Ultimately, Michael’s fans have the collective power to right what they view as wrongs in society whether it concerns Michael Jackson or other issues, by employing their strong voice and unified vision. Michael Jackson fans should never be discouraged by disparaging labels!              

Lauren:  What are your thoughts about old, familiar media faces that maligned Michael repeatedly in the past and now re-appear to do it again?  

Matt:  This does not surprise me at all. Ironically, many of the media figures who maligned Michael Jackson in the past have achieved even greater financial success and professional notoriety through their biased and sensational reporting. If these media personalities continue to garner ratings and are rewarded by networks for doing so, there is no incentive for them to change their approach to "The Michael Jackson Story" no matter what the set of facts they have before them. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the viewing public to demand truthful reporting, ethical professional practices and accountability from journalists, media personalities and news organizations. As the media is primarily a profit making business, there will be no commercial advantage to story manipulation and the distortion of facts if the public refuses to buy it.      

Lauren:  What are your opinions about 'blame the victim' defenses; not just in Murray's case, but overall? How is that in any sense justice, when the victim has no voice?

Matt:  The relationship between a victim and a victimizer is typically characterized by an imbalance of power. It is usually the victimizer that holds, manipulates and then exerts their power over the victim, exploiting the victim’s weaknesses with dangerous effect. Although a victim may engage in behavior or place themselves into circumstances that contribute to them being exploited and ultimately victimized, it is the victimizer who should ultimately be held responsible for abusing their power in the relationship. 

As Michael Jackson’s physician, Dr. Murray possessed a great deal of power over his patient even though he claims the opposite. He had the professional responsibility not to abuse that power for personal gain no matter what Michael Jackson, the victim, had done to find himself in a position of weakness. Yet, the ‘blame the victim’ defense that Dr. Murray’s legal team is expected to present at trial, serves as a very easy and convenient litigation strategy. Michael Jackson will be unable to refute any negative characterizations whether true or false that are made about him and the circumstances that caused his death, while Dr. Murray, on the other hand, will have the power to testify and state his interpretation of events.That seems quite unbalanced to me. 

The defense will likely play to the jury's emotions by perpetuating the popular, but not wholly accurate perception that Michael Jackson was an emotionally and physically weak pop star who was addicted to propofol, forced Dr. Murray to administer it to him regularly and ultimately caused his own death. It is difficult to image that justice can be fully served when the same imbalance of power that characterized the Dr. Conrad Murray/Michael Jackson relationship in Jackson’s home, will now rear its ugly head in the courtroom.     

Lauren:  Do you expect to participate in the discussion/discourse about this trial?  

Matt:  Absolutely! I will be covering and providing legal commentary on significant aspects of the Dr. Conrad Murray trial and its verdict for The Huffington Post, as well as on national radio and television news shows as requested. I am looking forward to contributing my legal analysis of the evidence presented at trial, witness testimony, the strategies of the prosecution and defense, as well as the social and policy implications of the verdict. My overall objective is to provide a truthful and balanced perspective on the facts and issues presented by this monumental case through a diverse range of media outlets.    

Lauren:  Are you aware of the importance of people like yourself and also Tom Mesereau, Patrick Treacy, those who knew or worked with Michael, cultural  historians and researchers like Joe Vogel, friends and others who have a platform to speak about Michael and the truth as we know it?  

Matt:  That is very kind of you to say and to include me in this distinguished group. I believe it is essential for those fortunate enough to have a platform to address issues of injustice, inequity and abuses of power to do so whether it is concerning Michael Jackson or others. Though, with the power of such a platform comes the responsibility to speak with honesty, and to avoid the manipulation of news subjects and facts solely to serve ulterior commercial and/or personal interests. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the past with reporting on Michael Jackson, not all who possess such a platform act with ethics and professional responsibility.       

Lauren:  Why do you think the media focuses so fiercely on negative aspects in regard to Michael, and virtually ignore his humanitarian and artistic legacy?

Matt:  Ratings. Easy sound bites. Profit. As long as media can continue to draw viewers and advertisers through a certain type of reporting style or story angle, whether it is about Michael Jackson or any other public figure, it will continue to do so. Many people could not understand Michael Jackson’s appearance, lifestyle, interpersonal relationships, child-rearing choices and other aspects of his personal actions. It became popular to ridicule Jackson, viewing him as an eccentric who stood outside of society’s norms and was to be feared. Whether or not these perceptions were justified, the media found it easier and more profitable to play to and reinforce sensationalized accounts of Jackson, as opposed to digging deeper into his humanitarian or artistic contributions to society.

After years of this fiercely derogatory reporting, and as Michael Jackson’s legal and financial problems continued to mount, it became ingrained in the public consciousness that any news about Michael Jackson was going to be negative news. In my opinion, no matter what Michael Jackson did, this tidal wave of destructive media attention became too overwhelming and it ultimately broke his spirit.

Lauren:  Do you have an opinion about racism playing a part in negativism toward Michael?

Matt:  Yes, racial stereotypes played a significant role in the public and the media’s growing negativity toward Michael Jackson. As Jackson’s skin color and facial appearance changed over the years, many people became confused about why these changes were occurring. There was constant speculation about his race, and Jackson was consistently interrogated about whether he still identified himself as African American or was trying to be Caucasian or another race. 

In my opinion, this type of questioning and negative examination of Jackson’s surface appearance and racial identity were borne out of pre-conceived, and narrow societal constructs of what are the expected physical characteristics of different races. As Michael Jackson’s appearance changed, many people became uncomfortable with the fact that they could not place him squarely into a defined racial box. Very few sought to understand the physiological and psychological reasons that were driving the changes in his physical appearance. Instead, his skin color and facial characteristics became just another easy sound bite and eccentricity to point the finger at. I always thought there was an underlying element of racism that perpetuated this highly debated topic.     

Lauren:  Is there anything you would like to add?

Matt:  I want to thank the Michael Jackson community for providing me with the opportunity to share my thoughts and perspective on an individual who I believe was not only a tremendous artist, but a humanitarian of the highest order. Michael Jackson is responsible for improving the lives of so many people around the world, and has left an indelible mark on this earth. I commend the millions of passionate and compassionate Michael Jackson fans who continue to work so tirelessly to preserve his legacy in our culture and on humanity. Thank you!    

by Lauren
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This interview appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive,
and its content is the property of the authors and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Articles and exclusive interviews are copyrighted; therefore there should be no republication without permission. You may email with any requests for republication. If permission is given, credit must be given to the author, Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael's Legacy Alive and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait.

Standing on the Side of Love: The Michael Jackson Legacy

When the last exhale of the “lets blame Michael Jackson” foolishness is finally breathed and the death gurgle is unmistakably heard, the world will finally know its mistake. I believe Michael even knew that. I believe he even planned for it. And like trail markers left on trees in the forest, the path he took to immortality was well marked by Michael himself to one day be recognized.

A trailblazer is often not appreciated until long after they are gone. Genius is an elusive thing and it’s easily misunderstood. And those who carry it are often thought odd or different. The truly gifted among us are rarely recognized in their own time by their own culture and often they are outcasts of their own kind. Especially the ones who shatter ideals on the rock of truth. They are always disturbing to the unenlightened and unwilling. They are always ahead of their time—sometimes a bit or sometimes a lot, and it’s human nature to fear that which we don’t understand. When we fear, we try to destroy. This too, shall pass.

Some future and not-too-distant day we will put away childish things and as a race, we will grow up. We will learn to treat each other better and we will recognize when those among us are treasures. We will wake up from a deep hypnotic sleep and understand where we came from and what that merits in how we behave and treat each other. The trail that Michael left points out one way that we might exit the forest to find the trees. Or exit the fog and to enter the clearing. His message said every which way but loose, whispers to us or sometimes shouts: “Awaken!”

When exploring Michael’s legacy and what he left behind in his work, I am often reminded of the poem by British playwright, Christopher Fry, whose work I also admire:

 The human heart can go the lengths of God...
Dark and cold we may be, but this
is no winter now. The frozen misery
of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
the thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
 Thank God our time is now when wrong
comes up to face us everywhere,
never to leave us till we take
the longest stride of soul men ever took.
 Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake...
 But will you wake, for pity's sake?

Who Michael Jackson was and is, is so complicated that it is hardly recognizable that we are in a puzzle that needs to be put together to reveal the bigger picture. Finding the pieces, identifying what they are and where they belong is a process. Not all the pieces are yet on the table. Some of those puzzle pieces will come from the most unexpected places.

Michael Jackson was a force. His message and mission was divinely inspired and God is not going anywhere. The Universe has a way of supporting the advancement of its creations—in this case, humans and the race. There is something to be learned here and it is big. Michael knew that. He knew his place and his worth and he taught that philosophy to others. His message was simple—remember you are god-sent and act like it.

I believe there is a grand plan, a blueprint, if you will, for the evolution and advancement of the race. This experiment called Earth is an important one; it is at once elegant and genius because it is an island and there is nowhere else to go. Putting all kinds of live beings together on a lonely island, hanging it out in space somewhere and then letting them have free will and free rein, is either a prescription for disaster or a blueprint for that race’s eventual evolution toward love. Michael understood that and began standing on the side of love. He helped to push the race forward. Someday that will become clear.

There are forces of course that push back and that has always been true. Resistance is one of the things we do well. And we still learn more through fear than love, but that is changing. In order to know what we want, we must starkly represent and identify what we don’t. Michael helped us with that. Just because he’s gone does not mean it’s over. His memory is still very much alive in the collective mind—sometimes for good and sometimes not. But Michael understood even that polarity and its purpose, and the alchemy of opposites and paradoxes and breakthroughs whether subliminal, recognized, yielded or wielded. And wield he did. The Excalibur sword was not forged in a moment and is not drawn from the stone without force. And we have yet to discover we are the kings who have already arrived.

To keep hope alive, take a look at the take back of our democracy movement in the Midwest, the anti-tyranny movement in the Middle East and North Africa. Remember the overnight attention given environmental toxins from offshore oil and now the safety of nuclear fuel. See how an unknown woman named Neda, in Iran, can become a martyr and symbol for a movement that rumbles quietly in the background of the collective psyche. Notice how the new youth eschews complacency and embraces civil disobedience and more for the sake of revolution, and how U.S. Senators stand for principles instead of the more safe “political correctness”, and vote with their feet when those feet feel the heat on the path to autocracy. With the internet and social media, it becomes harder to hide treachery and easier to oppose it together. Sometimes one event can change the world. Overnight.

The world around us swells with the winds of change. And that is the kind of wind that takes the breath away and knocks humans off balance who eventually learn to stand aright. People are weary of corruption, of corporate and other greed and inequality of all kinds. It’s all a modern version of the movement of Michael’s youth: “Power to the people!” That too is a prescription for disaster or a turn toward the light—in the hands of the capable, the responsible and level headed. Chaos theory works, darkness will not prevail and the truth is not going anywhere—it’s only hiding. For now.

While controversy stills swirls around all things Michael Jackson because there are still those who find darkness comfortable, there are others who seek the shimmer in whom he really was because they are able to acknowledge their own inner brilliance. This Is It has caused many to rethink their initial judgments. Michael Jackson The Experience will lead youth into that frequency and Michael vibe with dance and its’ exhilaration. Joe Vogel’s book Man in the Music promises to reveal the true musical genius, and other books to reveal the man. Cirque de Soleil’s Immortal will be experienced and remembered by thousands, and they will understand the message in the music and lyrics of one skinny little Moonwalker.

How will Michael be remembered? It’s not over till it’s over and the fat lady is still in the dressing room with her vocal coach just getting warmed up. There is no mistaking the work of the heart and art for the evolution of the soul in service to the world; there is only the forgetting that one is the gallery. It’s not going anywhere. Michael is not gone—only his body is now still. The legacy moves and lives forever. The truth is a marathon and the race is not over; I am not betting against that sword of truth or against Michael for I have my ticket, I am the gallery and I am left standing on the side of love. Ah… I see you are standing here too. Now could you please pass me that sword over there?

Artwork by Rev. Barbara Kaufmann. 41/2 foot by 41/2 foot painting: "Vision of the Madonna"  acrylic on 1/2 board which hangs in a retreat center in the midwest.

by Rev. Barbara Kaufmann

© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This article appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive,
and its content is the property of the authors and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Articles and exclusive interviews are copyrighted; therefore there should be no republication without permission. You may email with any requests for republication. If permission is given, credit must be given to the author, Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael's Legacy Alive and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Michael Jackson Legacy: The Lies That Bind

April 29, 2011. London. Westminster Abbey groans under its own weight in flowers and a nation prays for the sun to shine. A centuries old country hyperventilates as it waits for a young Prince and a young woman who would become a Princess – well, Duchess as it turned out – to kiss. The level of anticipation and interest in Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, building in the weeks and days before the big day, powered not only by a media whipped frenzy, but out of the massive desire to see the eldest son of the late ex-Princess of Wales make his choice before an audience of billions. Lady Diana Spencer, self-confessed ‘Queen of Hearts,’ was for many both in England and overseas, the real heroine of the Royal Family. And it was the memory of the joyous potential a young Diana’s own wedding represented and the huge sorrow and anger her death precipitated – that gave her son’s wedding the pathos and historic power it did.

The reality that it was in fact Diana’s death that revitalized the mythology and popularity of the British Royals is a deeply ironic one. Subjected to hostile media headlines after Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s marriage collapsed – in the wake of Diana’s death, the Royal family achieved its lowest approval ratings since King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936. Miraculously, that same Royal Family now enjoys the new affection that has transferred from the people’s adoration and respect for Diana – a respect she earned, to her first-born, Prince William.
The political Establishment, Royal family and still prevalent ruling class in British society, shunned Diana for her seemingly unpredictable informality and distinctly modern way of relating to a people the British constitution stubbornly defines as subjects. But the reason why Diana herself manifestly rejected the destiny that had been carefully mapped out for her, and was then rejected by the Establishment for that snub, was this singularity: Her refusal to accept a loveless marriage. That generations of Royal wives and aristocrats before her had put up with unhappy, arranged marriages and done so silently, did not change Diana’s mind or subsequent acquiescence to divorce.

Diana; the shy girl who became a woman before the world’s lens, portrayed then (and still now in some quarters), as weak, stupid – and famously, by parliamentary member Nicholas Soames on the BBC’s flagship, political TV program, Newsnight, in November 1995, after Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir as – suffering from ‘mental illness’ and in the ‘advanced stages of paranoia’– simply said ‘No.’ Deciding the vows she made during her 1981 wedding – not to mention the intrusive media she undeniably became a victim of – could no longer be honored if the husband she made them to did not love her exclusively: Diana made a choice. Though that choice would expose her increasingly to the aggressive attentions of a rapacious press who would not be ignored, one question amongst many bears asking: Would Diana have done anything differently if she still had the chance to choose between a loveless commitment or personal freedom and self worth? One suspects the answer would be no.

And it is this truth, in addition to Diana’s extensive philanthropic work – that is her greatest legacy. It is why the moniker ‘Queen of Hearts’ still has real potency and longevity. The example she set for her children and to the world: that no amount of privilege or perceived social status could ever compensate for the misery and pain that a life of emotional deception entailed – remains a bold and powerful one. The sole reason why Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton caught the imagination and hearts of millions around the world is simple: He married for love. And that choice, that one decision, will now ripple glorious effect into the generations that will result from it.

In the BBC’s evening coverage of the event, British reporter Andrew Wilson commenting, stated this truly unprecedented fact: “For the first time in over three hundred years, a future monarch has looked outside the inner circle for his bride – and brought her home.” This was Diana’s true gift. Diana bequeathed to her children the necessity of living an authentic life no matter how difficult, and the value and need for authentic love to fill that life. The first of her sons has now opened that gift. That is the power of legacy.

Legacy. A curious word. It applies to bloodlines of inherited wealth and historic families, and equally it applies to every human being. Who we are, how we live, and what we give during the lifetimes we are assigned – are key parts of sum we leave behind. And across the pond Michael Jackson also leaves a legacy to his children, and to the world. Like Diana, Michael used his fame, time and energy – not to mention millions of dollars – to positively benefit the lives of others. And like Diana, Michael also lived his life under unimaginable scrutiny. In Diana’s latter years however, the albeit tenuous respect afforded her by the media in Britain after her divorce and new relationships, not to mention the still rapturous media she enjoyed in America and around the globe, were exponentially more humane than that extended to Michael Jackson. While both these public figures endured violating levels of media attention, Michael did so for far longer and on a much more malevolent scale. 

Yet there remain striking connections between these two icons; similarities which apparently Michael and Diana were themselves well aware of. In a 1997 interview on the popular television program 20/20, American host Barbara Walters revealed that the last two concerts of the European leg of the ‘HIStory’ tour were dedicated to Diana after Michael learned of her death. Poignantly, in that interview Michael revealed that during one of those concerts he had this thought of the late princess. “I love you Diana. And shine on forever, because you are the true Princess of the people.” Interestingly, Michael’s choice of words here completely negates the media mischaracterization of him as being unaware of, or unable to understand the politick of the real world. Clearly Michael understood the deep insult and exclusion the British establishment intended Diana when, as a condition of her divorce settlement, it was insisted that the title of ‘Princess’ be removed from Diana’s official ranking as a Royal.

By referring to Diana as a ‘Princess of the People’ before an audience of millions, Michael stated the obvious: that after her death Diana was – in truth – this even more so. Symbolically too, since Jackson is known throughout the world as the ‘King of Pop,’ by declaring his sense of empathy with Diana and her struggles, Michael expressed in words the resonance and connection he felt with Diana that, in fact, exists on a number of levels. Many celebrities do good works, endorsing a charity is de rigueur for any modern PR savvy star. What made Michael and Diana so different was the way they gave to others, the overriding sense they did it from a place of compassionate service; not out of duty or because it would ‘look good.’ The similarities do not end there. Both Michael and Diana met not only untimely deaths – but violent ones. One, the result of a high speed chase through Parisian streets by paparazzi on motorcycles; the other, at the hands of a prima facie acutely negligent physician treating his patient with inappropriate drugs for relief from chronic insomnia. The grief that attended both these deaths was compounded by the certain knowledge that they were both overwhelmingly unnecessary.

Only the most imperceptive would deny that Jackson’s insomnia was undoubtedly the result of a life massively traumatized. Even for someone used to living in the glare of uber fame, the level of stress, abuse and cruelty Jackson had to deal with, went far beyond what any individual could healthily be expected to cope with. Indeed there is an argument – a strong one –for contending that Jackson would never even have arrived at a point in his life where he felt he needed doctors around him constantly, had the media persecution which came his way not been so unrelentingly vicious. Used to being bundled through the back doors of hotels and venues long before he hit his teens, Michael often said he had ‘rhinoceros skin.’ Clearly he did not. And now the toll of false allegations exacerbated and perpetuated in the public consciousness by the overtly malicious, commercially-driven marketing of Jackson as some sort of monstrous harmer of children by at least two generations of journalists, editors and TV pundits across the spectrum of media – now undeniably threatens the positive truth of his legacy. And it is that threat that has united many in one outstanding purpose: Restoration.

The reality that Michael Jackson remains the one of world’s least celebrated humanitarians, and despite fourteen emphatic ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts in the criminal trial of 2005, has not as yet been vindicated in the actual – is testament to the enduring power of perception. This perception of ‘guilt’ dominated Jackson news stories while he was alive and continues even after his death. Present day media comment in the run-up to the Conrad Murray trial that only hinted at the ‘demanding addict’ sub-text has now exploded into full blown accounts of ‘drugs found in the Neverland raid,’ and horrifically, graphic speculation about what the autopsy pictures may look like. It is evidence that the powerful and pervasive Fourth Estate shows no sign yet of any desire to recant the years of distortion they issued into the public domain. Many believe this state of affairs to be insurmountable. The question is, is it?

Years of self-serving media narrative will take certainly take time to be righted. But the journey back has begun, and it has begun in earnest. One way this is being achieved can be seen in the new narratives now surfacing. Amidst the wealth of rush-to-copy, mostly picture books releases that hit the market soon after Michael’s death, others have sought to push back the years of media misrepresentation and actually honor an exceptional life. To date, three publications are notable. American journalist, Aphrodite Jones’s ‘Michael Jackson Conspiracy’ published pre-2009 in 2007, details the extent of a preconceived negative bias within the U.S media towards Jackson and how that was reflected both during, and after, their coverage of Jackson’s 2005 trial. Post 2009, Bruce Swedien, noted recording engineer, released ‘In the Studio with Michael Jackson.’ In it, Swedien takes it back to the music, tracing the beginnings of his working relationship with Jackson from as far back as The Wiz through to HIStory – and does Jackson great service throughout. More recently, Joe Vogel’s new work, ‘Man in the Music: The Creative life and work of Michael Jackson,’ set for international release in October 2011, also promises to positively contribute to Jackson’s legacy – simply by returning the conversation to Michael’s commitment and service to the creation of phenomenal music, dance and visual art.

In the arena of journalism, Jones’s work with Discovery Investigation via her True Crime television programs has so far made modest impact on the prevailing smirking content found in the majority of current media, but these are early days. Similarly, British journalist, Charles Thomson, in hugely important articles on Huffington Post and elsewhere, has consistently exposed the damaging inaccuracies about the legal challenges faced by Jackson – inaccuracies still recycled ad nauseam by the media. In addition, a multitude of positive articles and interviews from people who knew Jackson personally (and some who didn’t) – such as David Nordahl, Thomas Mesereau, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Fast, Stephen King, Jeff Koopersmith, Forbes Everett Landis, Michael Bearden, Linda Deutsch, Armand White, Stuart Backerman, Matt Semino, Dr Patrick Treacy, Barbara Amiel, Jonathan Margolis, Dave ‘Dave,’ Ishmael Reed, Gerald L. Campbell, Wade Robson, Howard Bloom, testimonials from stars and those who worked with Michael professionally, and the many families who benefited from the outreach work Jackson did continually throughout his life; are all part of the new narrative that could potentially transform the destructive Jackson meme most of the media remains irrationally attached to.

Mention must also be given to a hugely ambitious project undertaken by Reverend Barbara Kaufmann. In 2010, Kaufmann, herself a minister, award winning writer, Huffington Post contributor and bright voice in the field of activism – gathered together a bank of exceptional  articles, poetry and case studies, inspired by and dedicated to the lives and incompletely acknowledged achievements of both Lady Diana Spencer and Michael Jackson – as part of the collaborative ‘Words and Violence Project.’ It stands as a body of work that, in time, could one day be widely referred to and used by educational centers to further our society’s understanding of how words and media culture occupies a dual ability to both benefit and damage the lives it touches.

Likewise, a range of websites diligently compiling their respective collections of memories, anecdotes, stories, facts, and extent of the phenomenal philanthropic gift Jackson gave, are also contributing – some better than others – to the archiving of Michael Jackson’s legacy. While many of these sites focus only on the musical accolades and aesthetic of Jackson’s many ‘eras’ in his musical career, some notable ones go further and actively keep alight a true record of Michael Jackson’s compassionate legacy to a world that so dramatically refused it.
Among these, Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Represented by members and visitors from over 180 countries, 250 thousand so far (and counting) have signed up to be part of the largest [dot] comprised portrait of Michael Jackson ever commissioned. Also worthy of note is The Silenced Truth website. One of the first sites to draw attention to the gap in the world’s understanding of who Michael Jackson was, The SilencedTruth also hosts one of the most comprehensive lists of Jackson’s humanitarian contributions. Another site worthy of highlight is MJJ-777. Hosted by Jackson archivist Seven Bowie, it’s an exquisite repository. Rich in facts and a cultural breadth reflective of Jackson’s impact on the world, this site is a must-visit destination for not only fans, but all those who seek to expand their knowledge of Jackson. Also of note are the informational grand central stations in the forms of MJTruthNow, Vindicatemj, Reflections of the Dance, and the outstanding blog spots of smokeandmirrorsmj, gatorgirl277 and mjandjustice4some. To dismiss – as some do – the value of the work produced on these sites and blog spots as merely ‘fan’ sites hosting partisan perspectives, is to fail to comprehend the extent of the staggering research amassed on these demonstrably, credible sources. 

The rejuvenation proper of Jackson’s official charitable legacy has still to be re-ignited since the Estate is still in probate and thus has to seek specific legal dispensation to make payments even to approved creditors. But as the executors – John Branca and John McClain – of the Estate of Michael Jackson expressed as recently as April 21, 2011 as part of a larger statement, their intention to make decisions and “… direct contributions to recipient charities … with complete regard to Michael’s wishes and Michael’s legacy, which we intend to honor and perpetuate ” –  should assure those who need it that rejuvenation is indeed coming. The legal furore over the sensitive and complex settlement with Howard Mann and Melissa Johnson, who held the rights to various trademarks and control of the ‘Heal the World Foundation,’ itself an unauthorized impression of Michael Jackson’s original vision – has paradoxically within it the seeds of a new platform for the Estate, Michael Jackson’s family – and three children to go forward from an albeit clumsy beginning to a future that possibly reincarnates that vision.       
On January 25, 2011, Zach O’Malley Greenburg of Forbes reported that the Estate of Michael Jackson earned $275 million more than Madonna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z combined. An intimidating statistic considering the artist earning these gargantuan sums is in fact dead. But this also suggests that if speaking in purely monetary terms alone, the legacy of Michael Jackson is very much alive. Greenburg notes much of this boon was due to the commercial boost that nostalgia driven sales of ‘all things Michael’ received ‘following the King of Pop’s death,’ which of course indicates that the one thing the ‘Michael Jackson’ brand does not lack – is an audience.

In February of this year, the Estate of Michael Jackson declared it made over $310 million before debt clearance, and it is no doubt banking on that same audience to consume the array of Michael Jackson products now flooding the market. These include: the interactive dance game Michael Jackson the Experience, box-set Michael Jackson Vision, collector’s item Opus, the film This Is It, the Cirque du Soleil collaborative live extravaganza The Immortal World Tour, the Epic album releases – part of the Sony corporation, and a legion of Michael Jackson posters, T-shirts and merchandise etc, as well as the sales of Jackson’s peerless musical back-catalogue. None of this, of course, even takes into account the plans for a replica ‘Vegas Neverland,’ the revenue possibilities for the actual Neverland, and the over $1.5 billion estimated worth of the Sony/ATV catalogue jointly owned by the Estate and Sony. Yes, in purely monetary terms alone, legacy is big business.

But the success of a legacy turns on more than just balance sheets and portfolios. Clearly the Estate has already made more money than any of Michael’s three children could spend in a lifetime, and to those children it will not be their father’s money they remember – or long for. The lasting legacy of Michael Jackson will, in reality, rest on the de facto restoration of his rightful place as not only one of America’s greatest creative sons, but also one of her most unjustly judged. After death, a man (or woman’s) reputation is the unwritten text on which the memory of that individual falls or stands. The public’s insistence on an ambivalent collective relationship with Michael Jackson, and the American and British media’s engineering and perpetuation of that stance, however – is not fixed. Flux is inevitable, and the pendulum will swing. Perhaps to somewhere in the middle, or perhaps just beyond the catastrophic damage wrought by years of media malice and deception by characters that need no introduction here. That will not be good enough for many of course, but how far that pendulum swings will be down to the work of those actively involved in the work it will take to move it further.

The reshaping and restoring that Michael Jackson’s reputation deserves will need work to make that restoration a reality. But behind the scenes a body of people that combines fans, advocates and supporters, the Estate, the Jackson family, Jackson’s friends, the generations of fans yet to come – and perhaps Michael’s children; are all part of that groundswell. Just as Diana’s children now forge new destinies because of the gift their mother gave them, three voices bearing the name Jackson may one day join the force that now gathers pace but as yet lacks focus. Because the reality is this: it isn’t only love that survives. The lies that bind will remain as tightly fastened as they are allowed to – and Michael Jackson’s legacy demands nothing less than the truth.

by Deborah Ffrench
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This article appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive,
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