On June 14, some 60 million people tuned in to see Diane Sawyer interview Michael Jackson and his bride, Lisa Marie Presley, on ABC News’s PrimeTime Live. The widely advertised “no holds barred” interview, the capstone of a $30 million marketing campaign for Jackson’s new double album, HIStory, was the first Jackson has given since being accused of child molestation by a 13-year-old boy in August 1993. The last time Jackson had talked about the charges was on a live satellite hookup from his Neverland ranch, without the reporters present, in December 1993, when he complained bitterly that the police had subjected him to a humiliating inspection and taken photographs of his private parts. That portion of the satellite telecast, along with Jackson’s angry, 4-minute-45-second new video, “Scream,” and other taped segments, took up a lot of the PrimeTime broadcast. When the show ended, many with a detailed knowledge of the case were appalled by what ABC News had allowed Jackson to get away with, and by Sawyer’s lack of preparation or her inability to follow up within the format dictated by the Jackson forces.
Controversy raged for days over the way ABC had bent network news standards to accommodate Jackson’s many demands, not to mention the outcry over the cruel revenge tone and anti-Semitic lyrics in his songs. Jackson’s lawyers had reason to be concerned, for their worst fears had been realized. Sources close to the family of the boy allegedly molested have said that they are considering whether Jackson’s specific references to the sexual allegations in the case were a breach of the contract reached in the enormous settlement he paid for his young accuser to drop the charges. Anything other than a general denial of the allegations on the part of Jackson is said to be a breach of contract.
Two years ago I interviewed dozens of people close to the case and to Michael Jackson for an article in this magazine (“Nightmare in Neverland,” January 1994). That report came out before the suit was settled and before the district attorneys of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Counties announced, in September 1994, that in the absence of victims willing to come forward to testify at a trial they would not file charges. But in the press conference they stated that the case could be reopened anytime before the statute of limitations ran out (in 1999). The district attorneys’ joint press release also stated that their investigation had uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Jackson with two other boys. Although Diane Sawyer proclaimed on air that “we have called everyone we can call, we have checked everything we can check,” she and the PrimeTime team, in giving no one but Jackson a say, left crucial areas unreported or incorrectly reported: for example, that Jackson had been “cleared” of all charges, and that he had settled by paying “reportedly in the neighborhood of $15 to $20 million.”
Herewith a fact check of the interview:
DIANE SAWYER: How about the police photographs, though? How was there enough information from this boy about those kinds of things…
JACKSON: There was nothing that matched me to those charges.
LISA MARIE PRESLEY: There was nothing…
JACKSON: Every—there was not one iota of information that was found that could connect me to these charges.
SAWYER: So when we’ve heard that there was this marking of some kind…
PRESLEY: There was nothing.
JACKSON: No markings.
SAWYER: No markings?
Santa Barbara district attorney Tom Sneddon, who has seen the photographs of Jackson’s genitalia, was upset enough after watching Sawyer’s interview to speak to me on the record. “Regarding the markings,” Sneddon says, “his statement on TV is untrue and incorrect and not consistent with the evidence in the case.”
Others familiar with the evidence are more forthcoming. They say there are definite markings on Jackson’s genital area, including a discoloration on his testicles. (Jackson admitted in his live interview with Oprah Winfrey in February 1993 that he suffers from the skin disorder vitiligo, which causes discoloration.) According to the sworn affidavit of a law-enforcement photographer, there is a dark spot on the lower left side of Jackson’s penis. Affidavits of law-enforcement officers filed in Santa Barbara Superior Court detail the tense circumstances of December 20, 1993, when District Attorney Sneddon, Jackson lawyers Howard Weitzman and Johnnie Cochran, Santa Barbara County sheriffs, various doctors, a police photographer, and a Jackson photographer convened to have pictures taken of an “enraged” Jackson’s nude body. The sworn affidavits affirm concession after concession to Jackson, and recall a “hysterical and completely uncontrollable” superstar who had to be physically restrained by one of his doctors, whom he slapped while the doctor was trying to hold him down on the couch. Jackson tried to impede the photographers’ and doctors’ work: “I’ve said I have vitiligo; so what? What more do you need? Why do you have to examine me?” At one point Jackson told members of law enforcement, “Get out of here… . You’re assholes.” Later, Jackson flatly refused to complete the series of photographs previously agreed upon.
The boy who had accused Jackson of sexually molesting him, according to those familiar with the evidence, was able to draw—first for the district attorney, then for his own lawyers—an accurate picture of the dark spot on Jackson’s penis. The boy’s drawings were sealed in an envelope and clearly postmarked on a postal meter before the police ever photographed Jackson. According to these sources, the boy’s drawings were an accurate match of the photographs.
JACKSON: The whole thing is a lie.
SAWYER: Why did you settle the case, then? … Can you say how much?
JACKSON: It’s not what the tabloids have printed. It’s not all this crazy, outlandish money. No. It’s not at all.
The boy got “in excess of $25 million,” according to sources close to the family, and his parents were also paid off in the millions. The money, paid in one lump sum, was handed over without Michael Jackson’s ever being put under oath for a civil deposition, which could be used in a criminal trial. People close to the investigation say that Jackson’s lawyers kept putting off any depositions, and agreed to settle the night before Jackson was to have been put under oath. At one point Jackson’s lawyers even argued in court that Jackson might have to take the Fifth Amendment in the civil case to ensure that nothing he said there could be used against him if the criminal case went forward. In answering a civil case in which five former bodyguards accused Jackson of firing them because “they knew too much,” Jackson did invoke the Fifth Amendment on the subject of alleged child molestation. The suit, dismissed since the PrimeTime Live interview, was not mentioned by Sawyer.
JACKSON: Also, the idea, it just isn’t fair what they put me through, because there wasn’t one piece of information that says I did that. And anyway, they turned my room upside down and went through all my books, all my videotapes, all my private things, and they found nothing nothing nothing that could say Michael Jackson did this… . Nothing nothing nothing… .
SAWYER: Nothing. I got nothing. As you may or may not know, we have called everyone we can call, we have checked everything we can check, we have gone and tired to see if what we heard before is, in fact, the case. I want to ask you two things. These reports that we read over and over again that in your rooms they found photographs of young boys—not adults.
JACKSON: Young boys, children, all kind of girls and everything.
SAWYER: Then, that they found photographs, books, of young boys who were undressed… .
JACKSON: No, not that I know of, unless people sent me things that I haven’t opened.
According to District Attorney Tom Sneddon, “The idea that there are not any photos or pictures or anything is pure poppycock. In the search, Jackson said, they didn’t find anything unless it was ‘something somebody sent me.’ The statement there were no books or photos of nude children on his premises is incorrect. That is not truthful.”
Investigation sources say police found a lewd, commercially published hardcover book of black-and-white photos of nude boys aged about 7 to 12 “at play,” and according to one, that book “is often found in the home of pedophiles.” There was also a picture of a nude little boy, scantily draped with a sheet, found in Jackson’s bedroom.
SAWYER: Any other settlements in process now or previously with children making these kinds of claims? We have heard that there is one, not a case that the prosecutors would bring in court, but once again, you’re talking about shelling out—
JACKSON: That’s not true. No. No. No, it’s not true. I think—I’ve heard everything is fine and there are no others.
Law-enforcement sources, however, confirm that there is another boy who has a lawyer and is currently negotiating a settlement with Jackson. Of the boys mentioned in the district attorneys’ press release who accused Jackson of sexual misconduct and who are unwilling to testify, Sneddon says, “The status regarding these two is basically the same.”
SAWYER: I guess, let me ask this—and I’m trying to think how to phrase it, though. I can hear out in the country people saying—and you’ve been cleared of all the charges, we want to make that clear—people saying, Look, here is a man who is surrounded by things that children love. Here is a man who spends an inordinate amount of time with these young boys.
JACKSON: That’s right.
“Michael Jackson has not been cleared,” says District Attorney Sneddon, who calls Diane Sawyer’s announcement that he had been “a glaring mistake.” Sneddon says, “The state of the investigation is in suspension until somebody comes forward.” At one point Sawyer said, “None of the employees who claimed to have seen questionable things had a story that could be confirmed by a child.” Again, Sawyer is contradicted by law-enforcement sources. Two years ago, Jackson’s personal maid, Blanca Francia, told police, the Los Angeles Times, and the tabloid TV show Hard Copy that she had seen Jackson a number of times in the nude with young boys and found a picture of an apparently nude boy in Jackson’s room. Under oath she also said she found Jackson in bed with several boys, and a young boy with him in the same sleeping bag. She discovered $300 in the boy’s pocket (which he had admitted Jackson had given to him).
SAWYER: What is a 36-year-old man doing sleeping with a 12-year-old boy or a series of them?
JACKSON: Right. O.K., when you say boys, it’s not just boys, and I’ve never invited just boys to come into my room… . I have never invited anyone into my bed ever. Children love me. I love them. They follow me. They want to be with me. But anybody can come into my bed. A child can come into my bed if they want.
“You can’t get into the bedroom [at Neverland]. It’s locked and alarmed, and the floor is electronically wired,” says District Attorney Sneddon. “If anybody’s coming down the hallway, Jackson is tipped off.” In my previous article I reported that security is so tight around Jackson’s bedroom that employees or anyone else who gets within five feet of it sets off an alarm of chimes. Maids must leave meals outside the door. Nobody just wanders into Michael Jackson’s bed.
Investigators who contacted approximately 400 witnesses say that no one has found a single little girl who was invited to bed with Jackson. He slept only with little boys. Jackson’s chauffeur, Gary Hearne, testified under oath that on 30 nights he had dropped Jackson off at the small house in Santa Monica where the boy who brought charges lived. Even Jackson’s camp admits that he slept in the same bed with the boy all those nights. A lawsuit filed last year by the stepfather on behalf of himself and the younger sister of the boy charges that Jackson let himself into the house with his own key at times and portrayed himself as a “Pied Piper.” The suit, which alleges that “Jackson was a pedophile who was predisposed to become sexually involved with children,” also alleges that the six-year-old sister “was dragged along by Jackson because she was [the boy’s] sister. Essentially [she] was used as a pawn by Jackson in his seduction of [the boy]… .”
SAWYER: I just wonder, is it over? Are you going to make sure it doesn’t happen again? I think this is really the key thing people want to know—
JACKSON: Is what over?
SAWYER: That there are not going to be more of these sleepovers in which people have to wonder.
JACKSON: Nobody wonders when kids sleep over at my house. Nobody wonders.
SAWYER: But are they over? Are you going to watch out for it?
For a long time prosecutors believed that the boy who settled would take the stand for them. According to individuals familiar with the case, the boy definitely would have testified had Los Angeles district attorney Gil Garcetti moved more quickly to indict Jackson. The boy himself, according to sources close to the case, was considering going into the witness-protection program—such was his fear of the retribution he would suffer by publicly alleging that Michael Jackson was a pedophile. He had reason to be afraid. His family claims that a few weeks before the case was settled the boy and the housekeeper were nearly run down near their home by a speeding car. The car also came at them in reverse. The boy’s attorney, Larry Feldman, was protected for several months by guards from the U.S. Justice Department after having received numerous death threats and had pornographic graffiti sprayed on the walls of his law-office building. The boy’s father received a dead rat in a box at his home. The witness-protection-program idea fell through, however, when neither state nor federal authorities offered it and the boy realized that he might end up living his life like a prisoner.
While Jackson has gone on to marry and become the stepfather of Elvis Presley’s grandchildren, Jackson’s close involvement with the boy ultimately ripped the boy’s floundering family apart. After the settlement, the second marriages of both his parents ended in divorce. The boy no longer sees or speaks to his mother, whom he blames for allowing Jackson to become so intimate with him. He has not seen his eight-year-old sister in two years, or his stepfather, who essentially raised him. Now 15, the boy lives with his stepmother. He is not in therapy. He continues to have a relationship with his father, who was accused by Jackson’s side of extortion but whom authorities declined to prosecute, saying there was not enough evidence—another fact not mentioned by Diane Sawyer. The boy’s father and stepfather, once friends, are now suing each other.
Despite the havoc wreaked and the vast sums paid out, Jackson not only continues to plead his innocence and decry the “injustice” that has been heaped upon him—prompting one music critic to write that his “self-pity now equals his talent”—but also attempt to get even in his lyrics. Many believe that the now infamous lines Jackson recorded, then apologized for, and changed in future versions of the song “They Don’t Care About Us”—”Jew me, sue me … kike me, don’t you black or white me”—were written about the boy’s father and his attorney, Larry Feldman, both of whom are Jewish. “Regardless of whether it was about me or my client,” says Feldman, “it is offensive and inappropriate language.” Jackson told Sawyer that he wasn’t being anti-Semitic, because his lawyers, his accountants, and “my two best friends are Jewish.” Jackson’s song “D.S.” is about “Dom Sheldon”—a “cold man… . He think he bad cause he’s BSTA.” This seems on a careful listening to be none other than Tom Sneddon, the Santa Barbara D.A.
How, I asked Sneddon, does Michael Jackson get away with all this? “Why not?” he answered. “What’s the downside? Who is he going to get more exposure from, your article or the TV interview? They have to read your article. To listen to him, all they have to do is push a button. He’s got this huge public-relations train behind him—they’re able to contour public opinion any way they want. There’s no downside for him.” Attorney Danny Davis, who represents the boy’s stepfather in his civil suit against Jackson, says, “From Oprah to his public denial on satellite to the Sawyer interview, this strange person is controlling a major network. He understands money and major networks.”
Sneddon says that magazine articles that suggested that Jackson was innocent because “no other boys had come forward,” and that the one boy who did come forward spoke of the molestation only after being administered a drug in his dentist father’s office, came from the same public-relations train and were “a pile of trash.” Sneddon adds, “I see injustices every day in my business.” But things are so shameless in Jackson’s camp that Epic Records, his label, has sent out a press release saying that sales of Jackson’s new album—which at fewer than one million units in the U.S., at press time, are not nearly meeting expectations—would save small black mom-and-pop record shops in various parts of the country!
Liz Smith has reported that Jackson wanted Princess Diana to be with him on the Sawyer interview, to commiserate about the sufferings imposed by tabloid coverage, and that he queried the British Embassy in Washington about being knighted by the Queen for “his work with little children.” According to an observer, he actually was working behind the scenes to see if the Queen would knight him right there on PrimeTime Live. That was one demand that was not met.
ABC News’s credibility was seriously undermined when it was revealed that the network had electronically altered a pre-taped segment of Jackson because he didn’t care for the way the lighting cast lines on his face. Then it was learned that ABC had swapped the airing of 10 TV commercials for Jackson’s new album—ads worth between $300,000 and $1.5 million—for rights to “future Michael Jackson music videos.” Such videos have never been of any commercial value in network TV, and are usually provided free. According to the Bloomberg Business News service, which broke the story, the commercials ran in the week between Sawyer’s interview and the release of the album. ABC News disavowed any prior knowledge of the deal, which ABC Entertainment said had been made after the interview was set. But surely someone at the top of ABC had to know about both. Even more curious was a sudden announcement in July that ABC would broadcast a half-hour program on Jackson, including a recording session of the new non-anti-Semitic lyrics.
Executives at CBS and NBC said that Jackson’s handlers had clearly been looking for a “package.” (In the interest of full disclosure, my husband, Tim Russert, is Washington-bureau chief of NBC News, with no responsibility for prime-time programming.) A producer from one network told me, “It’s difficult to pretend there was no quid pro quo in the ABC deal. Jackson’s people approached a bunch of us. Basically they said, ‘Come back to us with a proposition, and not just what you can do with your news division—that is not enough.'”
In addition, Sawyer had “get-togethers” with Jackson and Presley before the expensively produced interview, which is not her usual practice. She posed with them for stylized publicity stills, which were published in TV Guide and sent to newspapers around the country. And contrary to news-show procedures, the air-conditioning remained on loud while Sawyer interviewed Jackson, causing a strange background noise. The cool air was necessary, veteran soundmen say, because the lights on Jackson were so hot that his thick pancake makeup and lipstick would have melted otherwise, and his false eyelashes would have come off.
“My interview was entirely in my hands,” Sawyer told me. “I decided what questions to ask. No one ever said to me, ‘Don’t ask that. Do ask that.’ I felt my primary mission was to cover the serious charges. If I didn’t get to some questions of Lisa Marie or the video, well, that’s that. The questions I wanted to ask were the serious questions.”
“I have no idea what the purpose of her show is,” District Attorney Sneddon wondered, somewhat taken aback after having spent three hours on a Saturday afternoon helping to prime one of Sawyer’s producers. “Is it the Evening News or Hard Copy?” Good question. Whatever it was, 60 million Americans and untold millions around the world got something less than the truth.