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Inside the Jackson FBI Files with Charles Thomson

Willa:  Joie and I are thrilled to be joined this week by journalist Charles Thomson, who has written numerous articles and blog posts about Michael Jackson, the charges against him, and the way those accusations were handled in the media. In fact, he’s the author of “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” the best article I’ve read about media coverage of the 2005 trial. He’s also contributed to two best-selling biographies about Michael Jackson and has appeared on TV and radio shows to discuss him and how he has been portrayed.

So Charles, as an investigative reporter, you’re trained to be skeptical of what you hear and to be cautious about drawing conclusions. For that reason, the official position of most credible media outlets – as opposed to the tabloids – is “we’ll never know for sure” if the accusations are true or not, though their reporting often reveals a bias that they believe Michael Jackson was guilty of something, if not the exact crimes he was accused of. However, you seem convinced that Michael Jackson was innocent, and I’m curious: What exactly convinced you?

Charles:  I believe wholeheartedly in the principle that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. All too often you see right-wing pundits making comments like, “Not guilty is not the same as innocent.” Well, I beg to differ. That is the whole point of our legal system. A man is innocent until he is found guilty by a jury of his peers. Michael Jackson was found not guilty, ergo, to the letter of the law, he was innocent. To start making comments like, “Just because he was found not guilty, that doesn’t mean he was innocent,” makes a mockery of the entire legal system.

It seemed to me that the media was just loathe to accept the possibility that Jackson could be innocent. Most reporters seemed to already be convinced of Jackson’s guilt because they thought he was a weirdo. Aphrodite Jones wrote about that in her book. I wasn’t a journalist at the time of the Michael Jackson trial – I was still training – but I’ve always had the same mindset: I like to see evidence before I believe something.

What became apparent throughout the Jackson trial was that evidence was not the prosecution’s strong suit. For all their bluster, they failed to produce a single piece of tangible evidence connecting Jackson to any crime. All they really had was a parade of witnesses, half of whom collapsed under cross-examination, and the other half wound up helping the defense rather than the prosecutors.

The Jackson case was one in which the prosecution had every advantage. They plundered Jackson’s house unannounced while he was miles away in Las Vegas. They had the benefit of global media coverage and put out pleas for other victims. They went into areas not covered by their search warrant, stole defense documents from the home of Jackson’s PA and illegally raided the office of the PI working for the defense – all of which gave them an unfair advantage.

Despite all of this, they were still unable to concoct anything approaching a strong case. I followed the trial at the time and remember being shocked by the diversion between the transcripts and the media coverage.

J. Randy Taraborrelli has told a story before about the trial. He and the rest of the press pack were queuing up for their passes. A well-known female reporter from a big magazine became increasingly agitated at the indignity of having to wait in line (the horror!) and suddenly exploded: “Does ANYONE here believe Michael Jackson is innocent besides J. Randy Taraborrelli!?”

That story sums up much of the media’s attitude towards the trial: “We know he’s guilty. This is a waste of time. They should just lock him up now.” It tainted their reporting, consciously or otherwise.

Joie:  It absolutely tainted their reporting and I just find it so hard to believe that they unilaterally told the story they wanted told – across the board. You know, I recently loaned my mother my copy of Michael Jackson Conspiracy by Aphrodite Jones, and after she had read it, she was completely shocked because all she really knew of that trial was that Michael Jackson had shown up to court in his pajamas. And when she said that, at first I was sort of angry but, once I thought about it I realized, of course that’s all she knew. That’s all most of the world knows because that’s all the media told them. No one really knows that all of the prosecution’s witnesses were annihilated under cross examination because the media didn’t report anything the defense had to say. They only reported on the prosecution’s side of things.

Charles:  I have been a working journalist for five years now and I have spent a lot of time in court, covering cases for local and national newspapers. Spending all that time in court cases – including child abuse cases – has only cemented my belief that the Michael Jackson prosecution was a farce.

Willa:  That’s a pretty strong condemnation, Charles. So what exactly is different about this case than other cases you’ve reported on?

Charles:  A lot was different about the Michael Jackson trial than other child abuse trials I have sat in on. Firstly, while I have sat in on some incompetent prosecutions in the past, I have never seen anything approaching the stupidity of the Michael Jackson prosecution. It was like the case had been put together by Mr. Bean. Every witness turned out to be useless. There was no evidence to support any of the charges. The prosecutors behaved like buffoons, sometimes attempting to re-write their entire case on the spot because witnesses hadn’t panned out as they’d hoped. It was hopeless. The Santa Barbara DA’s office should thank their lucky stars every night that Michael Jackson didn’t file a malicious prosecution lawsuit.

As far as differences between the Michael Jackson case and other child abuse cases I’ve sat in on, nothing really married up. Michael Jackson did not fit the profile of a predatory pedophile in any sense. The victims in such cases are usually devastated, breaking down in tears on the stand as they recount the abuse they were subjected to, whereas Arvizo was cracking jokes. They are usually traumatized by their abuse to the point that it’s like a flashbulb memory – their recollections are vivid and consistent – whereas the recollections in the Jackson case were entirely inconsistent.

To go into all the details of how the Michael Jackson case differed from others I’ve covered – I could write a 5,000 word essay about that. But to put it briefly: I have sat in on numerous trials in which genuine victims of abuse have testified against their abusers. I saw no similarities in the demeanor of the victims or the defendants, no similarities in the testimony, no similarities in the prosecutions – and I’ve never seen a real molester come within a million miles of putting up the incredibly strong defense that Jackson was able to either. The transcripts of the Arvizo case read like an extremely ill-advised spoof of a real child molestation trial.

Willa:  Which kind of leads back to the question I asked you at the beginning. Was there a particular piece of evidence that was especially compelling for you, or was it just an accumulation of evidence so that after a while you reached a tipping point and became convinced of Michael Jackson’s innocence?

Charles:  To answer that, I will return to the first line of my answer: I believe wholeheartedly in the principle that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. The prosecutors in the Michael Jackson trial didn’t even come close to doing that. Michael Jackson was acquitted by a combination of the prosecution’s complete inability to produce any compelling evidence of Jackson’s guilt and the defense’s ability to present an abundance of compelling evidence of Jackson’s innocence. By acquitting Michael Jackson, in law, they declared him innocent.

Here’s just a short example which I feel demonstrates clearly why the defense won this case. The prosecution called several ex-Jackson employees who had allegedly witnessed molestation of three boys: Brett Barnes, Wade Robson, and Macaulay Culkin. Other than the extremely shaky testimony of these ex-employees – all completely destroyed under cross-examination – the prosecution had no evidence at all of any abuse.

The defense called Barnes, Robson, and Culkin right at the beginning of their case. All three of them told jurors in no uncertain terms that they were never molested and they resented the implication.

While cross-examining Robson, prosecutor Ron Zonen made a desperate attempt to claw back some semblance of credibility to the notion that these boys could have been molested. In doing so, he actually invented a scenario out of nowhere, in which he seemed to accept that the prosecution’s own witnesses had been lying but tried to insinuate that Robson could have been molested anyway. The ex-employees’ evidence to the jury was that Robson had been awake when he was molested, but Zonen wound up practically pleading with the jury to consider that perhaps Robson was molested on other occasions while he was asleep, so he wouldn’t have known about it!

Willa:  That’s really pretty shocking – talk about leading a witness – and it really illustrates how the District Attorney’s office approached this case from the beginning, I think. They didn’t conduct an investigation to find out what happened. Instead, they rushed to judgment about what happened, and then tried to gather evidence to prove it. Their judgment that he was guilty came before the investigation, not after.

Charles:  That is sort of a microcosm of the whole case. The prosecution’s version of events was like a house built on weak foundations. They started out with an extremely weak premise – a very tenuous witness or rather meaningless piece of “evidence” – then built enormous towers of conspiracy on top. The defense just kept coming in and kicking the foundations out from underneath.

In short, it is beyond my comprehension that anybody, having studied the case in any depth, could ask themselves the question – “Did the prosecutors prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt?” – and honestly answer that they did.

Joie:  Oh, I don’t know how anyone could make an argument for the prosecution here.

So Charles, you were involved in requesting the FBI files on Michael Jackson under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I’m curious, what prompted you to request them and what exactly were you hoping to find in those files?

Charles:  I wasn’t sure what I would find in those files, or even if he would have a file. I made the Freedom of Information request on the off-chance.

Freedom of Information is a brilliant piece of legislation that allows citizens to demand hidden information possessed by government agencies. You can demand to know how much your local government spends every year on biscuits for the staff room, or obtain information on how many accusations of police brutality were made at your local police station last year, or demand correspondence between government departments regarding controversial issues.

I had used it with the FBI a few times before. I had acquired James Brown’s file, for instance. In there, I found an eye-opening account of the supposed police chase for which he was arrested and imprisoned in the 1980s, which related events in a very different way to the police’s story from the time. In other celebrities’ files, there are memos about the FBI monitoring them during the 60s because they thought the were communists.

Had Michael Jackson been monitored by the FBI because of the power he could be perceived as having had over his audience? Had they investigated the so-called financial “conspiracy” against him, proof of which Raymone Bain said was being sent to the Attorney General in around 2006-07? Had they been involved in the child molestation investigations? These were the kind of questions I was asking myself.

I wasn’t very happy about the way the FBI handled the release, as I made clear in my blogs about the subject and in the passage I wrote about the files for J. Randy Taraborrelli’s book. Instead of releasing the files directly to those who had requested them – I don’t know how many others had requested them – the FBI announced that it would upload the files to its website at a particular time for anybody and everybody to read.

Joie:  Yes, that is surprising. You wouldn’t expect the FBI to operate in this fashion.

Charles:  What this essentially provoked was a free-for-all, with news organizations around the world all scrambling to download, skim-read, and report on the files faster than anybody else. This led to some extremely shoddy reporting on the files’ contents. I wrote about the media’s shambolic coverage of the documents on my blog.

I also wrote a blog about how the files revealed that Tom Sneddon, the DA pursuing Jackson, tried to get the FBI to prosecute Jackson under the Mann Act. The Mann Act is an inherently racist law which was widely used after its introduction to punish black men who consorted with white women. The notion of interracial relationships was at that time considered “immoral.” As such, any black men caught traveling with white girlfriends could find themselves prosecuted under the Mann Act for “transporting a female over the state line for immoral purposes.”

The phenomenal book, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, tells how Johnson, the first ever black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, was one of the motivations behind the law’s introduction. The government didn’t like the way in which Johnson “flaunted his wealth” (read: bought cars) and dated white women. He was arrested under the act for traveling with a white lover. The law was also used to prosecute Chuck Berry for allegedly consorting with a 14-year-old girl, in the same year  that Elvis Presley began dating Priscilla Beaulieu – his future wife. She was 14 at the time. Elvis was not prosecuted.

Joie:  Wow. I knew, of course, that Priscilla was only 14 years old when she began dating Elvis, but I had no idea that Chuck Berry was prosecuted for doing the exact same thing Elvis was doing, in the exact same year. Talk about “unforgivable Blackness.” That’s unbelievable.

Charles:  Chuck Berry, for the record, denied the accusation that he had slept with the girl. He said she was a hitchhiker who he’d given a job in his club, then fired, and that she had concocted the allegations to spite him. Throughout his trial, the presiding judge made repeated comments about his race. He was convicted.

Willa:  Oh, there is such a double standard. Jerry Lee Lewis married a 13 year old – and then defended himself by saying he thought she was 15, as if that makes all the difference. And this was just a year or two before Chuck Berry was arrested. So at the very time Chuck Berry was being prosecuted for allegedly consorting with a 14 year old, Elvis was dating a 14 year old and Jerry Lee Lewis was married to a 14 year old.

Charles:  You can read my full blog about the Mann Act here.

One interesting factor is that the FBI only released 333 pages of Jackson’s 673 page file – so less than half of it. They never gave an explanation as to why the rest had been withheld, even though they are legally obliged by the Freedom of Information Act to do so.

During the 1993 scandal, Johnnie Cochran announced that he had sent files to the FBI and asked them to commence an extortion investigation into the Chandlers. No documents pertaining to this were released in Jackson’s file. I ordered Cochran’s file and they weren’t in there either. I challenged this and the FBI claimed it could not locate any such documents. Whether or not that’s true – who knows? They also claim not to hold a file on Hunter S. Thompson, even though he detailed at least two encounters with the FBI in his writings over the years.

Joie:  That is interesting, isn’t it? And only 333 out of 673 pages released. What possible reason could they have for keeping over half of the file under wraps?

Charles:  Perhaps the FBI doesn’t want to release those extortion documents because their investigation was half-hearted, or even non-existent. Other reasons could be that the pages include references to other people who are still alive or references to agents who are still active – although neither is an especially legitimate excuse, given that those details could simply be redacted.

Willa:  Though legally they aren’t allowed to withhold documents just to cover their mismanagement of a case, right? According to the law, they can only withhold information for legitimate reasons:  because releasing it would pose a security threat, or put active agents at risk, or violate the privacy of private citizens who are still alive, as you say.

Charles:  That’s absolutely correct, but who’s policing the FBI? While Freedom of Information is a brilliant piece of legislation, it has its flaws. Agencies can reject requests for flimsy reasons in the knowledge that the appeals process is extremely long-winded and most people haven’t the time or resources to pursue it.

I recently had an FOI request rejected by the police on the flimsiest of grounds. I have been sitting in on a series of court hearings about an undercover police operation – all public record, because it’s being discussed in open court – but when I sent an FOI to the police for more information on that operation, they refused to comply by claiming that even acknowledging the existence of the operation would jeopardize national security, or some such gibberish.

So it can be discussed in open court, where any member of the public can walk in and listen, but acknowledging its existence under FOI is a threat to national security? It’s clear nonsense.

So organizations are constantly flouting the law on FOI in the knowledge that the appeals process is slow, laborious, and often ineffective. The prison service once told a colleague of mine that releasing the cost to the taxpayer of a prisoner’s breakfast was a threat to national security. He took it to appeal and won – but that took almost a year.

Oh well. Perhaps in a few years we’ll be able to see a little more of what they held on Michael Jackson.

Joie:  So Charles, let’s talk about what was in those 333 pages. Basically, the files revealed that the FBI had kept tabs on Michael Jackson for approximately ten years and had never found any evidence of child molestation. Is that correct?

Charles:  Yes, that’s correct. They received allegations but never found any evidence to support them. The media, either intentionally or as a result of not reading the files properly, misreported their contents in a huge way.

For instance, many media outlets wrongly claimed that the FBI had investigated Jackson for molesting two Mexican boys in the 1980s. What the file actually says is that a writer contacted the FBI to say they’d heard a rumor that the FBI had investigated the matter. The FBI searched its records, found no evidence to suggest that it had ever conducted any such investigation, but noted the phone call. That note was wrongly cited by journalists – either lazily or maliciously – as proof that the FBI had investigated the matter, when in fact it said the exact opposite.

Willa:  That’s crazy! It’s like the media and the FBI are caught in a feedback loop. A writer hears a rumor that the FBI is investigating Michael Jackson and contacts them to see if it’s true, the FBI conducts an internal investigation and finds that it’s not true, and then the media outlets report that the FBI is conducting an investigation. So in this case, the media didn’t just report the news – they created it.

Joie:  Yes, it seems that creating the “news” is something the media does quite a bit of these days.

Charles:  Included in the file was a run-down of the FBI’s analysis of all the computers seized from Neverland during the 2003 raid. The files clearly state that nothing incriminating was found on any of the computers – but numerous media outlets claimed that the files did not include the FBI’s findings!

The FBI once analyzed a videotape to see if it contained child pornography. There is no suggestion in the files that it was ever owned by Michael Jackson. His name was simply on a label attached to the videotape. There is also no suggestion that the tape actually contained any child pornography. But various media outlets reported that Jackson had been investigated for possession of child pornography.

The only thing in the file which could – if someone was particularly desperate to find something – be considered remotely incriminating was the Mann Act incident – and even that is a real stretch. Somebody contacted the FBI and reported seeing Michael Jackson, in full view of other passengers on a public train, go into a cabin with a young companion. They had no idea what, if anything, occurred in the room. The FBI determined that there was no basis for an investigation.

Willa:  And you know, I think that gets to one of the issues at the heart of the media coverage of Michael Jackson: how does the media report on an “absence” of incriminating evidence? It violates their definition of news. A rumor is news, because it’s “something” to report on. But page after page of FBI files with the word “NOTHING” written across them – because the FBI investigated and found nothing – is not news, because it’s “nothing.” How do you report on “nothing”?

You touched on this in your blog post about the FBI files when you wrote:

On a more general level, the files reveal that it was not only the Los Angeles Police force which pursued Jackson for more than a decade and failed to produce one iota of information to connect the star to any crime – it was the FBI too. That Jackson’s life was dissected and his behavior was investigated for more than 10 years by two major law enforcement agencies and not one piece of evidence was ever produced to indicate his guilt speaks volumes.

On the whole, the media didn’t quite tell it that way, though.

You know, it seems to me that if there’s one rock star we can safely say wasn’t a pedophile, it’s Michael Jackson. Who else has been vetted as thoroughly as he has? Yet that isn’t the public perception because that overwhelming “absence” of any evidence against him has not been reported.

Charles:  While the FBI files stating that nothing was found on Jackson’s computer is, as far as many journalists and indeed readers/viewers are concerned, not as interesting as if they had found something, I believe it’s still a story. It’s just a positive story – and positive stories about Michael Jackson are just not something the media is generally interested in reporting. So I don’t believe the media found it difficult to report, for instance, on that segment of the files. I think the media chose not to because it didn’t suit their agenda.

There’s an element of ass-covering involved too, of course. When you’ve spent years reporting extremely unfairly on Michael Jackson, doing everything within your power to convince your audience that he must be guilty – reporting accurately on the contents of those files is going to look like an enormous backpedal.

Joie:  And, to me, that just seems like such a travesty of justice. For years the media had a hand in destroying this man’s career and his very character and they did so with great relish – reporting rumors and vile innuendo as though they were facts. But report on something that could actually prove the man was innocent … that, for some reason, is out of the question! It’s completely criminal. And it makes me wonder if we really know the truth about anything, or are we just eating up whatever morsels the media dishes out to us – regardless of if there’s any truth to what they report or not.

Willa:  That’s a huge question, Joie, and a really important one. After all, there are a lot of people in the U.S. who still believe Iraq was somehow involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. That’s just shocking, and it reflects an almost criminal lack of media coverage about the essential issues at the crux of the Iraq War. And it gets back once again to this question of how do media outlets report on an “absence”? How do they report on the lack of any credible evidence against Michael Jackson? How do they report on the lack of any credible evidence linking Iraq with September 11th? The answer seems to be that they don’t. They know how to report on rumors, but don’t know how to go back and report that those rumors aren’t true – or don’t want to.

Charles:  As someone who works in the media, it is my experience that these rogue journalists are very much in the minority. For all my work on the Michael Jackson scandal, I don’t feel it is indicative of the way the media operates generally. If it was, I would be constantly writing about other cases in which the media has operated similarly. There are many, many more, of course, but they are still the minority.

Most of the journalists I have encountered or worked with are diligent, hard-working, passionate, and ethical – even on newspapers which are unpopular with Jackson’s fans for the way in which they covered him.

Nonetheless, there are these enormous travesties of journalism which go on all the time. A lot of it, I think, is attributable to pack mentality. Media outlets feel like if everybody else is covering a big story, they should be too or they’re missing out. Nick Davies writes about this very eloquently in his book Flat Earth News. In fact, if I could recommend one book to people who are interested in the way the media operates and the reasons behind its failings, it would be Flat Earth News. In it Davies examines the systemic failures which lead to widespread inaccuracy and distortion. I’d say it’s essential reading for anybody interested in this topic.

Joie:  Thanks for that recommendation, Charles; it sounds like a really interesting book. And thank you so much for joining us. This is a discussion that Willa and I have wanted to have for a long time and we appreciate you taking the time to chat with us!

On another note, Willa and I want to take a minute and share two important bits of information with all of you. Willa, do you want to go first?

Willa:  We’ve added some blank pages for the Bad 25 bonus tracks to the Lyrics Library. They’re blank right now because the lyrics weren’t included in the liner notes. There’s space for comments for each song, so if you would like to post your ideas of what the lyrics are, we can begin compiling those. Oh, and thanks a lot to Caro for suggesting this a couple of weeks ago!

Joie:  Also, after a lot of discussion and soul-searching, Willa and I have decided that we need to switch to a biweekly format for the blog. In order to continue bringing thought provoking, well researched discussions to you, and still take care of ourselves and our families in the process, we needed to restructure some things so, we will now be posting on the first and the third Thursdays of each month. We hope you all understand and we hope this won’t cause any inconvenience for anyone.