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Action Item: Vanity Fair

Willa: This week we present another action item we feel could significantly change public perceptions of Michael Jackson. This time we’re focusing on Vanity Fair and one of its writers, Maureen Orth. Together they are responsible for a string of articles that are deeply racist, sexually explicit, and poorly researched. Much of the content of these articles is false. In fact, while they are presented as journalism, they often seem to be little more than bizarre fantasies that occasionally border on pornography.

For example, in April 2003 Vanity Fair published an article by Maureen Orth titled “Losing His Grip.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

“David Geffen, be gone! Steven Spielberg, be gone!” The witch doctor cursing Michael Jackson’s enemies and blessing the tarnished King of Pop himself in a voodoo ritual in Switzerland in the summer of 2000 had promised that the 25 people on Jackson’s enemies list, some of whom had worked with him for years, would soon expire. The voodoo man later assured one close observer of the scene that David Geffen, who headed the list, would die within the week. But Geffen’s demise did not come cheap. Jackson had ordered his then business adviser, Myung-Ho Lee, a U.S.-educated Korean lawyer based in Seoul, to wire $150,000 to a bank in Mali for a voodoo chief named Baba, who then had 42 cows ritually sacrificed for the ceremony.

Jackson had already undergone a blood bath. The pop star, who is said to be $240 million in debt, had paid six figures for a ritual cleansing using sheep blood to another voodoo doctor and a mysterious Egyptian woman named Samia, who came to him with a letter of greeting from a high-ranking Saudi prince, purportedly Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, now the chief of intelligence of Saudi Arabia. She had taken an eager Jackson to her basement in Geneva, where, he later told associates, he saw with his own eyes piles of $100 bills which Samia said totaled $300 million. It was “free money,” she said; he could have it, and she could also get him a villa and a yacht. She arranged to have three men fly from Switzerland, at Jackson’s expense, to Neverland, his luxurious California ranch, to discuss further deals. When the hex delegation arrived at Neverland, Jackson asked Lee to authorize $1 million in cash to be brought to the ranch. Lee refused, but Jackson obtained the money by other means. Lee found out about it only when a $20,000 bill came for an armored truck.

Jackson, in turn, sent Lee to Geneva to check out yet another voodoo doctor, whose specialty was pulling money out of thin air. At the Hôtel d’Angleterre, the voodoo man produced a show of sound, lights, and pigeons before leading his visitors one at a time into the bathroom, where the tub was full of cash amounting, he claimed, to $50 million. When they asked where it had come from, he said, “The U.S. Federal Reserve.” There was just one catch: all this money would disappear unless Michael Jackson paid thousands of dollars for the blood of a number of fowl and small animals for yet another ritual. The sacrificial animals were already assembled at a location on the French-Swiss border, waiting to die to make Jackson’s wishes come true. Lee was horrified and left in disgust.

This is poppycock. It never happened. Orth’s far-fetched story of “a voodoo ritual in Switzerland” is simply not supported by the evidence, such as Michael Jackson’s well documented love of animals and abhorrence of violence or – more specifically – the extensive and detailed records of the Federal Office of Agriculture (FOAG) in Switzerland.

“In the summer of 2000,” when Orth claims this voodoo ritual took place, Switzerland and most of Europe was engaged in intense efforts to eradicate bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease.” BSE is a neurological disease that is fatal to infected cattle, and potentially fatal to the people who eat them. According to a report by the European Food Safety Administration (EFSA), the first confirmed case of BSE in cattle appeared in the UK in 1986 and then spread to Europe, probably through commercial cattle feed containing meat-bone meal from infected animals. Since that time, Switzerland has had 453 confirmed cases of BSE.

In 1996, a kind of “mad cow” hysteria swept Europe and the US after BSE was linked with a series of unexplained human deaths. As the EFSA report explains, these fears were fueled by

a media outbreak of apocalyptic scenarios sketching a man-made disaster of then unpredictable proportions. Health authorities were frantically acting to limit damage from BSE not only to human health, but also to agriculture, economies, political credibility and public confidence.

In response, many European countries, including Switzerland, implemented rigorous cattle identification and registration programs that track every cow from birth through slaughter and processing.

Given this background, I thought the FOAG might be able to provide insight into Orth’s wild claims of voodoo rituals involving animal sacrifice – specifically, the ritualized killing of 42 cows (not to mention the “fowl and small animals” that were allegedly gathered for sacrifice “on the French-Swiss border”). So I talked to some friends in Germany, and they contacted the FOAC. After some research, the FOAG informed them that they have no knowledge of an event such as Orth describes, nor any evidence indicating that such an event might have occurred.

So why would Orth believe such an outlandish story, and why would she want to begin her article this way – with a preposterous voodoo tale that casts doubt over her entire article? Susan Woodward addresses that question in her book, Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics, which devotes a chapter to Maureen Orth:

This is, in its way, the perfect scene with which to begin her article, incorporating white racial fear, violence and expenditures of hundreds of thousands of dollars, themes that run throughout the article.

In other words, Orth believed this story because she was predisposed to believe it, and because she wanted to believe it. It aligns with underlying cultural and racial biases, and in many ways seems to encapsulate how she sees Michael Jackson – as someone who embodied a frightening otherness. In fact, she presents him as so completely Other that at times he seems scarcely human. Susan explains this fear of his difference more fully in her book, and in a post we did a few weeks ago where she talks about her book.

But where did this bizarre and deeply racist story that Michael Jackson engaged in voodoo practices come from? Orth’s sole source seems to be Myung-Ho Lee, who served for a short time as Michael Jackson’s business adviser before being fired for fraud and incompetence. Myung-Ho Lee then filed a $12 million lawsuit for breach of contract, and Michael Jackson’s lawyers counter-sued, saying Lee had “stolen millions.”

As Susan points out in her book,

In addition to the obvious fact that Lee’s lawsuit would render him a questionable source, the story of the voodoo rites is contradictory to everything known about Jackson, who loved animals, was a vegetarian for many years and had a decades long grounding in a Christian church.

Ironically, the original source of this story may have been Michael Jackson himself, as Susan goes on to explain:

The actual inspiration for Lee’s story of the voodoo ceremonies may be something that Jackson himself said to journalist J. Randy Taraborrelli in 1995, in expressing his enormous frustration with the media’s fabricated or wildly inaccurate stories about him: “Why not just tell people I’m an alien from Mars. Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They’ll believe anything you say …”

Importantly, in this quotation Michael Jackson refers to voodoo mockingly – not as someone who seriously believes in it. In fact, he uses it as an extreme example of just how gullible some journalists and their readers could be. And he was right. Lee’s wild stories of voodoo rituals were believed by a lot of people, including Maureen Orth and her editors at Vanity Fair.

This is not the only time Myung-Ho Lee misled Orth into reporting false stories. For example, in March 2004 Vanity Fair published an article titled “Neverland’s Lost Boys,” in which Orth implied that Michael Jackson intoxicated a 13-year-old boy, Richard Matsuura, with wine served in soda cans. It also said that Matsuura’s father became so upset when he found out that he cancelled plans for an amusement park development project. Once again Orth’s source was Myung-Ho Lee, and once again the story is untrue.

In an interview with Mike Taibbi, Richard Matsuura denounced the story as “completely false.” (At the time of the interview, he was 18 years old and a college student.) Importantly, he says Orth did not contact either him or his father for verification before publishing this story about them. Here is Taibbi’s segment for NBC News:

As Taibbi reports, “Matsuura says Jackson never said or did anything inappropriate in the four days he spent in his company.” According to Taibbi, NBC News interviewed Matsuura’s father as well and he corroborated his son’s statements.

NBC News also contacted Maureen Orth, who Taibbi describes as “one of the recognized experts on the Jackson saga,” and she said she “stands by her source for the story,” Myung-Ho Lee. Vanity Fair then issued a statement saying they had contacted Lee, and he said, “I’ve read the Vanity Fair article. I stand by everything I said in the article.” However, following NBC’s broadcast of the Matsuura interview, Vanity Fair deleted all mention of him from the online version of Orth’s article.

These are simply two examples of Orth’s sloppy research, her willingness to believe sordid stories about Michael Jackson with very little research or skepticism, and Vanity Fair‘s willingness to print those stories without corroborating evidence. There are many other examples.

For example, later in the “Losing His Grip” article, Orth claims he was missing his nose and wore a prosthesis instead. As she wrote, “One person who has seen him without the device says he resembles a mummy with two nostril holes.” This is patently false, as verified by the autopsy report following his death.

However, this rumor was disproven long before he died, when his face was examined by representatives of The Daily Mirror in November 1998. Susan and I talked about this in our post a few weeks ago. According to a BBC report about the incident, the Mirror had published an article about him in June 1992, saying he was “hideously disfigured by extensive plastic surgery” and that he had “a hole in his nose, one cheek higher than the other and a sagging chin.” Michael Jackson sued, and later met with Mirror representatives who examined his face. According to a November 10, 1998, article in Variety,

Jackson reportedly allowed himself to be examined without makeup for 40 minutes in a suite at the Universal Hilton in Los Angeles in the company of doctors and lawyers for both sides of the case.

Afterwards, “Mirror Group Newspapers and the paper’s former editor Richard Stott acknowledged that Michael Jackson was neither hideously disfigured nor scarred,” according to the BBC. This was in November 1998, yet Orth was still promoting false rumors about his nose more than four years later.

So what can we do?

One option is to contact Vanity Fair and politely and respectfully inform them that the voodoo story at the beginning of Maureen Orth’s April 2003 article, “Losing His Grip,” is factually incorrect, deeply racist, and sensationalistic – and there are numerous other inaccuracies in her articles as well. (If you’d like to do your own fact checking, this page at Vanity Fair‘s website lists all of Maureen Orth’s articles on Michael Jackson. It also provides a brief overview and a link to each one.)

Vanity Fair requests that readers contact them through email. As they say in their latest issue, “Send all editorial, business, and production correspondence electronically to vfmail@vf.com.” They don’t provide a mailing address for editorial correspondence.

Another option is to contact Snopes.com, a popular site for checking urban myths, and tell them the Vanity Fair voodoo story is untrue. Here’s a link to an online form for submitting information to them. Unfortunately, Snopes itself contains a lot of misinformation about Michael Jackson. Like Wikipedia, most of its information is provided by readers, so the quality of its entries varies a lot. Correcting all the misinformation on Snopes could be – and probably should be – a series of action items in itself.

If you decide to contact Vanity Fair (or Snopes), here are some talking points you may want to consider:

  • Records at the Federal Office of Agriculture in Switzerland do not support Orth’s claim that a witchdoctor sacrificed 42 cows on behalf of Michael Jackson. Vanity Fair can verify this independently if they’d like, using contact information available on the FOAG’s website.
  • The voodoo story appears to be part of a pattern of sloppy and sensationalized reporting in Orth’s articles on Michael Jackson. Her articles frequently include misleading, exaggerated, or highly suspect claims that are later shown to be false.
  • Orth’s sole source for the voodoo story seems to be Myung-Ho Lee, and this is not the only time Lee told Orth an untrue story: Lee was also behind the Richard Matsuura story. Matsuura himself later told NBC News the story was “completely false,” and his father denied it as well.

You may also want to suggest that quietly removing the false voodoo story, as they did with the Richard Matsuura story, is not sufficient. Vanity Fair needs to correct some of the damage they’ve done by publicly acknowledging and correcting these falsehoods. Journalistic integrity demands it.

As we mentioned last week, we don’t want to put anyone in an awkward or uncomfortable position. However, if you are willing to contact Vanity Fair, we may be able to convince them to report on Michael Jackson more professionally in the future, and maybe fix some of the damage they’ve done in the past.

Note: We wanted to tell everyone about a fascinating new article by Lubov Fadeeva, a professional dancer and choreographer who specializes in flamenco dancing. Fadeeva views dance through its ancient origins as a sacred ritual, and she brings that perspective to her appreciation of Michael Jackson as a dancer, calling him a “shaman of the great stage.” As she says, “When Michael Jackson hit the stage, he danced in ecstasy.” It is, quite simply, the best article I’ve ever read about Michael Jackson and dance. We’ve added Fadeeva’s article to our Reading Room, along with a 30th anniversary article about “We are the World” that includes some really fun behind-the-scenes video clips.