- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

The eccentricity and possible criminality of Michael Jackson has become television's cottage industry.
Does he abuse children? How many times has he undergone plastic surgery? What's with this guy?
ABC came first, with Brit journalist Martin Bashir's titillating expose of the strange goings-on at Mr. Jackson's Neverland ranch, drawing a massive 27 million viewers.
NBC's "Dateline" followed suit, focusing on the metamorphoses of the pop singer's mug. ABC's "Primetime Thursday" flogged the same topic.
It's one of the stranger boomlets of coverage in TV history. Aside from the fact that it's sweeps month, why now? What did we learn that we didn't already know or suspect?
It's almost heartening that "Joe Millionaire" topped "Dateline's" offering of Jacksoniana.
Mr. Jackson issued an angry statement after the Bashir piece aired, claiming it had "recycled" old child abuse charges and created a false impression that he neglected his own children at a crowded Berlin zoo.
Of all networks, Fox not exactly known for taste and cultivation has leapt to the gloved one's defense. It broadcast its own two-hour special on Mr. Jackson on Thursday night, revealing footage from the ABC documentary "you were never meant to see."
Still more odd, Fox tapped Maury Povich, who has waded through more TV sleaze than anyone not named Jerry Springer, to serve as host of the Jackson apologia.
It was a stretch, to say the least, to have Mr. Povich bloviating about journalistic objectivity and integrity.
Using alternate footage of the Bashir interview that Mr. Jackson provided, set to a touchy-feely piano soundtrack, Fox tried to show the kinder, gentler no, that doesn't quite describe it. If Mr. Jackson were any gentler, he'd be shorn for wool.
Fox, at any rate, tried to make Mr. Jackson seem normal a tall order. As the footage wasn't originally meant for public consumption, he's shown at unflattering angles and, in several scenes, is seen sitting cross-legged on the floor like some Hindu ashram sage.
"Do you despair human nature?" Mr. Bashir asks.
"Yes," Mr. Jackson says, smiling queerly.
"Yes," he repeats, bemoaning the "mean-spirited jerks" of the world.
And this is the stuff Mr. Jackson wanted us to see.
Fox seems to have realized that Mr. Jackson's grotesquerie can't be airbrushed, so it turned to faithful Jackson defenders, including brother Jermaine and ex-wife Debbie Rowe, for a whiff of comparatively normal air.
The singer's makeup artist dutifully flacked for her boss, explaining how serious Mr. Jackson's pigmentation disease really is, and the severity of the burns he suffered in 1984 while filming a Pepsi commercial.
More than propping up Mr. Jackson, though, Fox tried to discredit Mr. Bashir, who made a name for himself through a 1995 interview with Princess Diana. He was heard praising Mr. Jackson for being so devoted to his children after the hairy incident in Berlin in which the singer seemed wholly unconcerned as a throng of fans descended on his entourage.
Also edited from ABC's documentary was Mr. Jackson's explanation of the Berlin flap: He said he thought the zoo was going to be closed to the public.
Mr. Bashir did, indeed, come off as manipulative and dishonest. Bravo to Fox for exposing the guy's methods, but does it change anything we saw on ABC? Is Mr. Jackson any less reprehensible for bathing in the adulation of his fans while his children almost get lost in a crush of people?
So what if he thought the zoo was going to be closed: Normal parents don't expose their children to that kind of danger, nor do they dangle them from hotel balconies.
Mr. Jackson's claim to have undergone only two plastic surgery operations is ridiculous on its face on his face. Hearing him explain this at greater length on Fox didn't make it any more believable.
As much as ABC and NBC have been swilling at the trough of tabloid journalism this month, Fox doesn't deserve a pat on the back for telling the other side of the story. The network was after ratings, pure and simple; all it lacked was a fresh storyline.
They got one from the embattled Mr. Jackson, who could just as easily defended himself by virtue of his own publicity machine. Mr. Jackson had no "editorial control" over Thursday's special, Fox repeatedly assured viewers, wisely anticipating the audience's inevitable reaction to two hours of puffery.
Such disclaimers couldn't mask the fact that the network that gave us "Joe Millionaire" was shilling for "Mike Millionaire."

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