„Nobody fact-checks anything anymore“ – Michael Jackson as an early model for the fake news industry
This blog is like an encyclopedia of all the wrong stories, misrepresentations, half-truths and outright lies on Michael Jackson. We (along with a few other MJ blogs) have tried to address and examine all fake stories and never proven allegations, which lead to a completely misrepresented caricature and distorted personality of Jackson in the media.
We do this research and vindication work since Michael’s death in 2009, but the year 2016 for the first time suddenly brought a “new” global phenomenon to the consciousness of our societies which is well-known to MJ advocates for decades: fake news.
Michael Jackson as the ultimate testing ground for fake news
There are numerous examples of fake news on Michael Jackson, beginning in the early 1980ies with the stories of the hyperbaric chamber he allegedly slept in, or buying the bones of the “Elephant Man”. One of the most absurd stories was the voodoo piece of Maureen Orth in Vanity Fair in 2003, in which she claimed MJ had sacrificed 42 cows to put a voodoo curse on his enemies.
It’s incredible this false story is still online today, but let’s see it as a proof for actually existing fake stories with which the media make a fool of themselves.
The first stories were mainly spread in gossip tabloids and the yellow press, but later the fake stories entered the mainstream media, and a zealous copy-and-paste business became common all over the mass media. When the claims of sexual abuse began, salacious stories promised high ratings and millions of dollars, and journalists and editors didn’t care about lies. Fact-checking was out, especially in the case of a celebrity who many readers or viewers believed to have lived a “bizarre” life.
Another example is the hoax of a video tape about Michael allegedly molesting one of his nephews, invented by Victor Gutierrez and promoted by Diane Dimond. Both of them were sued by Jackson. For further details see here and here.
For the unrestrained behaviour of the media and how they distorted the facts during the molestation trial in 2005 please watch this video of Deborah Kunesh with excerpts from the film “The trials of Michael Jackson” of Dana Gedrick and Barry Shaw. Or see this post.
During the trial numerous examples of misinformation happened some of which are described in the film. Media members can be seen trying to put words into the mouths of their interview partners, answering their questions themselves, prerecording reports on the verdict before it was even returned, making fun of Michael Jackson and witnesses, reporting one-sidedly testimonies of the prosecution witnesses and omitting cross-examinations.
Best described is the media’s behaviour during the trial by Charles Thomson’s article in The Huffington Post.
The era of post-truth already began with Michael Jackson. What the media did with Jackson – creating a whole new person and life with Jackson’s name, that had nothing to do with his real life – was the most appalling deformation of a personality the world ever saw. In fact, Michael Jackson became a prototype for the media to produce fake news and to experiment how fake news works. It became a very successful experiment because Jackson never managed to get rid of the image the media created of him.
Even today, almost 8 years after his death, it is still possible to spread the most horrible fake stories about him, considering the campaign of Robson/Safechuck and their lawyers.
As a result of this campaign we have to face “articles” like the one of Linda Stasi in the New York Daily Mail which was addressed by Raven Woods in her recent Huffington Post article.
Stasi is exactly that kind of “journalist” who turned journalism completely into fiction. She violates all journalistic demands and ethics by using expressions gushing of hate and telling lies that overstep all limits. She presents not one single piece of evidence or fact (of course she can’t!) in her tissue of lies, it’s only full of false accusations based on her personal opinion. She not only behaves like the media in 2005 when they didn’t wait for the outcome of the trial and convicted Michael before any facts were presented, but she includes additional lies like these about the Chandler case:
Lie: “Jackson first spotted the 13-year-old boy at the boy’s stepfather’s Rent-A-Wreck operation in Los Angeles. Jackson had disguised himself and come in to rent a used car of all things.”
Truth: Neither “spotted” Jackson the boy there (he was not there!), because owner Dave Schwartz specifically called his wife June and told her to come over with Jordie and her daughter to meet Jackson, nor was Jackson “disguised” when his car broke down and he came to Rent-A-Wreck for a replacement vehicle, as he was recognized immediately by the employees. See Mary Fischer’s well-researched report.
Lie: “Within weeks, the mother and her children were “enjoying” sleepovers at the ranch.”
Truth: It took at least 8 months until the Chandlers came to the ranch for the first time. The first meeting at Rent-A-Wreck was in May 1992 and the first Neverland invitation to June Chandler and her children was in late January 1993. In the time between Michael was on the first leg of his Dangerous Tour (June to December 1992).
Lie: “Eventually the boy broke down and told his father that Jackson had been abusing him.”
Truth: The boy never told the abuse story on his own volition and at first repeatedly denied any abuse, but only “eventually broke down” after he received a controversial drug by his father in his dental practice.
Lie: “The dad, Evan Chandler, a dentist-to-the-stars and a screenwriter who co-wrote “Robin Hood Men in Tights” with Mel Brooks, called the cops.”
Truth: Evan Chandler never called the cops – show me the police report, Ms. Stasi! Instead he went to a lawyer to check out his possibilities for extortion.
Lie: “Within a few weeks the father was jumped in his office garage and beaten to a pulp.” (suggesting it was someone of Jackson’s side)
Truth: Evan Chandler was beaten by a paparazzi with a camera who tried to “slow him down” and “smacked him in the back of the head”, as told by his brother Ray Chandler in a CNN interview.
She even tells the grotesque, ridiculous story hinted by Robson’s lawyers suggesting that Michael Jackson hired someone to kill his nephews’ mother Delores. “A female member of the Jackson clan who had thrown Michael out of her house” told her about it? Her of all people? And who should that “female member of the Jackson clan” be? Why didn’t she tell it to the authorities when Delores died? Why does she only regret not having written an article instead of not having told it to Sneddon or the police? And why does she come up with this hateful and malicious fake story now?
Today’s fake news industry
But this is exactly the crucial point: Today it seems easier than ever to spread fake news because the people believe everything they read. People unlearned how to fact-check, they lost their common sense, they became irrational and cannot distinguish anymore between lie and truth. They are not interested anymore in fact-checking because they only want to read what fits in their own world view. This is at least what some media themselves have noticed during the last year.
This article of the Washington Post explains the serious situation. The Washington Post had a special column since 2014 to debunk internet hoaxes, but had to close this column now because the number of hoaxes became so huge that it didn’t make sense anymore and due to the huge willingness of people to believe fake news. Some excerpts:
“There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.
…Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
…At which point does society become utterly irrational? Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities? “What Was Fake” has had a good run, but the nature of Internet misinformation has changed — so as the year winds up, we’re going to change, as well. Thanks for reading over the past year and a half!”
The Washington Post asks “at which point does society become utterly irrational?”. The answer is quite easy: It happened at a point years ago when readers and audiences were served with the craziest and most absurd lies about Michael Jackson by the media itself, by journalists and editors and authors who wanted the society to believe any irrational nonsense they could find.
Meanwhile fake news writing became a big business. The Paul Horner mentioned in the above article has created an empire of it and even admits to make a living of posting fake news. That’s what he said in an interview:
“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.“
“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.”
All of us probably have heard hoax stories like the paid Anti-Trump protestors coming to Austin/Texas in buses, or the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, and we all have seen in the “Pizzagate” case what dramatic consequences these lies can have.
But the fake news industry not only spreads in the US, it became a global business.
This article tells that Macedonia became a haven for websites dealing with pro-Trump fake news. Young Macedonians found out they can make profit from the US elections by creating fake news sites on Facebook:
“I started the site for a easy way to make money,” said a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people. “In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money. I’m a musician but I can’t afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things.”
This is an example how fake news even can generate serious diplomatic complications. It became known as the “Lisa case” and is based on a lie about refugees having raped a Russian-German girl. Even after police and the girl herself had debunked the claim, the Russian TV state channel Russia Today as well as several right-wing networks maintained the allegation.
Another recent fake story was spread by Breitbart London, claiming that a 1000-man mob of Muslims attacked the police in the German city of Dortmund and vandalized and set fire to a church on this New Year’s Eve. The Breitbart author completely distorted the original report of a local journalist to stir up hate against foreigners and to create an image of chaos.
The media is reaping what it has sown
The fact that the people don’t trust mainstream media anymore and rather believe internet lies is what the media itself achieved with their way of reporting, with their copy-and-paste journalism, with putting ratings over facts, particularly in the US and Great Britain. The mainstream media have to blame themselves for the results we see now: That fake news is very successful and has a major impact on many levels.
We now have the internet and social networks where fake news, conspiracy theories and smear campaigns are spreading most and fastest, where people go to to “inform” themselves, where they meet in groups to fuel hate among each other and create a bubble so that no outside information comes in. But the traditional media themselves paved the way for the people to look for these “bubbles” and to ignore facts. Mainstream media didn’t encourage people to think for themselves, didn’t encourage them to look deeper into facts, wanted the people only to be consumers and believe what they are told. Facts are out since a long time when mainstream media began to compete with each other about ratings instead of facts.
Unfortunately now the serious journalists who always did a thorough job are suffering the most from this development. They are the ones who are now called “lie press” (a term once used by the German Nazis in the 1930ies – “Lügenpresse” – and now used again in Germany by extreme right-wing protesters to discredit the mainstream media). Journalists now have the problem that they are no longer believed, although we need them for an accurate coverage of events. We still depend on trustworthy journalists because we need thorough and investigative reporting now more than ever to expose fake news and establish accurate journalistic work.
They definitely should have distanced themselves more from the tabloid-style coverage in the past and should have stood up more against the kind of journalism that lead to the incredibility of the media, now they are all put together under the same umbrella and are called liars.
One of the most reputable journalists in Germany, Giovanni di Lorenzo (chief editor of the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”), gave a speech on February 28, 2016, on the issue of the lost trust in the media and was very self-critical. He mentioned the “scandalization and tabloidization of reporting” as the first of four reasons why people lost confidence in the mainstream media.
This is what he said – and I think his words not only apply to German media:
“In the competition for the attention of the reader or viewer many media ran hotter and hotter. The exuberance turned into a scandalization and tabloidization of reporting also in previously reputable media. The sensations escalated: Kachelmann allegedly a rapist! Guttenberg has plagiarized! Wulff is corrupt! Schavan also plagiarized! Hoeness has evaded taxes! Alice Schwarzer also! Edathy peeps child porn! And: Di Lorenzo has voted twice! [remark: cases of German celebrities being scandalized by the media]. The excitement swept up in the most absurd details: In the case of Christian Wulff for example an important publisher officially submitted the question: Is it true that Christian Wulff wanted to buy lower grade students for his election into the student council at his high school in Osnabrück with After Eight chocolate?
If we put people under such scrutiny: Who is able to withstand this? Who among us would? A look at society like that does not demonstrate a moral compass, it is the contrary: the new edition of the medieval pillory. I think we as media often take it far too easy when dividing the world into “good” and “evil”, and thus follow the desire for skyrocketing numbers of clicks or the rapid sale at the kiosk, rather than forming a counterbalance to hysteria that builds up in the net. Is this really what we want to see as the task of the “fourth estate”? Whether the allegations – as in many of these cases – were justified or, as it turned out later, unjustified in some: If headlines are teeming with exclamation marks, reporting is already equal to a conviction. So it cannot seriously be surprising that the mistrust and malice that we have constantly sown, now fall back on ourselves. We should therefore more urgently than ever ask ourselves which role we want to play as journalists in this society. Do we want to increase excitement, fuel hunts and stoke hysteria? Or do we want to do the exact opposite which I advocate strongly?
The constant scandalization for trivial reasons depoliticizes societies in the long run. It repels more than it creates loyalty towards the medium. Above all, it increasingly blurs the distinction between important and unimportant, it leads to the fatalistic attitude “It’s all bad.” ” (my translation)
This editor understood which mistakes the media have made in the past, and we have to acknowledge that some are aware of it now and are ready to take steps for a change. We indeed already can observe that some media remember their values and start with a more accurate fact-checking. But how can the development of misinformation in the social networks be turned back? Since we as individuals are part of these networks, it is up to us now to a large extent!
Ignorance and agnotology
There is another aspect to the issue of fake news: Ignorance and agnotology, as pointed out in this article. Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, studies the spread of ignorance and created a word for the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.
Agnotology (formerly agnatology) is the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. (Wiki)
“Agnotology is as important today as it was back when Proctor studied the tobacco industry’s obfuscation of facts about cancer and smoking. For example, politically motivated doubt was sown over US President Barack Obama’s nationality for many months by opponents until he revealed his birth certificate in 2011. In another case, some political commentators in Australia attempted to stoke panic by likening the country’s credit rating to that of Greece, despite readily available public information from ratings agencies showing the two economies are very different.
Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.
“This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.””
This “balance routine” is also what happened repeatedly in the case of Michael Jackson. A number of documentaries or books presented “two sides of the story” and thus purported to deliver a “balanced” view, for example by interviewing adversaries and friends of Jackson and presenting both sides. But what does it help for the truth to present the view of a Diane Dimond or a Victor Gutierrez whose statements are not based on proven facts, but on lies? This leads to a completely “false picture of the truth, hence ignorance” of the facts.
“Balance routine” is in fact a very common strategy used by the media to pretend a balanced approach to the matter. But it’s just a strategy to disguise their real intention. And their intention in Jackson’s case is to propagate that we will never know the truth, it can be one way or the other, so we don’t need to go to the bottom of it because we will never know anyway (but at least we have to talk about it).
As told in the article on Proctor, presenting two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. Not only in science, but also in events that actually happened, there cannot be one side or the other because there is only ONE TRUTH. The article says that “Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue.” We need to understand that there cannot be any balance between lies and truth and that we can expect from everybody to search for the only truth before he/she spreads an opinion in the media. This is important because truth is only one and lies are many, so truth only has little chance against the many lies.
“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.
Deliberate propagation of ignorance happened and still happens to Michael Jackson from the side of his haters and from the media, and it is what has to be exposed also in today’s media war.
In addition, the problem is that the expression “fake news” by now has become almost meaningless because it is also used by those who are the masters of misinformation. It is also used as a convenient slogan for everything that doesn’t suit the agenda of someone. And it is also used by conspiracy theorists who target mainstream media as a whole. We have even heard another expression now: “alternative facts”. To explore this issue in detail it would be necessary to look at the accurate definition and meaning of fake news and its different variations and motivations, which of course would require an extra post.
In my opinion we have researched and discussed the facts on Michael Jackson’s history at length and in detail. In principle there is no need to regurgitate the same facts again and again, unless we find new evidence or discoveries. I think a time has come to go beyond the vindication of Michael himself and learn from his story, draw conclusions and raise awareness for problems that affected not only Michael Jackson, but can affect all of us and the world as a whole. I am sure this is what Michael would have wanted and for what he fought himself.
When we look at the political situation we are in and look at the reasons for it, the issue of fake news is of high priority. There are studies and researches underway how fake news influences elections and political processes. The term “post-factual” was newly created to describe the ignorance of facts in society and politics. It means that people decide and vote and form an opinion just according to feelings and perceptions, but not on the basis of facts.
When election results in a country are based on this kind of news sources, democracy is at stake. When people are no longer interested in facts and don’t fact-check anymore, but believe what they want to believe, democracy is in extreme danger. And when people are not even interested in democracy anymore, we will relive the history of the first half of the last century. All the political achievements made in the last century after WW II, whether it’s democratic values, human rights, civil rights, equality policy, international relationships, will be in vain. We will fall back into very dark times. But it is us who decide how we are going to live. It is us who decide whether we will live in a world of truth or fake.
This is what we have to learn from Michael Jackson’s life story. He as an individual suffered immensely from fake news, and in the end died from it. If fake news pervades the whole society, we all will suffer from it and in the end society dies.
For a solution of the problem the only thing I can do is to repeat this comment of our Helena made in another post:
“The only way out I see from this impasse is helping people to learn to appreciate the truth in the same way we appreciate clean water and refuse to drink it when it’s dirty. People should understand that lies are poisonous and will turn their life into a complete chaos. And that a small grain of truth is better than a ton of lies, even if the truth is grim and sad, and lies are bright and entertaining.”