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Michael Jackson, Leaving Neverland and the significance of bias

Pop Culture Psychology  ·  Apr 9 2019

The american singer, songwriter and dancer Michael Jackson passed away on June 25, 2009. Following the announcement of his passing, it was pretty much impossible to avoid hearing his name or seeing his face whenever you had the television on. I was 16 years old then, and that was the first time I was ever curious about this man. My parents were very aware of him, but neither was a fan. Shortly after, my dad saw a pack of two of his albums on sale – Thriller and Off The Wall – and bought them for me. It made sense, seeing as I had always been a big pop music fan. At some point after that, I ended up buying the albums Dangerous and Invincible.

To be honest, I was never actually a fan. My streaming records would probably only show considerable numbers for the songs “Man In The Mirror”, “I’ll Be There”, “Ben”, “Black and White”, “ABC”, “I Want You Back” and “Scream”. I’m sure I listened to the albums I own from the first to the last track when I got them, but I haven’t listened to the majority of them since.

I’ve always thought he had an interesting story, even if his career was never something I paid attention to. As an exchange (high school) student in the United States, I had a Biology teacher who was a big fan. He used to give our class bonus questions on exams about Jackson’s songs, which entertained me immensely (and certainly helped my grades). I remember buying a book about him then, and a quick Amazon search shows me it might have been “Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, 1958-2009” by J. Randy Taraborrelli. I don’t remember anything specific about the book, other than that it was massive, and so I had no space for it in my luggage when I went back home. I’m unsure if it included any type of information about the criminal trial he had been through a few years prior. I do know I had read about it, and had a general idea of why he was considered innocent.

This backstory about my knowledge regarding Michael Jackson, his career and his criminal trial is highly relevant to this post because I’ll be talking about bias. Understanding where I stand in the fanatic spectrum might give you a general idea of what my own biases are. For that reason, it is also important to note that I am a 26 year old woman that was born and raised in Brazil. I am white, and from a state that was mostly colonized by Germans.

In January of 2019, a documentary about two cases of alleged child sexual abuse by Michael Jackson was released at Sundance Film Festival, titled “Leaving Neverland”. It was directed by Dan Reed, and it starred two accusers, Wade Robson and James “Jimmy” Safechuck.

Having grown up as a big Britney Spears fan, I had a general idea of who Wade Robson was. He choreographed my favorite tour of hers, “Dream Within a Dream”, and as a child I must have watched its DVD over a hundred times. When she broke up with Justin Timberlake, he released a song called “Cry Me a River”, and rumor has it the inspiration behind it was an affair Britney had with Wade. I didn’t know any of this back then, but these rumors were unavoidable for a fan through the years. I was aware Wade had been a witness for Michael Jackson’s defense on his trial, and that was the end of any knowledge I had about him until 2019.

When I first heard of a new documentary being released, I thought nothing of it. He had been through a criminal trial and wasn’t convicted, and he passed away years ago. However, the social media reaction to its premiere was something I wouldn’t have expected: influential people from all over the world, including actors, musicians, directors, and journalists were now convinced Michael Jackson was guilty of child sexual abuse. I wondered what new evidence this documentary had uncovered that hadn’t been found on the numerous years of investigations against the singer, so, naturally, I watched it. And, to my utter amazement, the answer was… none.

Because I tend to spend a lot of my free time browsing through Twitter, this subject became one of extreme interest to me. Why was I not convinced by the documentary, when so many people didn’t seem to need any other information in order to convict a man on the court of public opinion? More than the sentence that has been given to him by the entertainment industry, I was intrigued by the type of reaction people were tweeting: other than express their sorrow for the alleged victims, or declare support for their bravery to come forward, a lot of them were condemning those who remained unconvinced by the documentary. Because I actually fit this specific group, I tried to understand why someone would condemn me for not believing in something that, to my brain, just made no sense. I read a lot, I was never a fan and I don’t consider myself a complete ignorant. So what was the problem? Had those people found some important information I was unaware of? Why was I immediately distrustful of what was presented to me in the documentary? I couldn’t immediately think of the answers, so I decided to research.

I started by trying to interpret the documentary’s narrative. The details of Robson’s and Safechuck’s sexual abuse were of no interest to me, and I blocked them out as best as I could. I focused instead on the stories surrounding them, such as where and how it began, how often it happened, when it stopped. I didn’t try to interpret their facial expressions, their movements, the words they chose or anything of the sort – I am not a body language expert, and those seem to often contradict one another in high profile cases. I wouldn’t automatically take that into consideration anyway, and I was more interested in understanding how I arrived at my own conclusion after watching the documentary and then reading Robson’s and Safechuck’s depositions about the same subject. I wanted to know which facts my brain had automatically deemed more important and why, which brings us back to the significance of bias.

Specialist Jasmine Gartner (2008) defines unconscious bias:

“Unconscious bias, simply put, is an automatic mental shortcut that helps us wade through the millions of bits of information coming at us at any given time. If we had to think about everything every time, we would do nothing else. Unconscious bias tells us what to ignore (what the brain has learned to interpret as safe) and what to pay attention to (the unexpected that may be dangerous).”

As you know, I had originally accepted the court ruling that Michael Jackson was innocent of child sexual abuse, specifically of the accusations of Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo. I was, therefore, analyzing the movie and the depositions through a perspective that people were capable of lying under oath in order to get money. That alone prompted me to read more about the cases, without immediately taking the alleged victims words for what had happened.

Truth is, regardless of whether you believe Robson and Safechuck were abused or not, there are plenty of statements they made on their documentary and their depositions that don’t withstand scrutiny. They’ve been caught in “little lies”, which have been debunked in many videos on Youtube, on fan websites (most of which offer valid sources for their information) and a few big articles here and there. None of them are directly related to their respective abuses, but to the circumstances surrounding them, as well as the 2005 trial. Within the movie, there are timelines that do not match. For instance, Safechuck claims he had repressed the memories related to his abuse, and did not remember any of it until 2013. Still, he says he refused to testify on Jackson’s favor in 2005. This isn’t unreasonable, it would have made sense for him to unconsciously know something was wrong even if he did not remember why – the human brain can be tricky, to say the least. He stated he offered his mother an explanation back then by saying “Jackson was a bad man”, and left it at that. That sentence alone would have led his mother to the conclusion he was molested before he realized it himself, which would explain why she was elated when the singer died. Problem is, Safechuck couldn’t have been contacted to testify, because the judge had ruled him a non-entity months before the trial (Sources: 01, 02). That means the defense attorneys and private investigator Scott Ross would not have contacted him to begin with. Why would Safechuck offer an explanation for his refusal if he hadn’t refused to anything? And if he never said anything to his mother, then how did she know Jackson was guilty before her son remembered it?

Safechuck’s story also has a massive timeline issue. In the documentary, he stated he was sexually abused on the 2nd floor of the Neverland train station during the “honeymoon phase” of his “relationship” with Jackson. It is common knowledge that phase takes place in the beginning of a relationship, and, for Safechuck, that would have been sometime around 1988, according to both the movie and his deposition. Eye witnesses have come forward to say there was never a bed in the station, but I’m giving Safechuck the benefit of the doubt, seeing as there’s no proof of anything. There could have been a bed there back then, I don’t know. Even still, Safechuck’s train station story has a massive problem: the train station wasn’t there. It has now been proved that station we often see in videos and pictures of the Neverland Ranch wasn’t built until 1994. That’s six years after the “honeymoon phase” of his abuse. Even if I cut him some slack because he was a child and could have gotten the dates wrong (maybe it didn’t happen during the “honeymoon phase” after all? It could have been later?), he says on both the movie and his deposition that his abuse ended in 1992. That’s two years before the train station was even there. So was the painfully detailed account of the abuse that allegedly took place in that specific room a false memory, or was it just a lie?

When it comes to Wade Robson, his claims are just as convoluted. He says he agreed to be Jackson’s first defense witness in 2005 because he was not aware he had been abused. To my knowledge, this does occur with child sexual abuse survivors – they are groomed and led to believe what they are doing is normal. However, looking into Robson’s depositions regarding Michael Jackson, I noticed he wasn’t just asked to confirm whether or not he had been abused. He was asked detailed questions of what Jackson had or had not done to him, such as “did he kiss you?” and “did he touch you here?”. I would personally assume a child or an adult who was under the impression that behavior was pure would not feel the need to lie in order to answer these questions. However, Robson said he felt threatened. He said Jackson convinced him their careers would be over if he ever said anything. I could see this working on a child, but would it not contradict the narrative that it was normal and that he had nothing to fear? Perhaps a child would not understand this. But when Robson served as a witness on the 2005 trial, he was 22 years old. He also claims he was first abused when his family left him in Jackson’s care so that they could go on a trip to the Grand Canyon. However, his own mother contradicts this in one of her depositions, in which she claims Wade was in that trip with his family.

Another flaw of Robson’s narrative is that Michael Jackson groomed him not to trust or like women. However, Jackson introduced Robson to his niece, Jermaine Jackson’s daughter Brandi Jackson, who went on to date Robson through most of their teenage years.

These are just examples of why some people, myself included, were not so quick to believe Robson’s and Safechuck’s accusations. Then how come many other people were?

A common affirmation I’ve seen on Twitter regarding this subject is something along the lines of “He’s obviously guilty. I’ve always known this”. What have those people always known that the others didn’t? Besides a myriad of bizarre rumors that don’t make much sense when combined with the 2005 trial (which ended up looking into both Gavin Arvizo and Jordan Chandler cases) and the FBI investigation that lasted years, I’ve seen nothing. They often bring up the following issues: “Michael Jackson liked to sleep with little children”, “The police found child pornography in Neverland”, “Jordan Chandler accurately described Michael Jackson’s genitalia in 1993” to support their “obviously guilty” claims.

First of all, the act of sleeping next to a child, on its own, is most definitely not an evidence of any crime. Specially if you take into account the fact that Jackson was raised in a small house with all of his siblings, whom he shared a bed with through his childhood. Unless you look at it through a pedophilia lens, it makes sense he would consider this a loving act rather than something dirty, of which he should be ashamed of. That would explain why he openly talked about it and defended his stance that it wasn’t wrong, even though it was largely frowned upon. Would I let any child sleep with an adult that was not related to them? Never. I know even relatives present a risk. I would rather shelter a child from a vulnerable situation, but I still don’t believe it is fair to condemn someone for something I wasn’t there to witness (a sentence that, of course, defends Michael Jackson of the child sexual abuse accusations and simultaneously helps all of his accusers). It proves nothing.

In regards to the “child pornography” that people claim to have been found in Neverland, you’ll find a thorough analysis of the material here. Nothing illegal was ever found in his possession, which is why he was never charged. About Jordan Chandler’s description of Jackson’s genitalia, had it been correct, Scott Ross says Jackson would have been arrested on the spot (01). Moreover, Chandler drew a circumcised penis, and Jackson’s autopsy revealed that could not have been accurate (01). Logically speaking, had the drawing been correct, why would the prosecution not have used it as evidence during the 2005 trial? The judge had already allowed for evidence from 1993 to be considered, and yet the prosecution itself moved to get the drawing dismissed.

I could go on and on about all the inconsistencies with every accusation – you’ll find many more if you look into the stories. That’s not really the point of my post.

I believe the main culprit behind people’s blind belief for both the accusers or Jackson might have something to do with different types of bias – mainly confirmation bias, Groupthink and The Bandwagon Effect, and anchoring bias.

Teo Choong Ching (2016), defines “confirmation bias”:

“The often unconscious act of referencing only those perspectives that fuel our pre-existing views, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing opinions — no matter how valid — that threaten our world view.”

This could be applied to both sides of the spectrum in cases like this. Looking through the lens of innocence, my brain could be filtering out important information that would change my perspective. It instead focuses on details that contribute to the conclusion I have already reached. It could also explain why many people instantly believed the accusers, and why some of them felt “it was obvious he was a pedophile”. Years of false evidence being thrown around in the media, Jackson’s relatively odd appearance, the “mysterious” reason why his skin went from black to white (he had a condition called Vitiligo), and his generally reserved personality, most definitely contributed to that assessment.

Another important bias I seem to recognize in this situation is known as the “Groupthink” and the “Bandwagon Effect”, defined by Teo Choong Ching (2016):

“The phenomenon of groupthink is closely related with the Bandwagon Effect. People working in a group tend to maintain harmony between members of the group. To attain harmony, the members may agree upon a decision that deviates from the correct decision. Thus, for the sake of avoiding conflict, members agree upon a point without critical evaluation.”

As I previously mentioned, countless public figures publicly stated their opinions following the airing of “Leaving Neverland” on HBO – many of them not only expressed their support, but also condemned those who did not believe the accusers. They went so far as to discredit the skeptical as being “delusional fans”, and have since started to call them “Jackson truthers”. When a person has no knowledge of the situation and no interest in doing any research on the subject, it makes complete sense they would accept the judgement of people they admire instead. Plus, if so many people believe it, then I guess it must be true? The reality is researching takes time. This is a delicate subject – no decent person wants to accidentally defend a pedophile. Many people could not care less about pop culture, and I can see how they’d hear about these accusations and figure there must be truth to them.

Lastly, I believe the “anchoring bias” has also played its part in this narrative. Once again defined by Teo Choong Ching (2016):

“During decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor.”

Many people decided back in 1993 that Michael Jackson was guilty of child sexual abuse. Rather than looking into the following claims individually, they apply their judgement of the first accusation to all the others. By doing so, they miss specific details that could change their perspective. For example, it is a common belief that Michael Jackson paid “hush money” to the Chandler family in order to get them to drop their criminal case against him and avoid a trial. However, multiple professionals involved with the case have clarified many times through the years that Jackson settled a civil suit in order to avoid exposing his defense strategy before the criminal suit, for which he could be convicted and go to jail. If the prosecution was allowed to see the defense’s evidence before the criminal trial, they’d have the chance to adjust their claims accordingly. Jackson’s attorneys made an effort to have the judge look into the criminal suit before the civil suit, but their requests were rejected. The settlement itself contains a clarification that it is not an admission of guilt, and that the Chandlers could still move forward with their criminal case. They chose not to.

I am in no way condemning anyone for their position with this essay, and I hope I’ve made this clear. What I wanted to convey is why people look at the “Leaving Neverland” documentary differently, and why it is unfair to attack either side for their positions. None of us were in the room with Michael Jackson and Jordan Chandler, Gavin Arvizo, Wade Robson or James Safechuck. None of these men ever offered any irrefutable proof their abuses occurred. Do they have to? Outside a court of law, I guess they don’t. But since they have not, attacking someone for being unconvinced is rather strange. It could be interpreted as a presumption of superiority – you say your opinion is more valuable than mine, and yet you can provide no evidence of such.

Many skeptical people have indeed watched the documentary. They have done their research. They did hear and consider the claims, and they do take them seriously. Many of them are not and have never been Michael Jackson fans. Is it fair to dismiss their opinions as though they are completely invalid?

What we know so far is that all of the accusers have been caught in lies that, to some people, have undermined their testimonies. When it comes to Robson and Safechuck, it has also caused the judge to dismiss their lawsuit. It is common sense that lies affect trust, and I find it impossible not to wonder “if they are telling the truth, how come their stories are so inconsistent?”. I remain unconvinced. I have not judged people who can somehow look past their contradictory statements and still wholeheartedly believe the accusers, but, given all the information I’ve been exposed to over the past few months, I do not think it is fair of these people to judge me for not believing in them, either.