Arts & Culture » Television

Bashir's bash

Did you watch the lobotomy British journalist Martin Bashir performed the night of Feb. 6 on Michael Jackson on ABC's "20/20"? If you're like me, you tuned into the so-called documentary, "Living With Michael Jackson," knowing that the pop star would look like a specter of his former self, and sound all ethereal, like he always does. But the film, eight months in the making, also seemed to promise viewers something more - something beyond the tabloid stories that paste rumors onto bits of truth.

Instead of offering viewers anything meaningful, Bashir's 90-minute show simply recast Jackson as a dubious child molester, and an even more dubious baby maker, whose once glorious musical career now lay somewhere in an unmarked grave. (Even media grande dame Barbara Walters offered a wispy "so sad" in response to the show's dirgelike, creepy overtones.)

Mind you, Jackson didn't help matters by doing things like jabbing a baby bottle into a scarf covering his infant son's face, then jiggling the newborn so fiercely that father and son both appeared to be in the grip of an electrical surge. Also jolting, though, was Bashir's obvious growing disdain for Jackson as filming progressed. The shift wasn't visible on camera so much as during Bashir's voice-over - which begs the question of whether Jackson got a fair break in the editing room, and whether Bashir wantonly cold-cocked a media-beleaguered sitting duck.

Bashir, a high-profile journalist with Britain's ITV Network, came to the project with impressive credentials. He'd gained a reputation for fair, unbiased interviews with controversial subjects like the late Princess Diana (who, everybody knew, was right to dump Prince Charles) and British au pair Louise Woodward, who stirred international debate in the mid-'90s when she was found guilty in 1997 of murdering 8-month-old Matthew Eappen.

Bashir had a way with strained public figures and sensitive issues, which is how he won access to Jackson, who said in a Feb. 6 press statement that Bashir "persuaded me to trust him, [saying] his would be an honest and fair portrayal of my life" and that Bashir "told me that he was 'the man that turned Diana's life around.'"

Even if Bashir did tell Jackson that, the pop star was a fool to believe it, and he was an even bigger fool to think a single documentary - after years of altering his looks, numerous scandals about his sex life, and more recent concerns about his parenting - would lift the ragged veil that shrouds his image. Worse, Jackson's surreal denial when asked to fess up about plastic surgery probably convinced many people that one bald-faced lie (pun intended) begets another - ergo, his relationships with children.

Truly, the documentary could not have cast Jackson in a less flattering light - showing closeups of him clasping a young boy's hand while describing sleep-overs, but snatching his hand away from his daughter Paris to sign autographs (while scolding a nanny to keep his child in check). But a supposedly impartial Bashir didn't come off smelling like roses, either. Early in the filming, as he sought to win Jackson's confidence, Bashir oozed sympathy for the pop star's abusive childhood at his father's hands. Later, he attempted to climb Jackson's favorite tree at Neverland, and he was utterly charming and playful with Jackson's masked children.

But as Bashir grew more uncomfortable with Jackson's eccentric behavior, the famed journalist choked, taking on a staid reporter-as-skeptic persona. On camera, Bashir's affable manner became more reserved; off camera, his voice-overs cast the King of Pop as a misguided, mythical Smeagol/Gollum figure hissing, "My Preciousssss. . . ."

In the press statement, Jackson said he felt "more betrayed than perhaps ever before; that someone who had got to know my children, my staff and me, whom I let into my heart and told the truth, could then sacrifice the trust I placed in him and produce this terrible and unfair program." Surely Jackson knew such a predictable statement wouldn't undo any of the film's damage - which must account for why Jackson's own version of the documentary, "Michael Jackson, Take Two: The Interview They Wouldn't Show You," is scheduled to air on Feb. 20 on Fox TV.

What will Jackson's version reveal about Bashir - or himself? Your guess is as good as mine. One mistake Jackson can't undo pertains to the plastic-surgery remarks, which the networks seized on and lined up experts to swear before all that's holy that Jackson's face is a flesh puzzle - something we already knew and which won't go any further than Bashir in offering meaningful insight into Jackson's life or psyche.

Meantime, Jackson better hope his tit-for-tat program - which probably won't attract anywhere near the 27 million viewers who watched the first show - doesn't wind up tasting like more hair of the dog that bit him. Afefe Tyehimba writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]

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