Michael Jackson calls himself "The King of Pop" but he may never be royalty again in the court of public opinion, even if he is acquitted of the most serious of his child molestation charges, some experts say.
"What many people forget is that even if a jury finds you not guilty, it doesn't mean you didn't do anything," said Mike Paul, who is president of the public relations firm MGP & Associates and has taught reputation management as an adjunct professor at New York University. "From a court of public opinion point of view, even if he's acquitted, Michael Jackson may be an alleged pedophile that was found not guilty. Or from a legal standpoint, [if he is convicted of child molestation] Michael Jackson will become a convicted pedophile found guilty by jurors in a court of law. And in America, what he needs to understand is that only thing worse than being a rapist or a murderer is being [an accused] child molester."
Jackson, along with the rest of the nation, awaits the verdict of his molestation trial as jurors enter their third full day of deliberations today. Jackson, 46, is accused of molesting a now 15-year-old boy, who is a cancer survivor who spent time at Neverland ranch and appeared with him in the 2003 British documentary "Living With Michael Jackson."
Jurors are considering 10 charges against Jackson that include felony conspiracy with 28 overt acts involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. Jackson has denied all the charges, and his defense argued that the alleged victim and his family made up the allegations in an attempt to get money.
Trial Didn't Change Opinions -- on Either Side
For Jackson, the trial has been a chance to gain some vindication if he is acquitted and perhaps put behind the cloud of suspicion that has followed him since a 12-year-old boy made similar allegations against him in 1993. Jackson was never criminally charged in that case and has always denied wrongdoing, despite settling a civil suit filed by the boy's family for reportedly more than $20 million.
And despite settling another molestation claim stemming from accusations made by another boy in 1990 and allegations made at trial that he molested or behaved inappropriately with other boys -- including former child star Macaulay Culkin, who along with two other alleged Jackson victims, denied the accusations -- the singer has repeatedly denied ever harming children. Doubts were raised about the credibility of Jackson's current accuser and his family, especially his mother, who was portrayed by the defense as a welfare cheat who exploited her son's illness to contact celebrities and live lavishly off Jackson.
However, prosecutors portrayed Jackson as a pedophile who has demonstrated an alleged longtime pattern of showering other boys and his current accuser with lavish gifts and attention as part of grooming and seduction process. Jackson, the prosecution argued, is a heavy drinker who had stashes of adult magazines and videos accessible to the children who visited Neverland. The singer, prosecutors said, took advantage of the current accuser after showing him adult magazines and Web sites and serving him wine, which he allegedly referred to as "Jesus juice."
The prosecution and the defense raised questions about each other's cases and the character of the alleged victim, his family and Jackson. However, some say that the trial may not have changed anyone's opinion of Jackson.
"I don't think the trial revealed anything that wasn't leaked in various reports months before or what people hadn't suspected about Michael's sexuality … or lack of sexuality for years," said Seth Clark Silberman, lecturer on African-American studies and lesbian and gay studies at Yale University. "I think people see what they want to see in Michael, and what the trial did was confirm what people want to think about Michael in the first place.
"For those who believed Michael was a child molester to begin with, the trial may not have changed their mind," Silberman continued. "For those who believe what the Jackson camp has been saying -- that there's been this conspiracy and the Santa Barbara County sheriff's department is out to get him, the trial supported their theories, too."
Comeback Successful for Some Stars
Jackson still has a very loyal following, as illustrated by fans who have come from around the world to Santa Maria, Calif., to show their support during the trial and jury deliberations. To a lesser extent, celebrity defendants such as Kobe Bryant and Martha Stewart saw similar fan support in their criminal cases.
As Bryant faced trial for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman at a Vail, Colo., ski resort, his supporters traveled to the courthouse just to catch a glimpse of the NBA star and scream his name. (Prosecutors dropped the criminal case against Bryant when the alleged victim said she would not testify at the trial. Bryant maintained his innocence, and settled a civil lawsuit from his accuser.) But Bryant lost his major endorsement deals and appeal, as Sprite pulled his commercials shortly after his arrest.
Stewart -- and her fans -- have continued to insist on her innocence and argued she was unfairly targeted by federal prosecutors, even after her conviction of conspiracy, making false statements and obstruction of justice for lying about a stock sale. That fan support has made Stewart a hot product even as she continues serve the rest of her five-month home confinement sentence. Stewart served the first half of her 10-month sentence at a prison in West Virginia.
Her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, survived, and in April she announced a deal with Sirius Satellite Radio to form a 24-hour radio channel devoted to her homemaking ideas. NBC announced plans for Stewart to host her own version of the hit show "The Apprentice" this September.
Obstacles to Redemption
Jackson's path toward redemption looks more daunting than Stewart's and Bryant's because he has years of bad press and molestation suspicions to overcome. There has been an ongoing media fascination with Jackson's appearance, which has changed radically over the years, and other peculiar behavior, such as purchasing the remains of the Elephant Man.
However, Jackson may have brought some unwelcome scrutiny on himself. In 2002, he generated international headlines when he dangled his infant son Prince Michael II over a balcony while greeting fans in Germany. And in the British documentary "Living With Michael Jackson," he raised eyebrows when he talked about his fondness for having innocent sleepovers with children at Neverland. While holding hands with the boy who is now his accuser in this criminal case, he said, "Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone." That episode sparked the events that ultimately led to his molestation trial.
Another obstacle for Jackson, experts say, is that his alleged crime has a heavier stigma, and there will be no quick fix to rebuilding his reputation. If Jackson is acquitted, some public relations analysts say they would advise him to admit that he has at least made some bad decisions.
"I would have him at least say that he has made some bad decisions in his life, that's the least he could do," said Mike Paul. "The building blocks of an excellent, long-term reputation always include truth, humility, accountability, transparency and consistency. If he was my client, my job in reputation repair would be to ask him hard questions and make him admit to some truths."
Remaking 'The King of Pop'
If Jackson is acquitted, Paul said he would recommend that the singer disappear from the public spotlight for a while and rededicate himself toward his music. Just as Stewart promised to focus on her company after her prison release, Jackson has said publicly that he wants to be able to focus entirely on making music again. Paul said he would challenge the singer to make his actions fit his words.
"I would tell him to go back to being the person that you were," Paul said. "I would say that you used to do nothing but work in a studio 16 to 24 hours a day, working on songs and dance moves. If you want to do nothing but music then you have do put the work in. Then, let's say three months down the line he releases a video of him doing rehearsals of dance steps or preparing for a tour, that would say that he's throwing himself back into his work."
However, another question would be whether sponsors and music stations would be willing to take a risk on Jackson.
For years, he projected an angelic Peter Pan image, but more than a decade of scandal and disturbing testimony at his trial have tarnished that vision. Since the heydays of his albums "Thriller" and "Bad" -- which sold 59 million and 28 million respectively worldwide -- Jackson's sales have been disappointing. His last studio album, 2001's "Invincible," sold just more than 2 million albums in the United States and 8 million worldwide -- a success for most artists but a disappointment for the "King of Pop." Despite hitting the top of the music charts worldwide, Jackson hasn't had a No. 1 single in the United States since 1995's "You Are Not Alone."
In addition, many young music fans radio stations and MTV covet may be mostly familiar only with the Michael Jackson who generates more headlines for odd behavior or molestation allegations and not the media darling who dazzled audiences with his music and dance steps in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. In addition to current headlines, Jackson has to overcome his past success, years of bad press and younger artists who have the listeners' attention.
"The average age of artists that are getting played on pop radio is 20," said music executive Bruno del Granado. "Michael Jackson is 46."
One More Chance?
Still, others say, don't count Jackson out.
"I don't believe Michael is as washed up as his critics say," said Silberman. "I'm not as critical of his most recent [studio] work as some music critics are. I don't think anything is insurmountable in terms of his musical career. L.A. Reid [chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group] has said he would sign Michael in a minute, and I'm sure if he called artists like Pharrell or Kanye West, he would produce something that would sell well by contemporary standards. People have to remember that people don't buy albums the way they did in the 1980s."
Jackson's future could be even more uncertain if he is convicted and sent to prison. But even a prison CD would not be out of the question. Imprisoned rapper Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, who is serving a 10-year sentence for assault, released "Godfather Buried Alive" from prison to much fanfare last August and it opened at No. 2 on the Billboard music charts. However, by November the CD was knocked off Billboard's Top 200 sales list after selling only approximately 400,000 copies.
So, not all publicity is necessarily good publicity. But Jackson may still hope the public gives him one more chance.
"If I were Michael, maybe I would work on my memoir of my experiences," said Silberman. "People love stories about overcoming something. … Who wouldn't buy that?"