Three events have profoundly fascinated me this past month.
The first was the U.S. college admissions scandal, which broke on March 12, and exposed the alleged bribery and fraud of fifty parents seeking to illegally obtain admission to several prestigious institutions for their children. Two people implicated in the case are actresses Felicity Huffman, who starred on the long-running ABC show Desperate Housewives, and Lori Loughlin, a former cast member on ABC’s Full House and its Netflix spin-off, Fuller House.
Analysis of the scandal focuses on how wealthier people have an advantage in the college admissions process, even when, as one Bull & Bear author commented, they do not cheat the system. Famous actors like Huffman and Loughlin fall into this category:each have an approximate net worth of $20 million.
But are college admissions the only thing that famous people can use their power and privilege to manipulate? They must be able to use their unfair influence elsewhere, right? Of course they can; and they do.
Which brings me to the other events that captivated me: the case of Jussie Smollett, an actor on the FOX series, Empire, who was charged for allegedly faking a hate crime only to have all the charges against him dropped; and finally, Leaving Neverland, an HBO film that premiered on March 3, and documented the child sexual abuse allegations made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck against Michael Jackson, one of the world’s best-selling recording artists.
Because of their celebrity status, these wealthy public figures faced a trial in two different courts: the court of law and the court of public opinion.
All three of these interesting events – college admissions, the Jussie Smollett affair, and HBO’s Jackson documentary – involved people purportedly committing extremely harmful crimes. Crucially, though, in all of these cases, the perpetrators had, at some point, been beloved household names.
Because of their celebrity status, these wealthy public figures faced a trial in two different courts: the court of law and the court of public opinion. Luckily for them, power and privilege lends itself well to manipulating and sometimes circumventing the system. This is especially true for two of the figures at the centre of these controversies: Jussie Smollett and Michael Jackson, defendants in this weird universe of “celebrity court.”
While we will never see Jussie Smollett convicted for the sixteen felony charges he was indicted on, it is important to remember that he is not necessarily innocent. The mayor of Chicago, the superintendent of police, and the prosecutor who dropped the charges all believe that Smollett is guilty of staging a hate crime, with the third stating that the charges were dropped due to community service and Smollett’s decision to forfeit his $10,000 bail. That’s more than the average person can pay to avoid prosecution, and a celebrity manipulation of the court of law.
Smollett’s case represents an extreme manipulation of the court of public opinion. Although a trial in such a court never truly garners a unanimous and permanent verdict, the public usually reaches some kind of indefinite consensus. For Smollett, public support fluctuated; directly after his claim, many people jumped to his defense, which was to be expected. When he was indicted a few weeks later, many people changed their opinions, while a few stood by him. After the charges were dropped, Smollett maintained his innocence and chalked up the case to mistreatment by the Chicago authorities – clearly an attempt to change the verdict in the court of public opinion.
Michael Jackson found himself in a court of law twice because of child sexual abuse allegations: once in a civil suit in 1993, and once criminally in 2005. Jackson paid over $20 million to settle the 1993 case – far more than someone who is not a megastar can afford. While a settlement is not necessarily an indication of his guilt, it is still a testament to Jackson’s ability to change the outcome of his case. For him, it was easier to settle than progress with a potentially damaging trial that could last months. In 2005, Jackson did not have the option to use his wealth to avoid prosecution. Instead, he used his power and influence to persuade Wade Robson (one of his accusers in Leaving Neverland) to testify in his defense. Jackson was eventually acquitted on all charges, once again, because of his manipulation of the legal system.
Although a trial in such a court never truly garners a unanimous and permanent verdict, the public usually reaches some kind of indefinite consensus.
Jackson also maintained control over the court of public opinion. A year and a half after settling the civil suit, Jackson diverted attention away from the case by releasing HIStory – a double album of his greatest hits and new songs, including the Billboard top ten singles “You Are Not Alone,” and “Scream.” By the time the criminal trial in 2005 rolled around, Jackson was painted in the court of public opinion as a misunderstood victim of extortion. Four years later, Jackson was preparing for a comeback residency show in London and died suddenly. As a result of the context of Jackson’s planned comeback, he was memorialized exclusively as a musical legend, ignoring the decades-old abuse allegations. The film This Is It, which documents the planned residency, and two posthumously-released albums helped solidify this legacy. Furthermore, the trial of Jackson’s former personal doctor introduced the narrative of Jackson being a victim of illness and medical malpractice. The court of public opinion only (partly) overturned its verdict on Jackson following the release of Leaving Neverland, and the reason he is unable to manipulate the court today is because he is not alive to try. Instead, his estate is trying for him.
Although we have yet to see what kind of strategy Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin will take during their criminal proceedings, the court of public opinion’s current consensus is seemingly against them. As a result of the indictment, Loughlin was fired from Fuller House and her daughter Olivia Jade lost endorsement deals. So far, both parties have largely remained silent.
Celebrities often urge the world to realize that they are real people, not specimens under a microscope. And they have a point – famous people are real people, but as such, they should expect to be treated like real people all the time, not just when they are swarmed by the paparazzi. Both Jussie Smollett and Michael Jackson represent celebrities who got off easy because of their ability to control the courts, using their money and social influence. Only time will tell whether Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin will avoid harsh punishment by doing the same.