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The creepy TV special that haunted Michael Jackson

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Last night, NBC ran a cut-down version of the 2003 TV special that did more than any other piece of media “reporting” to turn Michael Jackson into a punchline and worse. Living with Michael Jackson is a documentary overseen by the British journalist Martin Bashir, who now co-anchors ABC’s Nightline. In 2003, however, Bashir’s biggest claim to fame was interviewing Princess Diana in 1995 about her failed marriage.

Grinning at Jackson in their face-to-face encounters, sitting cozily next to Jackson on a Ferris wheel on the singer’s Neverland estate, or holding the hand of one of Jackson’s children, Bashir was the very picture of fawning unctuousness. But when he got into his editing room, he started playing the concerned tough-guy: “Jackson’s behavior was beginning to alarm me,” he says in a voiceover Jackson would hear only after the documentary aired. “Confronting him wouldn’t be easy, but now it had to happen,” Bashir describes himself with heroic determination.

Yeah, right: But only after making sure he had footage of Jackson spending gobs of money buying garish home furnishings in a Las Vegas store. “That’s only $275,000 each,” he says loudly, smilingly, as Jackson chose two items, among many others. Bashir wanted to make sure we thought the singer was a no-taste spendthrift.

Having secured scenes that would make for maximum salaciousness — “What else would he beat you with?” Bashir prodded, after reducing Jackson to tears amid tales of father Joe Jackson’s cruel punishments — Bashir went in for the money-quotes. He brought up the 1993 allegations of child molestation and let Jackson talk about how his relationships with minors were “not sexual.” Bashir made sure we heard that Jackson had made a “financial settlement” with his accusors.

Jackson was so upset with how Bashir portrayed him in the original, two-hour version of Living that he produced his own special, The Michael Jackson Interview: The Footage You Were Never Meant To See, which aired on Fox and showed some of Bashir’s wheedling and manipulations. The harm had been done, however.

It’s safe to say Living with Michael Jackson was, at the least, one reason Jackson withdrew from the media, and the world, even further in his remaining years. And you can watch it six more times on MSNBC over the next two weeks. What a way to honor the dead.