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ON THE MEDIA

Sound bites on Jackson's death show risks of media's appetite for celebrities

In a famine of information, one self-appointed commentator provided a feast of data. But was it only junk food?

July 03, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Within minutes of the first reports of Michael Jackson's cardiac arrest, the TV trucks and platoons of reporters had moved into place outside Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Cellphones flashing and glances darting, fretful news-hounds lacked only one thing that afternoon eight days ago: a single news source capable of filling the desperate information vacuum.

Then Brian Oxman arrived. He delivered quote after emotive quote. He worked his cellphone. He held reporters' hands. He fought back tears. As he jostled through a scrum of journalists and fans, the sometime lawyer to various members of the Jackson clan repeated an urgent refrain: "Where's the CNN truck? I need the CNN truck."

We have seen this character, and this movie, before. From the halls of the O.J. Simpson trial to the shores of every celebrity happening since, "experts" and "insiders" stand primed and willing for the next live stand-up.

They thrive on one part chutzpah, one part opportunity and one part complicity -- by a celebutainment media that seldom, if ever, presses the talking heads about what they really know and how they know it.

I thought I'd better find out a little bit more about the ever-ready Mr. Oxman, who acted as a commentator for what was then Court TV at the Robert Blake murder trial and who hosts a weekday radio program on KLAA-AM (830).

Oxman's arrival at UCLA could not have been better timed. The assembled reporters (editors yammering in their ears for more information) had been left bereft, as Jackson's family, police and medical center officials declined to provide information.

If you listened closely to what the 57-year-old lawyer said that day, you found that he had little more information than the weeping Jackson fans or the rest of us: no details of Jackson's collapse, no description of exactly what ailed the pop star, nothing but regurgitation of the already well-known claims that Jackson had a past problem with prescription drugs.

In a moment caught on video, Oxman did make sure to remind one interviewer that he had been with Jackson in 2005 "at the darkest hours of his life," when the megastar faced child molestation charges in Santa Barbara County.

"The man was innocent," Oxman said. "I proved that he was innocent. He proved that he was innocent. And yet now we have this. And it just hurts me to the core of my heart."

That recollection of courtroom triumph surprised me more than a little, because I recalled that Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. (he of the flowing white locks) led the Jackson defense team.

I dug out an old Daily Journal clipping that reported Oxman had been booted off the defense team, well before the verdict. (That story also told how journalists snickered about the attorney apparently sleeping in court and how Oxman was sanctioned $1,000 by the judge, after repeatedly being warned about improper queries to one witness.)

Despite the recollections of other lawyers and journalists involved in the case and the fact he no longer appeared in the courtroom, Oxman insisted to me this week that he couldn't have been fired from the case, because only Michael Jackson had that power.

Not that Oxman is without claim to a portfolio in the Land of Jackson. He told me that he had handled divorces for Randy, Tito, Jermaine, Jackie and LaToya, as well as Michael's child custody case with Debbie Rowe. And he said he's currently handling a child custody case for Randy and some "business matters" for LaToya.

In my mind that still leaves Oxman substantially short of the "family spokesman" and "family attorney" designation that outlets like CNN and CBS bestowed on him in the hours and days after the death.

Indeed, when I pressed Oxman about his exact relationship with the Jacksons, he told me he was neither a spokesman nor an attorney for the family in matters related to Michael's death. "I am a commentator and these are my comments," he said. If he bothered to clarify that in multiple TV appearances, I didn't hear it. Did any of these news natterers bother to ask?

This would not be the first time that someone objected to Oxman overstating his Jackson connections. Los Angeles entertainment attorney Zia Modabber, one of Michael Jackson's attorneys for more than a decade, recalled that his firm once sent Oxman a letter objecting that he was presenting himself in a way that might lead others to believe he was Jackson's lawyer when he was not.

Oxman declined to comment, saying only that "jealousies" among other lawyers did not warrant a response and adding: "My record speaks for itself."

But part of the media trail the lawyer has left in recent days supports the notion that he can be careless about the impressions he leaves.

On cable TV's HLN, for example, the rapacious Jane Velez-Mitchell gobbled up Oxman's offerings, including his claim on Monday that, "I know that there are injection sites in Michael's body."

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