Gayle King on Landing Interviews With Jackson Family and Accusers (Q&A)

Courtesy of CBS
Gayle King interviewing Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

The host recently spoke with the singer's accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

This week alone, CBS News' Gayle King has logged several big interviews with those at the center of the explosive new documentary Leaving Neverland, the account of two men who say Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children.

In recent weeks, she’s also made news with a frank and skeptical interview with Virginia governor Ralph Northam and the family of kidnapping victim Jayme Closs. When Northam, the Democratic governor embroiled in yet another inexplicable blackface controversy, began to recount Virginia’s history as a port of entry for “indentured servants from Africa,” King was quick to correct him. “Also known as slavery,” she said calmly.

And her interviews with Jackson’s accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, as well as Jackson’s family, who failed to stop HBO from airing the four-hour film, set to bow March 3, have only underscored King’s importance to the news division. The film, which premiered at the Sundance, has faced intense backlash. (Robson and Safechuck have endured death threats.) Director Dan Reed has also faced intense criticism for not including rebuttals from Jackson’s family; a point King has explored with the family and Reed, whom she has also interviewed on CBS This Morning. And many fans have seized on the fast that Robson and Safechuck have previously denied being abused by Jackson. 

King, who is a fan of Jackson’s music, says she believes Robson and Safechuck. So  does her best friend Oprah Winfrey, who conducted an emotional interview with them and Reed for the HBO special Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland, set to bow March 4 on HBO, after the conclusion of the final episode.

King carefully prepared for the interviews by talking with a child psychologist specializing in sex abuse trauma. “That’s how much I wanted to get it right,” she says. “I wanted to ask the right questions.” She talks to The Hollywood Reporter about Jackson’s shifting legacy and the backlash to the film.

What was the impact of the film on you personally?

I found it extremely disturbing. It was riveting, but it was also gross. And a couple of times, [I] had to stop [watching] because it’s so graphic and it’s so detailed. For me, it was very tough to watch. But I also think it’s a very important film. And it will be interesting to see the public’s reaction to it because I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Michael Jackson’s music. But it’s up for the viewers to decide how they feel about it. You have a lot of people who say this can’t possibly be true, that these people are opportunists, they’re admitted liars. And they will say, "Yep, we are admitted liars." But I think you have to watch the documentary and draw your own conclusions.

What conclusions did you draw?

I found the story they told very credible, extremely credible. And the more I talked to the child psychologist, I understood why they lied. This is what was so fascinating to me. To a layperson you always think of sexual abuse, certainly sexual abuse of a child, it’s going to be violent, it’s going to be painful, it’s going to be aggressive. They said, "Listen, Michael Jackson was a god to me. He was kind. He was loving." I just think it will be eye-opening to a lot of people.

Jackson paid a $20 million settlement in 1993 and endured a 2005 trial related to these charges. Do you think the #MeToo movement spurred a re-examination of Jackson’s alleged behavior?

I think that’s part of it. But for these two men, it’s been a journey for them certainly after they had their own sons. They both had very significant and emotional breakdowns. Both were in therapy. This is not the story of Michael Jackson, although listen we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Michael Jackson wasn’t involved. But this is the story of Wade and James and what they went through and how they came out the other side.

But could this have aired before Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo disclosures?

I don’t know the answer to that. I know we haven’t heard something this graphic and in this detail. And maybe we are open to hearing it because of the #MeToo movement.

Do you think there are racial dimensions to this story? The stuff on Twitter from Michael Jackson’s supporters is pretty rough, and some of it is directed at you.

I know, I know. His fans are very adamant. I was a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, so I understand that for them, this is very painful to hear. They don’t want to hear it. This, to me, wasn’t a matter of race. This was a matter of right and wrong. And I hope it doesn’t turn into a racial issue. When it comes to child sexual abuse, there are no passes on color about that.

Was there any trepidation on the family’s part in participating in an interview with you?

I think they wanted Michael’s voice and Michael’s side presented in this. They knew we were doing the story. They wanted to come en masse to talk to us. They flew from Atlanta, from Las Vegas. They came from all different parts of the country to be there. This was very important for them. And I was glad that they wanted to tell their side of the story. I thought it was important that we heard from them as well.

Why are they so adamant?

They’re defending their brother. I get where they’re coming from, they’re defending their brother. They have no financial interest or gain from the Jackson estate, all of that goes to his children. They said this is not about money for us; this is how we feel and what we know about Michael.

Can you still listen to Michael Jackson’s music?

I haven’t listened to Michael Jackson’s music in a long time. But listen, when President Trump landed in Hanoi the other day, they were playing a Michael Jackson song. No matter where you go, you’re going to hear Michael Jackson. And no one can take away from the creative genius and the talent.

But how do you separate the artistry from this?

That’s a very good question. And that’s something we’re going to explore on CBS This Morning.