The headline was accurate enough: "Jackson's Health A Subject Of Confusion."
But not much else in Pam Belluck's report on Michael Jackson's medical condition prior to his death, now available on the NYT website, came from sources that would normally be viewed by anyone at the NYT as reliable.
Unless, of course, you consider -- as Belluck apparently does -- the authors of trashy celebrity bios to be reputable sources of medical information, or accurate reporters on private family matters.
Belluck's story -- portions of which were folded into the print edition wrapup today, but the entirety of which is now online -- quotes only two people (aside from a spokesman from the coroner's office) in its effort to uncover the mystery of Jackson's health: J. Randy Taraborrelli, the author of the 1991 "Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness," and Stacy Brown, who co-wrote "Michael Jackson: The Man Behind The Mask," with former Jackson publicist Bob Jones in 2005.
Here's what the NYT had to say about Taraborrelli's book, in a brief review in 1991 by Michael Anderson:
Perhaps the price of celebrity in modern times is the pruriently obsessive fan; luckily, most of them do not write books. J. Randy Taraborrelli, who gazed with horrified fascination at Diana Ross in his previous biography, "Call Her Miss Ross," now stares at Michael Jackson -- more precisely, at the entertainer's contentious and litigious family. The consequences of great wealth and fame on the clan from Gary, Ind., are detailed by Mr. Taraborrelli's pack-rat researches (greatly aided by a cornucopia of legal documents), but the Moonwalker himself seems to escape the author.
In the intervening years, Taraborrelli has turned his journalistic sights from Jackson to, among others, Frank Sinatra and the Kennedy wives.
Stacy Brown -- now a staff writer for the Scranton, Pa. Times-Tribune -- wrote her Jackson book after befriending Jermaine Jackson and spending vacations at Neverland Ranch. He recounts having spoken to Jackson only briefly; however, because of his close association with the family, he came to co-write the supposed tell-all account with Jones, who claims to have coined the phrase "King of Pop."
Brown and Jones both ended up testifying for the prosecution at Jackson's child-molestation trial in 2005, and their book is widely considered a Michael Jackson smear.
Belluck's story depends almost exclusively on her interviews with the two authors, and at times appears to attribute factual information about Jackson's condition to them:
Stacy Brown, co-author of the 2005 book, “Michael Jackson: the Man Behind the Mask,” said that the singer’s family had been very concerned recently about his use of painkillers, which had started up again a few months ago.
Mr. Brown, who said he continues to have close contact with several Jackson family members although he had not been close to others in the family since he testified at Mr. Jackson’s 2005 child molestation trial, said the narcotic Demerol had “been one of the concerns for a long time.”
He said that Mr. Jackson was receiving “one injection per day. He always had a doctor give it to him.”
Mr. Brown said the doctors “were legitimate,” but, at the same time, “no one was ever in a position to say no” to Mr. Jackson.
Belluck's reference to Brown's testimony neglects to mention that Brown testified against Jackson.
Taraborrelli's quotes were less definitive, but no less unreliable -- with information based on personal speculation, not medical knowledge:
During the 2005 trial on child molestation charges, “I sat behind him in court every day for the entire trial,” Mr. Taraborrelli said, and “he had very serious back problems,” and was “obviously medicated to the point where I wasn’t even sure that he understood that he had been acquitted.”
The two men go on to "report" a several other "facts" about Jackson's health, unverified by Belluck and attributed to the authors as though they were close confidants of the family -- such as this reference to a supposed recent return by Jackson to addiction rehab:
Mr. Brown said that family members had “tried a number of different times” to get Mr. Jackson to quit the painkillers. Mr. Jackson had been in rehabilitation programs periodically, Mr. Brown said, most recently attending an outpatient program last year for “a couple of hours” a day. “It wasn’t what his family wanted for him,” he said, “which was a complete stay for six months.”
Or these assertions by the two men, neither of whom cited either their sources of information, or any first-hand observation of Jackson in recent years:
Mr. Taraborrelli said Mr. Jackson “was prone to having very serious panic attacks,” which on at least one occasion were believed to have caused him to miss a concert. “His heart would begin to beat and he had really a clinical panic attack that would put him in the hospital,” he said.
Mr. Brown said he had a longstanding eating problem with “seemingly no motivation to eat. And most things, by all accounts, seemed to repulse him anyway.”
He had become “very frail, totally, totally underweight,” Mr. Brown said.
It's sad to see the NYT, in its zeal to compete on a story of such intense interest, depend on the sorts of sources better suited to the tabloids that usually traffic in these sorts of uncorroborated accounts. We're not trying to be snobs here; Taraborrelli, and even Brown, have decent credentials as celebrity journalists. But neither has the stature -- or apparent first-hand knowledge -- to have their assertions about Jackson published with the weight of the NYT behind them.
Maybe that's why Belluck's story lives online, but somehow missed the cut for the print edition, The dubious reporting by Belluck -- the NYT's former New England bureau chief who now reports on science -- got tacked onto the end of Jennifer Steinhauer's lengthy page-one piece. It would have been better just to cut her interviews entirely, and leave that sort of reporting to the tabloids, where it belongs.