Jackson Plots Next Move

While the media savage him, the King of Pop plans a comeback

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Besieged by media around the world, Michael Jackson has retreated behind the gates of his Neverland Ranch near Santa Barbara, California, where he is attempting to plot a course out of this mess.

Though Jackson and a small crew of advisers are focusing the majority of their efforts on damage control, they aren't stopping there. "We're operating in three modes," an inner-circle source tells Rolling Stone. "First, get ahold of the crisis and get the truth out. Then, focus on his music career. Third, we need to map out his next couple of years and the long-term plan. Obviously, that first part is taking up most of our time."

Jackson hopes his own TV program, The Michael Jackson Interview: The Footage You Were Never Meant to See, will turn public opinion in his favor. In the February 20th show, based on footage of Martin Bashir's interviews shot by Jackson's personal photo archivist, Hamid Moslehi, Bashir praises the singer's relationship with his children as "spectacular." Fox paid Jackson $2 million for rights to the footage. "The most important thing right now is that people see the whole story," says the source. "We never denied he was eccentric. But in this situation he was taken advantage of."

The pop star, who, says the source, recently fired his manager, Trudy Green, is handling his own affairs. He has also been working on a new album in his home studio and in Miami. Releasing the CD -- the last in his contract with Sony -- won't be a smooth ride: Last fall, Jackson called former Sony boss Tommy Mottola a "racist" and "very, very, very devilish." Mottola was ousted from the label in January and replaced by former NBC honcho Andy Lack. According to the Jackson source, negotiations between the singer and his label are "somewhat at a standstill," but "Michael is willing to work with them. There's bruises on both sides, but now that Tommy's gone, Michael's ready to move forward with the record."

The question is whether Sony still wants to work with Jackson. The label had no comment, but music-business insiders have noted that Jackson is reported to be in debt to Sony for as much as $250 million. If he can't pay back the money, he may have to forfeit his share of Sony/ATV, which owns the Beatles song catalog. What's more, it's difficult to imagine how well a new Michael Jackson album would sell. Though sales of Thriller, Bad and the HIStory anthology saw a huge spike in the U.K. after Bashir's show aired, the albums got only a marginal boost in the U.S. -- not even enough to put him back on the charts. Music-biz PR experts say Jackson needs to shift attention back to his music. "He should do an MTV Unplugged or a VH1 Storytellers," suggests publicist Mitch Schneider, who handles press for Tom Petty and David Bowie. "Something showcasing his songwriting genius without elaborate production. We already know about his private life. He needs to remind us of why we were fascinated with him in the first place."