The eerie digital afterlife Elliot Rodger left behind, a former "tabloid hack" dishes about tabloids, and the brains behind #YesAllWomen
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ARTHUR CHU: When a crazy person shoots up a synagogue we don’t say, he was just crazy, there’s no reason to implicate anti-Semitism in it. It found the target that it did because of the culture he was in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the wake of last week’s shootings, the media’s struggle with the question of causation. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. In its fight with publishing giant Hachette, Amazon seems to have thrown its customers under the bus.
BRAD STONE: I mean, they’re making it harder for their customers to get books, to have a good experience on the Kindle, to have quick delivery. These are values that they’ve trumpeted for the past 20 years and here, in this dispute, they seem to have abandoned them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the confessions of a former tabloid hack.
RICH PEPPIATT: I’d like to say that was the bottom of my particular journalistic barrel, but here’s me dressed in a burka, yep, a burka.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s more comin’ up, after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last week in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliott Rodger killed 6 people and wounded 13 others before killing himself. The media leapt to find out why he did what he did, and they found a digital footprint complete with YouTube videos, an autobiographical manifesto and comments on the message boards of self-styled men’s rights groups, comments filled with rage about his inability to attract a beautiful woman.
The instant psychoanalysis of a killer and of a society was underway. The implication of blame reached absurd heights when Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote that Hollywood movies could help us understand the killing spree. She singled out director Judd Apatow, whose films often feature a schlubby everyman getting the girl. That assertion led to a dust-up Hornaday went online to tamp down.
ANN HORNADAY: In singling out Neighbors and, and Judd Apatow, I, by no means, meant to cast blame on those movies or Judd Apatow’s work for this heinous action, obviously not. But I do think, again, it, it bears asking what the costs are of having such a narrow range of stories that we constantly go back to.
BOB GARFIELD: When you gesture towards causality, it’s hard to pull back. Forbes writer Kashmir Hill says that the digital detritus left behind by Rodger can be harvested to make whatever argument the media want to make.
KASHMIR HILL: This 137-page manifesto, writings he’d left behind on bodybuilding.com and PUAhate.com, an anti-pickup artist site, as well as his YouTube profile and Facebook profile, there was so much there that if you’re pro-gun control you could say, well, it was the fault of guns, or if you’re disturbed by misogyny in Hollywood culture, you could point to what he had said around that, mental health and what he may have been diagnosed with and if that was to blame. Really, if you came at this with an agenda, there was something there for you and you could attack it from that angle. And I think people are really quick to do that.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, episodes like this create a journalistic dilemma, because surely it is the job of the media to help the public understand why such a crime takes place. But the process of doing that leads the public to jump to conclusions, often very unfair conclusions that lay blame places where it isn’t deserved. What’s a journalist to do?
KASHMIR HILL: My impulse, when there’s lots of information there, review that information and then try to curate and compile it in a way that will make it digestible for my readers. So that’s what I did. I mean, it was the start of the Memorial Day weekend and I basically started just reading everything I could find online, you know, touching on the various things I could find, without my making a decision about what caused him to do this.
BOB GARFIELD: In this case, even his own words plucked from his so-called “manifesto” failed to provide any kind of full story, correct?
KASHMIR HILL: I actually have been calling it an autobiography, rather than a manifesto because it really is that. It is going through his life since birth and him basically psychoanalyzing himself. And this is where I thought Ann Hornaday had a point. There was something kind of cinematic in the way that he laid it out, almost as if his autobiography was a screenplay. Not that Hollywood is to blame, that’s not what I’m saying, but it seemed like he was very aware of the digital trail that he was leaving, more so than any of the other people I’ve seen who have committed these atrocious acts.
BOB GARFIELD: The logical fallacies that are so at the heart of some of the finger pointing are kind of breathtaking, are they not?
KASHMIR HILL: I found it very disturbing that people were willing to blame a group so quickly. I mean, around the men’s rights movement somebody wrote - I think it was an article on the Daily Kos - that because he subscribed to three YouTube channels where people give advice on how to pick up women, obviously, this group is to blame. And then I think it leads to this really unhealthy dialogue, where each side of the debate has such an extreme caricature of the other side, so all pickup artists and men’s rights movement people are, you know, on the verge of mass murdering people. And then they’re throwing this back at feminists, saying, oh, you think that all men are on the verge of killing people, and it just becomes this unproductive debate.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if you catch yourself, at any point in your writing, from drawing conclusions that were misleading.
KASHMIR HILL: His Facebook page was full of selfies. There were very few photos of anybody else, picture after picture of himself. I think I focused on that in my write-up, that this person had this kind of pathological narcissism. I think I said something on Twitter about, you know, this would make me concerned when I saw any other Facebook profile that was full of selfies. And there was a person who responded to me on that who thought that that was really an unhealthy conclusion to draw.
BOB GARFIELD: Kashmir, what have we learned?
KASHMIR HILL: What was most disturbing to me in all this is that there was this really fulsome digital footprint. Based on the comments that he’d left on some of these forums and on the YouTube videos, concerns have been raised. There were people on this bodybuilding forum that said, you’re channeling Patrick Bateman, these videos are serial killer-esque.
BOB GARFIELD: Patrick Bateman was the character in American Psycho, the homicidal maniac in that story.
KASHMIR HILL: People seemed to see it, I mean, police visited Elliott Rodger’s apartment and questioned him. His family were concerned on the night that this happened; they were racing in a car to his apartment. So I guess what I take away from it is that it was all there. Everyone had a sense that something terrible was coming, and they didn’t stop it or couldn’t stop it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s one interesting footnote to this. In going into the message boards of some of the subcultures, like the bodybuilders and the pickup artists, you discovered that far from just giving the most fertile ground for the seeds of his rage, there was pushback.
KASHMIR HILL: It seemed like people who were analyzing this had decided just because he was on those sites, he was having his ideas about women reaffirmed. And he did write that in his autobiography, that PUAhate.com confirmed his theories about women being wicked and degenerate. But when I was actually looking at the conversations that were happening, I saw people questioning him. He wrote a lot about how he thought women were stupid or how he hated seeing ugly men with beautiful women. There were a lot of racially charged comments that he was making, as well, and the people were pushing back and saying, you know, what, what really gets women is not your wealth or how you dress, it’s being fun to be around. It wasn’t this forum of celebrating hatred of women. There were people who disagreed with him and who were challenging him.
BOB GARFIELD: Kashmir, thank you.
KASHMIR HILL: Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: Kashmir Hill is a staff writer for Forbes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Those groups, despite some pushback, did, in their generally grudging or acquisitive stance toward women, provide a kind of home for Rodger, and the focus of the national conversation, especially on social media, quickly shifted to the scourge of misogyny. Many men responded with the Twitter hashtag #NotAllMen, as in not all men are violent, a phrase often invoked in response to wider conversations about violence against women. And many women answered with the #YesAllWomen hashtag, asserting that while not all men are predators, all women are culturally conditioned to fear male violence.
#YesAllWomen also inspired a Tumblr called “When Women Refuse,” which is collecting news stories across the globe about violence committed against women who refuse male advances. Deanna Zandt is one of the Tumblr’s co-creators and a media technologist. She says #YesAllWomen debuted soon after the horrible news emerged Memorial Day weekend, and it thrives even though the originator subsequently shut down her Twitter account.
DEANNA ZANDT: Yes, that’s right. Early on in these conversations, it’s a very frequent occurrence for women to receive all kinds of harassment and threats to get them to shut down their public profiles, which is exactly what’s happened to this woman, I think. They use the threat of violence, sexual assault, publicizing your private information. I’ve been through it many times, and it’s terrifying, it’s absolutely terrifying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But violent, hateful speech is kind of a fact of life online.
DEANNA ZANDT: These conversations are a mirror of what’s actually happening in our culture, where when we have free and open spaces to have these conversations these are the types of things that come out. On the other side, though, that stuff isn’t the norm. The productive, amazing conversations and connectivity that happens when we share with one another strengthens our communities and our bonds and our actions offline.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you taken a look at the #NotAllMen hashtag stream lately?
DEANNA ZANDT: [LAUGHING] I can’t bring myself to go there. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that two parallel arguments are happening without much intersection?
DEANNA ZANDT: Well, people who are having one conversation will often use the opposing hashtag to kind of bait the other side into getting into some sort of discussion. Often those conversations aren’t terribly productive because it is a baiting exercise.
What I do see happening frequently are other smaller discussions. I know of a group of men who are meeting via Facebook right now to talk about the impossible expectations that American masculinity puts on men and ends up breaking them, in some ways, and figuring out what role feminism can do to alleviate some of that toxicity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you making an effort to separate this at all from the Isla Vista shooting, just so that you don’t get charged with taking advantage of a tragedy that isn’t directly connected to your cultural critiques?
DEANNA ZANDT: Yeah, a lot of people have made that criticism. We haven’t actually been on the receiving end of it so much because in the About page of the site we talk about the origin of where this idea came from and that it’s sort of taken on a life of its own.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you hazarding taking correlation and making it causation?
DEANNA ZANDT: I definitely feel pretty strongly against the causation part. It’s one of the reasons why we decided not to take personal stories at this time. I wanted to just share documented news stories, specifically of women who have been victims of violence when they have rejected men in their lives, or otherwise, or even strangers. And I’m actually hoping to use this site as a tapestry that we can weave together to demonstrate really what’s happening in our culture, that these are not isolated incidents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First of all, does it take a hashtag to start this kind of conversation? And then, what do you expect it to achieve?
DEANNA ZANDT: A hashtag isn’t required but is super useful. Often in the same way that “Yes We Can” and “Si se puede” become rallying cries for a movement, hashtags are doing the same thing in the digital space. And what I see happening here whenever we have these extremely emotional moments that are very traumatic for a lot of people, most people before they come to a conversation, they feel isolated, they feel like they’re the only ones that this happened to. So when they start sharing their stories with one another they realize, I’m not crazy for feeling this way, I’m not crazy for feeling scared in this situation.
It’s very much like digital consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising of the second wave of feminism was such a huge part of the movement, in connecting women together and people together to share their stories of systemic problems and make systemic change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Someday, this hashtag will stop trending.
DEANNA ZANDT: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, what happens then?
DEANNA ZANDT: There’s a lot of discussion right now around the lifespan and the lifecycle of a hashtag. I find them very useful as in-the-moment tools. Those tweets will live on until someone deletes them. They will become an archive and a reference point, a point for journalists to dig into stories as other related stories come up. It doesn’t have to be a platform, at every given moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After Sandy Hook, there was such a strong movement and a strong possibility that there would be some substantive gun control.
DEANNA ZANDT: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It never happened. I know it’s a rich lobby, the NRA.
DEANNA ZANDT: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it would seem that it would take decades for a change in the kind of culture that you’re pointing out in the Tumblr.
DEANNA ZANDT: I don’t actually think that it has to take decades. You know, we look at something like street harassment, Emily May started an organization called Hollaback! to start fighting street harassment, I think almost 10 years ago, and many people said, what, catcalling, why is that dangerous, why is that bad? And some people still, obviously, say that. But the headway that they’ve been able to make as a movement around the world has been incredible, for people to stand up and say, wait a minute, no, that does feel bad and dangerous, when that happens to me on the street. And that’s only been less than a decade. So, again, the power of digital tools to really shift a cultural consciousness is incredible at this moment, if we use the tools wisely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the biggest impediment?
DEANNA ZANDT: Apathy, people feeling apathetic because they’ve never felt like they’ve been able to move a needle before. And I think these are some of the differences that we’re seeing when people are contributing to these social media moments. This is oftentimes their first experience with contributing to some sort of social change, and they see what happens when it goes from their Twitter stream to their local news station or to a mainstream cable news station or something on the radio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Deanna, thank you very much.
DEANNA ZANDT: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Deanna Zandt is the author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, we go back and forth. Is discussing a persistent global horror, violence against women, appropriate in the wake of one angry lunatic’s rampage? "Absolutely,” wrote actor, writer and former Jeopardy! Champion Arthur Chu in the Daily Beast. Yes, Rodgers was mentally ill, but his illness expressed itself in a particular way and reveals something about Rodgers’ subculture, Arthur Chu’s nerd culture and the wider culture in which we all live.
ARTHUR CHU: He was a regular poster on a forum called PUAhate. PUA stands for pickup artist. It’s like teaching you how to make money from home, teaching you how to sell cars. But they apply principles like that to how to, you know, get women, ranging from common sense stuff, like dress better and work out and look better, to, you know, creepy stuff, how to manipulate women or pressure women or bully women, talking about isolating women from their friends.
And PUAhate is another level of this, where there’s guys who have paid lots and lots of money for the seminars and the books, and it still doesn’t work. And now they’re left with even more resentment. Elliott Rodger was part of a subculture and he didn’t make up any of the things he said in that video. He was quoting, almost like verbatim, concepts repeated again and again.
As a guy who was introverted and isolated a lot in school and who’s had a lot of the same issues that Rodger complains about, I found myself thinking the same way. I’ve heard guys saying similar things. They don’t take it as far as mass murder, but this sense of resentment and entitlement towards women is everywhere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s move from this particularly virulent subculture and talk about how broader cultural tropes actually resonate with this. You reference Saved by the Bell and Steve Urkel, along with The Big Bang Theory and Niles on Frasier, and so on.
ARTHUR CHU: Well, Steve Urkel, his whole character was developed because he’s the guy who has this hopeless crush on this girl.
[FAMILY MATTERS CLIP]:
STEVE URKEL: Well, you know, I’ve asked you out a thousand times and you have said no a thousand times. I am beginning to notice an alarming trend.
LAURA WINSLOW: Get a clue, Steve! Give it up!
STEVE URKEL: I shall never give up, Bubbling Brown Sugar.
[HOOT FROM AUDIENCE]
In fact, I’m gonna do something so romantic, so gallant, and so fabulously grandiose that your heart will melt and you will be mine forever.
ARTHUR CHU: You know The Big Bang Theory, to its credit, is better than that. Leonard and Penny are not like Steve and Laura on Family Matters. But if Steve Urkel were real, he would be a criminal. Breaking into someone’s house, harassing someone, standing outside their window - and these are things that all actually happen to real people.
If you follow #YesAllWomen on Twitter, you hear all these stories from women about guys who literally do these things, and they don’t see themselves as the bad guy because to themselves they’re the victim. But that’s why I singled out, quote, unquote, “nerds.” You know, I’m not talking about liking science fiction or liking comic books. I’m talking about this sense of, I’m the victim, and anyone who contributes to that feeling of loneliness and exclusion is a victimizer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mention, in particular, Revenge of the Nerds.
ARTHUR CHU: Revenge of the Nerds is an old movie. The 1980’s, it’s long enough ago that we can see there was some messed-up stuff in these films that at the time were considered, you know, hilarious, entertaining, fun movies. So Revenge of the Nerds uses the bed trick, involves a guy sleeping with another guy’s girlfriend in disguise, which meets the definition of rape.
BETTY CHILDS: You’re that nerd!
LEWIS SKOLNICK: Yeah.
[HEAVY BREATHING SOUNDS]
BETTY CHILDS: Oh god, you were wonderful.
LEWIS SKOLNICK: Thanks.
BETTY CHILDS: Ohh, are all nerds as good as you?
LEWIS SKOLNICK: Yes.
BETTY CHILDS: How come?
LEWIS SKOLNICK: ‘Cause all jocks think about is sports. All we ever think about is sex.
ARTHUR CHU: You know, I can have sex with a woman so well, without her consent, that she’ll retroactively consent, that’s not a cool message. I’m not saying I have no sympathy. I was one of those guys. Being a lonely guy sucks. Being lonely sucks. But the real problem isn’t that we have stories from a perspective of a lonely guy who wants love and affection, but that men, and women, mostly see stories about how hard it is to be a man looking for love, and the woman’s role is to provide that. So it’s just, it’s a conversation that we need to have. I don’t want it to be about me and these assertions that I made, when people say like -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right
ARTHUR CHU: - what’s your evidence? I don’t have the evidence. I’m telling you what these women have been sharing for days, ever since, you know, Memorial Day weekend on Twitter and blog posts and articles. And you can go read them. If another man needs to be the one to tell you to read them for you to feel like you need to hear these stories, that’s kind of messed up but I’ll do it, if that’s what it takes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as you mentioned, Revenge of the Nerds was 30 years ago. Is there anything to suggest that these attitudes are current, in the same way?
ARTHUR CHU: A lot of it is couched in satire and irony. I’m not saying we have to take all satire literally but, you know, “Get me a Sandwich” is a meme on the Internet. It’s a, it’s a joke that people say to dismissively, if a woman says something, “Shut up and get me a sandwich”, you know, because you think well, no one’s really in an abusive relationship like that anymore. I can joke about it. It’s not a big deal.
On Gawker, Adrian Chen recently unleashed this tornado of controversy because he outed the anonymity of the guy who founded Creep Shots, which is a subreddit about surreptitiously taking pictures of women without their consent, and then people actually saying, well no, these guys are the underdogs, these guys are introverts who are scared to approach women, so this is how they appreciate women, over and over again men painting themselves as the ones who are being wronged here.
Louis CK, when there was this controversy a while ago about Daniel Tosh defending the idea that rape jokes are okay, that they shouldn’t be censored, Louis CK listens to people and his routine changed, as a result. He did a routine about how scary it is for women to date men.
LOUIS CK: We’re the number-one threat -
- to women!
If you’re a guy, try to imagine that you, that you could only date a half-bear/half-lion, and, “Oh, I hope this one’s nice.”
ARTHUR CHU: Who was it, Margaret Atwood said that men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the commenters on your article pointed out that what you’re really saying isn’t just about nerd culture but also jock culture. So is this narrative that you describe really indicative of how society defines masculinity more broadly?
ARTHUR CHU: Oh well, absolutely. I’m not singling out nerd culture or whatever, because I think that we’re worse than other guys. I’m singling it out because I am in that culture. If anything is worse, it’s the fact that we are not self-aware about it. It would be one thing if Elliott Rodger had said, “I just hate women and want to kill them” but that he, he had this cloak of self-pity over all of it.
And yeah, he was crazy. But when a crazy person shoots up a synagogue, we don’t say, he was just crazy, there’s no reason to implicate anti-Semitism in it. It found the target that it did because of the culture he was in, ‘cause most guys aren’t going to take a gun and shoot a bunch of random strangers, but there’s a lot of guys out there who commit sexual assault, there’s a lot of guys out there who commit rape. It happens a lot.
When you paint him as a monster and an anomaly and you say his madness has nothing to do with any of the rest of us, and I’ve literally had guys say like, misogyny is not an ideology, misogyny is not a specific thing, what Elliott Rodger did has absolutely nothing to do with any other bad thing that happens to any other woman in the world, then you destroy the point of even talking about it in the first place.
The only reason to talk about tragedy, unless you are someone who knows someone who died and you are mourning them, the only reason for you and me to be talking about it is to try and prevent bad things from happening in the future.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arthur, thank you very much.
ARTHUR CHU: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arthur Chu is an actor and writer. His piece in the Daily Beast is called, “Your Princess is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.”
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, after the media dissects the perpetrator, how should they handle the victims?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.
* STATION BREAK *
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Following last week's massacre, residents of Isla Vista confronted misery of another kind, the constant presence of cameras. Some students even held signs that read, “Stop Filming Our Tears.”
But Richard Martinez, whose 20-year-old son, Chris, was killed in the attack, is turning to the media to campaign for change.
RICHARD MARTINEZ: Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. Too many have died! We should say to ourselves, “Not one more!”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Karen Duffin reported last fall, the template for that kind of engagement was established back in 1999, after the massacre at Columbine High School.
CRAIG SCOTT: My name is Craig Scott, and I am a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting. I also lost my sister, Rachel Joy Scott.
KAREN DUFFIN: Craig was a student trapped in the library during the rampage. As he left the school, he confronted both his trauma and a country anxious to hear about it. Oprah called, Katie Couric called. He went on The Today Show two days after Columbine.
CRAIG SCOTT: - two kids with trench coats on, they came into the library and they shot Isaiah.
KATIE COURIC: And then you, you played dead, Craig.
CRAIG SCOTT: I, I just ended up laying on the floor. I was, I was praying to God to give me…
KAREN DUFFIN: Each time a high profile tragedy occurs, the victims must decide, unsettled and unprepared, whether to share it.
STEVE SIEGEL: So everything is on the fly, and that creates a lack of perspective about what are the consequences of, of my doing this or not doing this.
KAREN DUFFIN: That’s Steve Siegel, from the Denver District Attorney's Office. He's worked with victims of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook and many other major tragedies. He says public relations professionals can spend years learning how to calculate how one interview might affect a court case, a relationship, a reputation five weeks or five years down the road. It's like playing chess. One move affects the next. But victims don't calculate.
STEVE SIEGEL: The vast majority of people who are willing to cooperate with the media, they are looking to try to create some sense out of a senseless act.
KAREN DUFFIN: Craig Scott says talking to the press has been cathartic.
CRAIG SCOTT: It was therapeutic, to be able to talk and have people listen and have people be supportive.
DARRELL SCOTT: Not everybody is - wants to do that, and I understand that.
KAREN DUFFIN: That's Craig’s father, Darrell Scott.
DARRELL SCOTT: It has been not only therapeutic but it's been a joy, because it's like they're still with you, as long as you share their memory.
KAREN DUFFIN: Victims’ advocates like Steve Seigel say that the line between an interview feeling cathartic and feeling painful, or even re-victimizing, is thin. Darrell understood this.
DARRELL SCOTT: A lot of times media wants to see emotion, and I personally just made a decision in the early days not to perform for the camera. I don't answer a lot of questions, like, “How did you feel when you heard that your daughter died?” I always just say, you know, “Like any other parent would feel.”
KAREN DUFFIN: Sometimes victims use the media simply because it's the best way to spread the word.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
JOHN WALSH: The parents of Adam Walsh, who’s been missing since yesterday noon from –
KAREN DUFFIN: You may recognize that voice.
JOHN WALSH: I’m John Walsh. For 25 years, I’ve hunted fugitives all over the world. Tonight I’m taking….
[AUDIO UP & UNDER]
KAREN DUFFIN: His son Adam was kidnapped from a shopping mall in 1981. He begged the press to cover the story, but he says they barely did. So one week into the search John took some PR advice from an unlikely source.
JOHN WALSH: The county coroner said, raise the reward.
KAREN DUFFIN: This PR-savvy coroner told John to use the most basic tool of PR, a news hook.
JOHN WALSH: It'll intrigue the media. They’ll show up, and it will reinvigorate Adam’s case.
KAREN DUFFIN: Sure enough, the local papers showed up. But two weeks later, Adam Walsh was found dead. John still believes that press attention could have brought Adam home alive, with reason. As host of America's Most Wanted, he's used the media to help capture over 1200 criminals.
Media pressure influences the decisions of police and politicians, and that influence is enough to make an otherwise press-shy person talk to the media.
BOB SWARTZ: I don’t know, from my point of view I didn’t think I had any choice.
KAREN DUFFIN: Bob Swartz is the father of internet activist Aaron Swartz. In 2011, the federal government charged Aaron with illegally downloading files over the MIT network. Amidst a very aggressive prosecution Aaron committed suicide, and his death sparked an international outcry.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He was a computer prodigy, an online activist, co-founder…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He was an idealist who believed we had to live up to something better.
KAREN DUFFIN: Unlike the Scotts, Bob Swartz doesn't like talking to the press.
BOB SWARTZ: Yeah, I mean, it’s very – emotionally, it's incredibly hard, and I try to erect some degree of emotional distance, but it’s very difficult. I mean, what happened was just so shattering that one has a responsibility to make sure that these kinds of things don’t happen again.
KAREN DUFFIN: Bob’s goals are ambitious, to make all academic literature free, to modify federal computing laws and to make structural changes at MIT. So Bob did look for PR help, and he found a professional willing to advise him pro bono.
BOB SWARTZ: Well, I think he helped make sense - you know, begin to make sense out of what was going on, you know, try to understand how to approach this. I mean, it was a completely new experience, and I, I didn't have a clue.
KAREN DUFFIN: Bob is confronting institutions that have PR experience and deep pockets, but he has the advantages all victims and their families have, a public profile, deep tragically-earned credibility and an emotional story that provokes interest in arcane-sounding issues. So he can use the media to help level the playing field, but moving from human interest to influence means learning how to attach a personal story to big issues and concrete solutions. In PR speak, this means learning how to bridge. John Walsh.
JOHN WALSH: When I got involved in trying to force the FBI and the Justice Department to stop opposing the Missing Children’s Bill, I knew that I would only have a short amount of time on air and I had to be succinct, I had to be articulate. I had to have a call to action. I better know what I was talkin’ about, and I had to have something to say, other than crying and pleading for Adam.
KAREN DUFFIN: Walsh got his bill passed. And Bob Swartz, advocating after his son’s suicide, helped prompt Congress to introduce a bill called Aaron’s Law and MIT to conduct an internal review of its role in Aaron's case.
Meanwhile, the Scotts have also become advocates for a larger cause, through an anti-bullying program they founded called Rachel's Challenge, based on the life and writings of Rachel Scott, Craig’s sister who died at Columbine. They say it's the largest school assembly program in the country and that it's prevented at least seven school shootings and 500 suicides.
But the passion that gives these particular advocates their power also saps their strength. This isn’t a product pitch. It's their lives, focused on the worst moment of their lives. John Walsh says:
JOHN WALSH: I say it to every victim: “You really don't have an obligation to carry forward. If you can't carry forward financially, if you can't carry forward emotionally, if you can't carry forward because it's destroying your family relationships, then don't do it.”
KAREN DUFFIN: Steve Siegel from the Denver District Attorney's Office says to remember you can say no to the press and, if you say yes, you can set the parameters. He also says to be realistic about what you can actually get from talking to the media.
STEVE SIEGEL: You know, you, you hear the word “closure,” telling my story will bring me closure. It, it just really does not, in my experience, provide that, and what the real search is for, incorporating this horrible experience into your current circumstances.
BOB SWARTZ: Now, look, my son’s dead and everything else is meaningless - as compared to that. But you want to make sure that maybe some small amount of good can come out of such an immense tragedy.
CRAIG SCOTT: People that say, Craig how you continue to talk about it and do the media, you know, it’s like you don't get it. Just join me for one trip and see what I see and then tell me how could I not do it.
KAREN DUFFIN: Living in the spotlight is a challenging new reality for victims and their families. As Bob Swartz said, his son is dead. Everything after that is meaningless.
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But if they can learn how to play the media, while factoring in their own limits and tolerance for the game, they may be able to find some meaning, even in the meaningless. For On the Media, I’m Karen Duffin.
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BOB GARFIELD: Amazon, the largest bookseller in the world, is locked in a struggle with Hachette, one of the biggest publishers. And Amazon has, shall we say, maximized its leverage. It’s prolonged shipping times, taken away the option to preorder new releases and eliminated the one-click option for purchasing Hachette books. Such Hachette authors as Scott Turow and James Patterson are furious, and some readers, too, are disgruntled.
Amid the uproar, Amazon released a statement on Tuesday which said it has the right to seek the most favorable terms from vendors, and it invited frustrated customers, in the meantime, to, quote, “purchase a new or used version from one of our third-party sellers or from one of our competitors.”
Brad Stone is the author of author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Brad, welcome back to OTM.
BRAD STONE: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s begin by declaring our various conflicts of interest. [LAUGHS]
Amazon’s imprint, Thomas & Mercer, is publisher of my novel, Hachette is publisher of your book about Amazon. [LAUGHS] So we're, neither of us, exactly disinterested parties.
BRAD STONE: That’s right, and it’s a great irony. A book that is at least in part about Amazon’s touch negotiating tactics is now, in some way, affected by those tactics.
BOB GARFIELD: The other salient fact is that while Amazon is extremely beloved by consumers, for price and convenience and world-class customer service, it’s pretty widely behated by authors, publishers [LAUGHS] and other vendors who have to do business with it. Why is that?
BRAD STONE: Why do publishers dislike Amazon? It’s because [LAUGHS] for the last 10 years they’ve been beaten with increasingly large sticks, as Amazon seeks to change the terms of business that tilt the playing field in favor of e-books. You know, they want to stock less physical books, that Amazon doesn’t want old copies of books sittin’ in its warehouses, taking up space. And every time the contracts between the big publishers and Amazon come due - and one came due this spring between Hachette and Amazon – Amazon seeks to change the terms. They say that they’re trying to create a more kind of future- forward arrangement to push the industry in the direction of digital, to create a better arrangement for its customers over the long term.
But the publishers don’t see it that way. They see, you know, Amazon taking more margin, changing the playing field and putting more pressure on their other partners.
So, you know, when a Hachette looks at this deal, it's trying to protect, you know, Barnes & Noble, which, as we all know, is kind of teetering, and independent bookstores which have been under assault for 20 years. So we’ve seen a kind of steady increasing of hostilities between Hachette and Amazon over the last three months.
BOB GARFIELD: This particular dispute, what are the issues? What are Amazon’s demands that Hachette is not interested in surrendering to?
BRAD STONE: That’s the question and, actually, we kind of don't know. You know, both parties are playing this very close to the vest. You know, I feel like I should be in a pretty good position to know, being a Hachette author, dealing with Amazon quite a bit over the last few years. I can’t really say that I do, and I haven’t seen it reported authoritatively elsewhere. It probably most likely centers around e-books and the royalty arrangement.
Hachette, like a lot of the other big publishers, is kind of done compromising. I think they feel like they’ve given up a lot to Amazon, and Amazon is now 30 percent of their business, in some cases, and they’re worried about their other channels and, if Barnes & Noble does go down, you know, what it looks like when Amazon controls 50 percent, or even more, of the book business.
BOB GARFIELD: Does this negotiation have anything to do with that 2012 Justice Department case against three of the big six publishers, including Hachette, alleging that they conspired with Apple to jack up the prices of e-books on the, what was then new, iPad device?
BRAD STONE: There certainly is a connection. In the resolution of that litigation, it essentially allowed Amazon to price e-books wherever they want. They want to price a book at six or seven dollars, so they want to change the royalty redistribution to make sure that it represents the new lower price. That's where a publisher like Hachette is resisting, because they [LAUGHS] see all the overhead that they have, the arrangements that they have with their authors, the big warehouses, that they still have to preserve to support the old channels, the bookstores. The new royalty arrangement doesn’t work for them. That’s why they’re at loggerheads, and it’s why a lot of people in the book business kind of blame the Justice Department for kind of goin’ after the wrong monopolist.
And the perverse irony, you know, was that they were trying to create an alternative e-book ecosystem, a counterweight to Amazon. You know, unfortunately, they went about it in kind of the wrong way, and Amazon, which does have a commanding position in books, you know, what they’re doing is well within the laws. The problem is it seems to abandon a core value, which is their customer obsession. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Is there a backlash, do you think, that will damage that sterling customer service reputation that Amazon has earned?
BRAD STONE: That’s the key question. I, I think Amazon has shown in the past it is very sensitive to bad press, particularly as it’s seeking to extend its brand in new ways, selling phones or rolling our grocery service. They did release a statement recently, and they released it on an Amazon user forum. They were speaking to the business people that were following it. And the language was technical and somewhat convoluted. It kind of said to me that they don’t really see this playing out in the public, that insiders care about this. You know, they may be a little bit delusional. I mean, they’re making it harder for their customers to get books, to have a good experience on the Kindle, to have quick delivery. These are values that they’ve trumpeted for the past 20 years and here, in this dispute, they’re - they seem to have abandoned them.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I’ll leave you with a very simple last question. Brad, what’s gonna happen here? [LAUGHS]
BRAD STONE: [LAUGHS] I think these companies will kiss and make up, sooner rather than later. You know, Hachette has a huge motivation to get this behind them. I mean, their upcoming books, you know, like JK Rowling’s new novel, The Silkworm, it’s unavailable on Amazon. You know, you can’t preorder it. And that’s terrible for the publisher. It’s also right now bad for Amazon; they’re getting a lot of bad press. Both parties are saying this could take a long while to resolve. I think they’re kind of posturing.
You know, my sense is that cooler heads will prevail sooner rather than later, and it’ll be back to business as usual.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Brad, many thanks.
BRAD STONE: Thank you, Bob.
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BOB GARFIELD: Brad Stone is a senior writer for Bloomberg Business Week and author of, The Everything Store: Jeff Bazos and the Age of Amazon. His book comes out in paperback this fall, and you may see a special promo page on it on Amazon.com, or you may not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a former tabloid hack turns the tables on his cohorts, with the dirty tricks they taught him. BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, the German tabloid Bild published pictures of Kate Middleton's bare bottom, exposed when her skirt flew up during a recent trip to Australia. The British tabloid press was offered the pictures but dutifully refused them and denounced the German paper.
The - bottom-feeding Daily Mail went so far as to call it a “breach of privacy.” Could this mean that British tabloids have seen the errors of their own ways since the infamous News of the World Scandal and subsequent Leveson inquiry into press ethics? No. Alongside the story slamming Bild’s distasteful publication of Middleton's rear, the Daily Mail Online featured such gems as Toni Braxton narrowly avoids wardrobe malfunction exiting her SUV for dinner at Mr. Chow and “making-it-rain” moment, to X-Men director Bryan Singer threw hundreds of dollars at male strippers for lap dances at a Hollywood gay bar, complete with pictures.
The immutable lowbrowedness of the British tabloids is the subject of a new film, One Rogue Reporter, premiering next month at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. Its star and creator, Rich Peppiatt, knows something of which he speaks.
RICH PEPPIATT: Indeed. I used to be one of those shameless tabloid hacks. I resigned quite publicly three and a half years ago and leaked my resignation letter to the Guardian newspaper, sort of decrying some of the ethnical practices of my paper I was working, the, the Daily Star.
BOB GARFIELD: Early on in the film, do you establish your bona fides as a practitioner of the “dark tabloid arts”?
RICH PEPPIATT: When I landed a job at the Daily Star, one of Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers, what I didn’t imagine myself doing would be dressing up as Santa and getting drunk with strippers, or dressing up as a transvestite stripper. I’d like to say that was the bottom of my particular journalistic barrel, but here’s me dressed in a burka, yep, a burka.
Oh, I had many opportunities. I could have left. I wrote a lot of things I regretted. And I do question my immorality: Why did you allow yourself to get involved in this and why didn’t you earlier on say no? There is a degree of this film being me working through that.
BOB GARFIELD: The film shows some excerpts of your own testimony before the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid ethnics, sort of a combination of accusation and confessional.
RICH PEPPIATT: I resigned before the phone hacking scandal kicked off, and then when tabloid ethics became front page news and it became a big debate in Britain, I guess I got sucked back into it and I became involved in campaigned for press reform in Britain.
The turning point, I think, is when I went to a seminar that was put on by the Leveson Inquiry. All the top people in Fleet Street, all the top reporters and executives were all invited, and I was asked to give a, a presentation. And I went for the jugular, and let’s just say it wasn’t very well received. In the film, that’s the moment I went, right, okay, well if I can’t get through, if people aren’t gonna listen in a serious manner, then I’m going to attempt to do it in a, in a satirical manner, turning the tables on tabloid editors and executives, using the tricks and techniques that they taught me against them, to see how they like it.
BOB GARFIELD: This movie covers the whole landscape of tabloid trickery and moral bankruptcy. Can you give me some examples
of what One Rogue Reporter focuses on?
RICH PEPPIATT: You mentioned the Mail Online, one of the people that we stunt is the editor of the Mail Online, Martin Clarke. We hire a paparazzi to follow him around and take pictures of him, and I ask him some sort of sidebar of shame Mail Online questions that seem to populate that website.
RICH PEPPIATT: You got any gossip for us? You on a diet or anything? You detoxing?
MARTIN CLARKE: Who the hell are you?
RICH PEPPIATT: Who the hell am I?
MARTIN CLARKE: Yeah.
RICH PEPPIATT: I’m just doin’ me job, mate, just takin’ a few pics. I saw a nipple slip with Kim Kardashian earlier, brilliant. I’ll send it in, I’ll send it across.
MARTIN CLARKE: Seriously, who are you?
RICH PEPPIATT: Doin’ me job, mate, just doin’ me job, you know, takin’ a few pics.
RICH PEPPIATT: You wouldn’t believe some of the high horses you hear people like Martin Clarke get on when they are defending what they call the right of journalism in this country and its proud traditions. It’s amazing, the – the Daily Mail in Britain accuse the Guardian of being traitors for printing the Snowden leaks and said that wasn’t journalism, that was just irresponsible. Yet, they will defend their right to print up-skirt shots and, and nipple slips, as if that is journalism.
The people at the top of the, the tabloid industry in Britain don’t have any interest in journalism. They’re killing journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the most stunning episodes in the film [LAUGHS] is just an interview with the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie.
RICH PEPPIATT: Kelvin MacKenzie is very famous as being probably the most disliked journalist in the country. He can’t even enter the city of Liverpool because of the things he wrote about the Hillsborough disaster at a football stadium, a disaster here 20 years ago. I think the gloves are very much off with anything that you can get on Kelvin MacKenzie.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t know how you pulled this off [LAUGHS] but you were asking him a series of what seemed to be hypothetical questions about his publishing standards.
RICH PEPPIATT: A famous sports star is, is caught canoodling with a woman who’s not his girlfriend in a nightclub, would you publish or not publish?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: I would publish.
RICH PEPPIATT: You discover a politician has had an affair with his secretary a day after he’s announced his divorce, publish or don’t publish?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Oh, publish! Oh, dear oh dear, you couldn’t get a big enough paper for that.
RICH PEPPIATT: But that one, that one’s pretty – that’s one pretty down –
KELVIN MacKENZIE: That – I mean, that one there, I mean, it’s game, set and match. There’ll be readers and editors all going, “Yes!”
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Yes! [LAUGHS]
RICH PEPPIATT: [LAUGHS] And the third one: You have proof a TV personality is exchanging saucy text messages with a woman who is not his wife.
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Rum the story or don’t rum the story?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Run the story, depending on what the text message basically said.
RICH PEPPIATT: The first two are almost teeing up, the final scenario is his own scenario of his own life, of which I then start reading out his own text messages to the woman who’s not his wife.
BOB GARFIELD: In this next bit of tape, we hear text alerts as actual messages, previously written by MacKenzie himself, flesh on the screen.
KELVIN MacKENZIE: You know, even an occasion that you – you used to be into rubber -
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Oh, fantastic stuff!
RICH PEPPIATT: Fantastic stuff, eh?
KELVIN MacZEKZIE: Shocking!
RICH PEPPIATT: If you bring a tape along next Tuesday, I’ll let you measure it.
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Well, if the text said –
RICH PEPPIATT: If the text said that?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Well, it depends what the “it” we’re referring to.
RICH PEPPIATT: I think a penis, probably.
KELVIN MacKENZIE: It – I would say that he was pretty much done for.
RICH PEPPIATT: Pretty much done for?
KELVIN MacKENZIE: Yeah.
RICH PEPPIATT: I lured him into the interview under the, the guise that I was from a Canadian production company, making a documentary about kiss ‘n tell stories. And he fled once he eventually clocked that this is not about any old kiss ‘n tell, this is about his own.
BOB GARFIELD: I gotta ask you, the text messages that are at the heart of this gag, how did you get them?
RICH PEPPIATT: Well, all I’m gonna say is a journalist has to protect his sources, and I’m pleading the Fifth. Is that what you’d say?
BOB GARFIELD: Was it like the phone hacking though, where laws were broken?
RICH PEPPIATT: No, it was completely above board. You know, the thing about phone hacking is phone hacking was lazy journalism. I don’t think there’s anything that was achieved by phone hacking that couldn't have been done with a bit more efforts in a legitimate way. And that was really what phone hacking was about. No, we’re – we’re very proud of that stunt because it took a lot of efforts.
BOB GARFIELD: He was not [LAUGHS] your only victim. Tell me some of the stunts involving other of the lions of Fleet Street.
RICH PEPPIATT: One of my favorites is against a guy named Neville Thurlbeck who is or was the chief reporter of the News of the World tabloid, which shut down in the phone hacking scandal and, and never was actually pled guilty to phone hacking, he wrote a story up at the News of the World, speaking about how he’d uncovered this seedy masseuse.
BOB GARFIELD: Undercover journalism, huh?
RICH PEPPIATT: It sort of sums up some of the problems of that sort of journalism, is this was a, a couple who ran a naturist B&B, sort of minding their own business. He went in there, wrote a big story in the national newspaper about the fact they gave nude massages and they were swingers. Is it really, minding their own business, in their own house, a topic that should be troubling journalism? Is it just for titillation? And because of that story, they had to shut down their guest house, they lost their business.
We managed to get a video of Neville Thurlbeck in a massage parlor, getting a naked massage, with a rather happy ending.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in the end, this is not just a prank film. There’s a point to it. What’s the point?
RICH PEPPIATT: It’s about exposing the hypocrisy of the people who decide what you read in your newspaper every day and want you to allow them to be the arbiters of morality and the arbiters of what is news and showing that these people aren’t fit to run a bath, let alone a newspaper.
So often, they’re able to print things in their newspapers and never have to account for those things. Yes, it is puerile at times but I like to think that by the end there is a serious point that comes through.
BOB GARFIELD: Rich, thank you very much.
RICH PEPPIATT: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Former tabloid reporter Rich Peppiatt’s new film is called One Rogue Reporter. You can learn more about it at oneroguereporter.com.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer, Meara Sharma and Kimmie Regler. We had more help from Cameron Lindsey, and our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Executive Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.