Wednesday, May 6, 2009

True Grift

We've been here before, of course. Take out your Emery, Ault and Agee mass-com history book. The elite newspapers from the Revolutionary era, aimed at the ship owners and commercial interests, were supplanted by the Penny Press. The era of yellow journalism. The tabloid era and the picture of Ruth Snyder being executed. For many people, USA Today was just another part of that continuing battle between "Should the press attract readers however it can" vs. "Should the press serve the best interests of society," which always is presented as, if you do A, once, ever, you aren't doing B.

But, of course, you can't ignore life, and so newspapers have always done A while pretending that they are doing it to serve the best interests of society. Had O.J. Simpson taken his famous drive in the era before 24-hour cable news, perhaps multiple-edition papers would have covered it with extras and 9-stars (Simpson Car Speeds On; Police Flummoxed by Endless Drive). As it was, we in print were able to simply follow up with a news story and an analysis, if necessary ("Simpson Drive a Symbol of Americans' Eternal Flight From History"). We could be high-minded because TV was lowbrow, and we still had endless pages of Sunday help wanted even though everyone in the country was watching the white van on CNN. Man, was life good.

Probably my paper, which still considers itself a traditional gatekeeper, would have ignored the story of the "hipster grifter" except that she managed to get herself arrested in Philadelphia. Our story does a fine job of explaining to anyone who has never heard of Kari Farrell why she is more than a News in Brief item. And to do so, of course, it needs to put itself into the world of New Media, where, despite its online presence, it really still feels uncomfortable:

"To her followers, Ferrell, with her large tattoo of a phoenix on her chest and her presence at concerts and clubs around Brooklyn, fits the mold of urban hipster.

"Dozens of media and pop-culture blogs began tracking her movements and collecting stories from alleged victims about a month ago. An April 15 feature about Ferrell in the New York Observer was the first to use the nickname 'hipster grifter.'

"Her appeal to readers, said Gawker blogger Hamilton Nolan, was 'just the outrageousness of the stuff she had done.'"

That's right: No higher purpose, no effect upon social justice, no meaning other than itself. (The online newspaper the Post Chronicle had a staff-written story May 3 noting: "Like me, you probably never heard about the Hipster Grifter until today when someone sent me a link to four naked photos of a tattooed Asian girl." The Post Chronicle says its "news staff is compelled to provide up-to-the minute news that is accurate and unbiased, and present clear-cut facts and data you can trust." So, yes, it is a link to four naked photos of a tattooed Asian girl. And, yes, the word in our story about the tattoo being on her "chest" is not bowdlerizing; the tattoo is above her breasts. So, yes, I checked it out. Sue me.)

Here is the New York Observer's story on her arrest; OK, it's been a continuing thing so it doesn't need an introduction, but a phrasing such as this would never appear in a mainstream newspaper, or would it:

"We admit that the notion of Ms. Ferrell eluding capture for months, even years, befriending twentysomethings in tattooed enclaves across the country while she insisted that she had been framed (or at least, was sorry) was alluring."

Sort of a meta-reference, in other words; we're covering this story because it seems like it could be a cool story, not because it means anything. It's the Internet, space and time are endless, media outlets are endless, we don't have to justify what we do by appeals to a higher purpose. It is what it is. Newspapers have always covered things because they seem like cool stories, of course, but then someone yells "You're just doing this to sell newspapers" and we scurry back to Point B for cover.

And "outrageousness" appears to include this moment of citizen video journalism at Gawker, in which Kari -- or someone who is said to be Kari, or someone who looks like Kari, but let's assume it is Kari -- says to some guy, "Do you wanna go spelunking in my cavernous vagina?" He, of course, says, why, sure! Perhaps he reads the Post Chronicle and has already virtually explored the rest. It's all just there. But think of the discussions in your newsroom! Maybe they had those at Gawker. Or maybe Gawker just said, cavernous vagina = Web hits. Which is not that different from, woman in electric chair = street sales.

And what does it all mean? We're already there, dealt with that and past it. As Gavin McInnes, described as the founder of Vice, put it (yes, I have no idea what Vice is):

"I realize hindsight is 20/20 but how awesome would it be if you knew a chick was a hipster grifter but didn't let on and dated her anyways? She'd fake cry during intercourse and tell you she wants to have your babies and you'd be all, 'I know Kari. I've never loved anyone this much.' How intensely dark and fucking weird would that be!?

"You'd have to constantly avoid situations where you give her cash and you'd have to sleep with your credit cards up your ass but, as we've learned from seducing strippers, the more dough you put out the more you're seen as a dolt. She'd actually appreciate the challenge. Oh what a heavy thrill it would be watching her out of the corner of your eye, trying to predict her next hustle. Anyone with a junkie roommate knows how challenging this can be."

God, mainstream newspapers would have to spend weeks determining what percentage of the metropolitan area had lived with, or were, junkie roommates, to determine if this was a trend story. (Do we do it as a pie chart or a fever chart?) After that in Gawker, an unnamed editor ponders the chance of her getting a book deal and finds it lacking (though noting that a similar story hoodwinked the New York Times into doing a Style piece about What It All Means). But the Observer reporter is asked what it all means, and being a reporter for a publication that existed before the Internet, she gives it her best J-school try:

"Since the story ran I've heard tales of other grifters people have had the unfortunate experience of coming into contact with. They're certainly an intriguing group of people, but you just feel like at some point it starts just being sad more than anything else—the grifters themselves seem to have some serious mental health issues and the people they target are so emotionally and often financially drained from the experience. My (armchair) analysis is that it's partly the need to feel loved and taken care of (see Kari's constant hospitalizations under questionable circumstances) but taken to an unhealthy level. Connected to that is wanting to have power over people (Kari's suicide attempts and 'pregnancy' scares, tellingly, seemed to come when it seemed like a guy was about to leave her, or when he was on tour with his band—she would make it so that he 'couldn't' leave her). I think people with these kinds of issues are also deeply, deeply lonely; in one of my follow-ups to the original story I told about how she made up intricate lies to get someone to go to a concert with her. Many of her victims also said that she always seemed to have something to offer people, and I would bet that she did that because she was nervous about being alone. But I think there's also the thrill of getting away with it all; knowing they have the power to manipulate people to such a degree must give grifters a kind of high. Kari knows she comes off as friendly and personable, which is why she's able to manipulate people so skillfully."

Damn, there we go trying to make it all mean something again. Watch in your local daily in a couple of weeks for a Sunday story on "Hipster grifters called problem for society," followed by "Mental health agency seeks funding to treat hipster grifters" and "Mayor announces grifter initiative." The New York Observer reporter is leaning in that direction and if she worked for the Times would probably go there. But in the meantime there are still those photos of her tattoo.

Again, it's not that newspapers are immune from this stuff. But this is what a world of instant communication without gatekeepers really means. The gatekeepers' job really wasn't to be censors (though they did that) or class advocates (though they did that). It was to say, this is meaningful and this is not. This serves the best interests of society. Well, goodbye to all that. We're told that in communications, it's good that we want what we want when we want it how we want it, and media companies should answer that need. In cities, what most people appear to want is a six-lane freeway from their office parking lot to a mile from their home, whereupon they exit onto a bucolic, never-crowded country lane bringing them to a subdivision that only they know about, because if other people know about it, criminals from the city know about it. Oh, and did we mention free parking and no tolls? Didn't demanding what we want when we want it how we want it help bring about the Great Recession? Oh, but that's so old media of me.

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