Reporters fancy themselves wicked cynics who automatically assume the worst of people until proved otherwise. But there's a soft spot in the medulla oblongata of even the most hard-boiled reporter where if you tickle it just so, he'll fall into a trance and become your spaniel.
Just construct a convincing lie about being a victim and feed it to him. Then wait for the sympathetic coverage to roll off the presses.
Claiming victimhood doesn't work every time. But if owning the first 20 yards of the 100-yard news dash is what's important to you, posing as a victim will usually do the trick, as Richard "Balloon Dad" Heene learned this week.
You'd have to be stone-hearted not to have felt a twinge of panic last week when reports that 6-year-old Falcon Heene had climbed into the basket of the Fort Collins, Colo., family's helium balloon and accidentally soared into the skies.
Now, had a 98-year-old grandfather reportedly climbed into the same basket and soared into the same skies, the fright would not have been as large. Oh, CNN would have broken from its regularly scheduled programming to cover it and so would have local reporters. But few care about 98-year-old victims. In fact, in the hierarchy of victimhood, young beats old, female beats male, domestic beats foreign, fur beats scales, defenseless beats well-armed, pregnant beats nonpregnant, and kittens beat everything.
According to the latest news, Richard Heene appears to have staged the runaway-balloon-boy story in order to garner sympathetic interest in his family—interest that he could parlay into a TV show for himself. A keen reader of media manners and former Wife Swap participant, Heene obviously appreciates that a 6-year-old in peril is irresistible media bait. God knows what fiendish stunt Heene would have attempted if the family's cat had just given birth to a litter of tabbies.
Megan Williams didn't have a TV career in mind when she falsely claimed victimhood in September 2007. The 20-year-old African-American, you may recall, accused a half-dozen white people in Big Creek, W.Va., of kidnapping, raping, and torturing her for at least a week. From the Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2007:
According to court complaints and interviews with law enforcement officials, defendants cut her hair, made her eat dog and rat feces, placed a cable around her neck, poured hot water over her body and forced her to lick blood and drink water from a toilet.
They also told the alleged victim, identified as Megan Williams of Charleston, that she would be killed if she left the property, set in a forlorn stretch of forest.
The press mob produced an avalanche of news about the Williams case, in which seven people were convicted and six of them sent to jail on plea bargains. But today's (Oct. 22, 2009) New York Times reports that Williams has recanted the most shocking elements of her story: The wild embellishment was designed to retaliate against a boyfriend who had beaten her up. Also, she now says her mother made her do it in the hope of reaping some financial gain.
Susan Smith of Union, S.C., similarly hoodwinked the press into thinking her a victim in October 1994 when she howled that a gun-toting black carjacker had driven off with her two sons, ages 3 and 14 months. Smith soon confessed the story was fiction and that she had killed her kids. Charles Stuart of Boston tried the have-pity-on-me-I'm-the-victim-of-a-black-carjacker ruse in 1989, when he murdered his pregnant wife, Carol. The hierarchy of victimhood Smith and Stuart operated under was that white people trump black people.
Reporters fall sucker to fake victim stories for the same reasons readers do: There are real victims in this world, and we naturally feel for them. The purer, more innocent, younger, and more cuddly the victims, the more we ache. And the perpetrators of fake victim stories know that.
Many reporters get into the business because they hope to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the journalistic cliché puts it. No reporter was ever scolded by his bosses for chasing victim stories, and there is no editor so crabby and old-school that he isn't eager to exploit a savaging-of-the-lambs piece. The perpetrators know that, too.
Given the fact that producers and consumers of news find victim stories so delectable, perhaps the only thing keeping a lid on the supply of fake victim stories is the limited number of people willing to risk ostracism—or jail time—for telling grandiose lies.
Every time a media-swallowed lie is exposed, everybody becomes a little more skeptical. Neither reporters nor viewers would rush to learn more about, say, a Nebraska man who called 911 today to report that his 5-year-old daughter may have taken an unauthorized trip in the family blimp. But our immunity to B.S. wanes over time, leaving us vulnerable to future iterations of the balloon-boy story, and our acquired immunity to today's B.S. doesn't do us much good when a new, weird strain of B.S. takes over the news.
The best vaccine against B.S. victim stories is to nurture your skepticism, even if it hardens your heart a bit. If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Find documentary evidence of her love (an expensive gift, perhaps). Next, find a witness who can vouch for her love. Finally, get her to sign an affidavit proclaiming her love. But remember, she could still be faking it.
Self-plagiarism alert: I reworked those closing sentences from a March 27, 2008, Press Box. There is no love like self-love and no e-mail like the e-mail I get at email@example.com. Nobody who can tweet better can tweet faster than me, and nobody who tweets faster can tweet better, so belly-up to my Twitter feed (apologies to A.J. Liebling). (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)