Ripped From Which Headlines? "Human Flesh Search Engine"

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 2 2009 10:39 AM

Ripped From Which Headlines? "Human Flesh Search Engine"

We all know that Law & Order rips its stories from the headlines, but which headlines? Every week, Brow Beat matches L&O 's plot points to the events that inspired them.

Oct. 30, 2009: "Human Flesh Search Engine"

These Are Their Stories
The first act of the episode, co-written by Slate contributor Matthew McGough, focuses on the murder of Sid Maxwell, the founder and CEO of Skintight Apparel, a company that "sells $5 T-shirts for $40." In the early stages of the investigation, the detectives suspect a former employee who sued for sexual harassment. (The company's lawyers countered that she should have understood she was working in "a highly sexualized work environment.")

This Is the Real Story
Sid Maxwell bears more than a passing resemblance to Dov Charney , founder and CEO of American Apparel , a purveyor of sweatshop-free skintight apparel. According to the New York Times Magazine , in 2005, "three former employees and an independent contractor filed three sexual-harassment lawsuits against Charney and American Apparel." Workers are now required to sign a document that acknowledges, "Employees working in the design, sales, marketing and other creative areas of the company will come into contact with sexually charged language and visual images."

These Are Their Stories
The detectives soon discover that a photograph of Maxwell texting while driving had been posted to, a Web "forum for corrective social action," along with exhortations that he should be killed before he kills someone else. Flashposse community members identified the make and model of the car from the photo and hacked into DMV records to find the owner; Maxwell's address and his building's security entry code were also posted on the site. A schizophrenic member used the information to enter the apartment and kill Maxwell.

This Is the Real Story
The episode's title is a reference to the Chinese nickname for "virtual mobs" that strike back at corrupt officials by bringing online attention to cases censored by Communist Party officials. According to a June 16, 2009, New York Times story , in several recent cases, "the Internet has cracked open a channel for citizens to voice mass displeasure with official conduct, demonstrating its potential as a catalyst for social change." As the article notes, some online vigilantes have posted personal information about alleged offenders.

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June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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