NARRATOR Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl cuts off boy's penis,
BROOKE GLADSTONE Revisiting stories of maligned women from the 90s helps us understand our media and ourselves. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Take the case of Lorena Bobbitt.
JOSHUA ROFÉ The media is absolutely complicit in the misrepresentation of this story. This is a story about a woman who was beaten. She was strangled, she was raped, and it went on for years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But what does it take for media and the rest of us to revise our flawed first draft of history?
SARAH MARSHALL What are the factors that can maybe create a world where they're treated decently and actually maybe given the chance to tell their story and be believed?
MICHAEL HOBBES And we wouldn't need podcast's 25 years later to circle back to them and be like, hey, wait, this was complex.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The 90s and the aughts constructed and imprinted certain images on our collective imaginations. Images of certain kinds of women, ambitious, raging, raving women who made salacious headlines a generation ago. Women like Britney Spears.
DIANE SAWYER Britney Spears has upset a lot of mothers in this country, starting with the wife of the governor of Maryland.
EHRLICH Really, if I had an opportunity to to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.
BRITNEY SPEARS Oh, that's horrible. That's a really bad
DIANE SAWYER Because of the example for kids and how hard it is to be a parent. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But that was then. And these are arguably more conscious times. We increasingly see how we were ill served by our biases and by our media. And we are finally able to peer through a clear lens to see what was once all too easy to ignore.
BRITNEY SPEARS I just want my life back. And it's been 13 years and it's enough. It's been a long time since I've owned my money and it's my wish and my dream for all of this to end. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Britney Spears, whose life, health and finances have been controlled by a third party under the terms of something called a conservatorship for over a decade, made headlines this summer for speaking out publicly against her legal predicament. And she's finding a turn in public opinion in her favor. Last week, in response to a petition by her lawyers, her father stepped down as one of her conservators, though the conservatorship itself remains intact. Of course, Spears was neither the first nor the last woman to have her reputation ruined by media and then reappraised decades later. It's become something of a trend.
JAY LENO I have this great idea on how to get rid of Nancy Kerrigan. Kill her now.
COMEDIIAN She felt the husband was selfish because he had an orgasm and she didn't. So she grabbed a handful and sliced. I mean, this was one angry woman.
NEWS REPORT Monica was a young tramp.
NEWS REPORT Monica Lewinsky's behavior was unacceptable.
SINGER There's something about Monica, her lips never say no. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Monica, the young intern who allegedly seduced a president and threatened a presidency.
DAVID LETTERMAN Monica Lewinsky's new book, Me and My Big Mouth.
BILL MAHER I think Monica Lewinsky is the one who should apologize to America. She's the home wrecker. And if anybody really owes an apology, I think it's her. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Today, David Letterman's joke is even less funny. And Bill Maher's usual high dudgeon, even more puerile and self-serving, in part because the woman herself, once a 22 year old intern, entranced by the leader of the free world, took time to grow up and speak on her own behalf. Here's part of her 2015 TED talk. Two years before the #Metoo movement took off.
MONICA LEWINSKY In 1998, after having been swept up into an improbable romance, I was then swept up into the eye of a political, legal and media maelstrom like we had never seen before. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE She spoke about how digital media turned an inevitable barrage into an international bombardment.
MONICA LEWINSKY What that meant for me personally was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously. In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything and I almost lost my life. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Her story was revisited in depth on the celebrated podcast's Slow Burn in 2018,.
NARRATOR Scared as she was on that Friday afternoon. Lewinsky was unwilling to get wired up and sent off to spy on the president.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT That is where she comes through. I mean, as as I can't imagine anybody else which just said no.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I think there's an honesty perhaps under everything else there is in the way Monica Lewinsky presents herself. She doesn't disguise herself. I just think that's admirable. I just persist in thinking that.
NARRATOR For a long time. Monica Lewinsky herself rejected the label of victim. When her first lawyer, Bill Ginsburg, told her privately that he thought Clinton was no better than a child molester, she pushed back on him. Later, in interviews, she described her relationship with Clinton as a sincere crush that blossomed into a romance. And as recently as 2014, she wrote in Vanity Fair, "Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any abuse came in the aftermath when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Over the years, her tormentors, too, took the time to grow up.
DAVID LETTERMAN Now I started to feel bad because myself and other people with shows like this made relentless jokes about the poor woman. I feel bad about my role in helping push the humiliation to the point of suffocation. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The journalists, comedians, the general public and yes, the supposedly enlightened liberals and feminists of the day got Lewinsky wrong. So how about Tonya Harding, the ruthless skater whose ex-husband hired someone to smash the knee of her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan?
TONYA HARDING My skating was great, but my life was in shambles.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT She came from absolutely nothing.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT People called her poor white trash.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Tonya Harding was absolutely screwed over.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I get angry.
TONYA HARDING Nobody wanted to ever believe me. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The villain of the 1994 Winter Olympics got an updated depiction with the 2018 documentary Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story, which portrayed her not simply as a vicious fighter, but as an abused girlfriend and daughter and a perpetual outsider, mocked relentlessly for her low pedigree. Who the Olympic Committee and the public were only too happy to see fall from grace.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT America. They want someone to love. They want someone to hate.. Steve. And theywant it easy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This from I, Tonya, the 2017 biopic rendering the once simple narrative yet more complicated. Here, too, we didn't need new facts, we simply needed a new lens on an old story. And then of course, there was Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused, then nominated Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Some may recall the November 1991 People magazine cover featuring Virginia and Clarence Thomas in an embrace with the headline How He Survived. Survived, that is the allegations from the sex-crazed, lovestruck clerk.
SENATOR Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex?
ANITA HILL [LAUGHS] No,I don't.
SENATOR Have you studied in your psychology studies when you were in school and what you may have followed up with the question of fantasies. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It looked bad then it looks worse now. That case too received the documentary revision and docu-dramatic one on HBO, also before the Trump election and the subsequent Me Too movement. And let's add one final woman, another story. Lorena Bobbitt, the aggrieved Manassas, Virginia wife who in 1993 cut off her husband's penis. As men held their collective groins, Lorena instantly became a national, no, a global joke.
NARRATOR Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy marries girl. Girl cuts off boy's penis. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, Lorena Bobbitt is done being a punch line. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, we're looking at the stories of women maligned by the media in decades past, now reconsidered. Like Lorena Bobbitt, who became infamous back in the early 90s when reports said she cut off her husband's penis in a fit of rage, making headlines around the world. Back in 2019, she was made the subject of a four part documentary series called Lorena, that revisited her story. I spoke with filmmaker Joshua Rofé, who told me he barely remembers when the story first blew up.
JOSHUA ROFÉ I was 11 years old--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right.
JOSHUA ROFÉ But I grew up with this piece of ill informed, perverse, common knowledge that some crazed middle aged white woman cut her husband's penis off in the middle of the night and threw it out the car window. When the reality is she had come here at age 18 from Venezuela in search of the American dream and she thought she found it when she met this handsome charming Marine named John Wayne. John Wayne Bobbitt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The story was called the Battle of the Bobbits, which made it seem roughly as if they were two equals.
JOSHUA ROFÉ This goes to show the weight that was given to what she did to him as opposed to what he had done to her over and over again–serially abusing and raping her for years. Her one act was given the same weight as his four years worth of acts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I was thinking that if you were to render the story in cartoon form, the main character was just really a severed part of one Bobbitt. This story followed how it was detached, where it was thrown, how it was found, whether it's still worked.
MALE CORRESPONDENT It's a really uncommon injury. I've never done one, never seen one.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Will he ever, ever have a normal sex life again?
MALE CORRESPONDENT I'm optimistic that he’ll again virtually all of its normal function. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And most important, what some tabloids quoting Shakespeare called 'the unkindest cut of all,' did it hurt? It was about penis.
JOSHUA ROFÉ It was all anybody cared about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which reminds me, that at this point in time, respectable publications and news outlets didn't use the word penis.
JOSHUA ROFÉ In the beginning of episode one, one of the police officers talks about having to get onto the radio and try to convey to the other officers what the situation was. They were all speaking in vague terms about a missing appendage and some of the police officers thought that it--'is it a finger? Is it a toe? What--what are we looking for?'
BROOKE GLADSTONE What with the mores of the time that were shaping the coverage?
JOSHUA ROFÉ If you go back just a couple of years before Lorena's story hit, and we do this in episode one, we take you back to Anita Hill and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the Tailhook scandal. And in every instance, any time that a woman or a group of women, in the case of Tailhook, came forward and expressed clearly that they had been harassed or assaulted in a sexual nature and they were discredited, vilified. The justice system turned its back on them. It was without fail, a losing proposition for a woman who is coming forward. And so in 1993, when this young girl named Lorena Bobbitt is now in the middle of all of this, she really didn't stand a chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And sketch in the media landscape, Cable TV was blooming and prominent among the proliferating channels was Court TV.
JOSHUA ROFÉ This story in many ways was the original clickbait. It had the ultimate headline. Once that headline about a severed penis grabbed everybody's attention, there was this moral misstep which was 'keep the headlines on the penis.' The media is absolutely complicit in the misrepresentation of this story. This is a story not about a cut off penis. This is a story about a woman who was beaten, she was strangled, she was raped, she was sodomized and it went on for years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From your footage it didn't seem like the attitudes towards Lorena were universally condemning. There was an interesting exchange between Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters on their popular show.
BARBARA WALTERS I do think that men and women see this very differently. And men see it as a man being mutilated, I think in the most awful way a man could imagine. Many women see a woman abused to such a degree that she struck out at the area that was doing her the most harm.
HUGH DOWNS You can still being very sensitive to the need to cut down on abuse of women and see this act as different from the act of many women who are abused, who may kill their husband.
BARBARA WALTERS If you're a man you may.
HUGH DOWNS Haha.
BARBARA WALTERS And you are.
HUGH DOWNS I guess I can't think help looking at it that way. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ To me, one of the most interesting things in terms of the archival footage that we found was the sort of man and woman on the street interviews that shows like Jenny Jones or even the nightly news would do. And there were a number of women who did not think that even if she was raped that there was any excuse.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I think she did it so he wouldn't have sex with anyone else. I think that was the real reason why she did it. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ Some of them just flat out didn't believe her. That said, there are also many women who did believe her.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I would have liked to do that.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT You would have?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Huh, yes. Yes. If I was raped or wronged, of course that's your first feeling–to get back at somebody. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ Many women in the media at the time, they were trying to write the stories that would have propped Lorena up more as what she was but the editors were men. You see the cover of Time magazine from during Lorena's trial and it's a pig in a business suit and the headline is Are Men Really That Bad? And that is in response to this woman who was on the stand having a panic attack telling you of the way she was beaten, raped and sodomized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A 1993 op-ed in the LA Times by Robyn Abcarian argued that to make Lorena Bobbitt into a symbol for anything other than a sick marriage between two immature angry people, is to compromise the legitimacy that has finally been conferred on battered women who strike back in self-defense.
JOSHUA ROFÉ Battered women's syndrome, as it was starting to become known, was a new phenomenon. And so, you know, I think part of this is about class and race. If Lorena had been a white, rich woman from an affluent area I don't think that she would have been categorized as that piece in the LA Times categorized her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In January of 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted in Detroit and the media had a new tabloid story to focus on–the saga of Tonya Harding. And because of the short attention spans some important moments in the Bobbitt story were missed. How John beat his next two partners and this--.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT John forcibly took me out onto the balcony and pushed me over the edge of the balcony and was holding onto me by my lower legs, dangling me over the balcony threatening to drop me. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Would a longer gaze on this story have led to a different assessment?
JOSHUA ROFÉ Impossible to say, I think. But we were not out to unearth anything. It was all there 25 years ago in plain sight. Just a fresh perspective and having the facts contextualized as they should have been in the first place was all it would take.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So many strange details that I didn't know. The pictures that were available of her abuse, John Wayne's bald-faced lying in the face of indisputable evidence. The rush to judging from people from whom I would have expected much better than this given what was available. It was like a collective blindness. For the series you talk to journalists and activists and nurses and doctors and lawyers who were present for the original story. You talk to Lorena. You talked to John. You don't talk to Howard Stern.
JOSHUA ROFÉ: I tried to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah?
JOSHUA ROFÉ Listen we wanted to talk to Howard Stern. We wanted to talk to Charlie Rose. We wanted to talk to Matt Lauer. We wanted to talk to Geraldo Rivera.
GERALDO RIVERA She felt the husband was selfish because he had an orgasm and she didn't. So she grabbed the handful and sliced. I mean this was one angry woman. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ Howard Stern aside, those other guys were exposed for predatory behavior. And so I'm actually glad, obviously, that they were exposed. But had they never been exposed and we interviewed them, all they would have given us their forward facing you know line of B.S. Looking at the series and seeing them just in there being the ones who are reporting the news to us speaks far more than anything they would have said to us--
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm.
JOSHUA ROFÉ --that would have been disingenuous anyway.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Howard Stern though did go some distance and turning--.
JOSHUA ROFÉ Despicable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE --John Bobbitt into a star.
JOSHUA ROFÉ So during Lorena's trial, again, while it is so clear that she has been abused by him it's even been corroborated by a piece of paper that he had signed admitting to abusing her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not to mention all the neighbors who saw it.
JOSHUA ROFÉ Many, many people. John Wayne called into the Howard Stern Show.
HOWARD STERN I don't even buy this whole thing that he was raping her and stuff. And she said, you know, she's not that great looking. She's got a lot of pimples your ex-wife.
JOHN BOBBITT Yeah.
HOWARD STERN I thought so. Her skin didn't look that good.
JOHN BOBBITT Uhuh.
HOWARD STERN I think she needs a little vitamin Bobbitt.
JOHN BOBBITT Haha. [END CLIP]
JOSHUA ROFÉ I would ask him what he was thinking back then. Had he not heard and seen everything that was clearly available? And I would ask him what he has to say today. Does he feel any sort of remorse for speaking about somebody who was a victim of such horrors in such a despicable way?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know Jordan Peele is the executive producer of this film. I'm curious how he got into that position. If you could tell me a little bit about what his expectations were.
JOSHUA ROFÉ Well Jordan I meant in, God, I think it was October of 2013 at a screening of my first documentary. It's called "Lost for Life" and it's by juveniles who are serving life without parole. And he expressed really loving the film. And so we connected and we became friends. We'd have these weekly excursions to go get Chinese food where we would talk about work and life and whatever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And this is before "Get Out.".
JOSHUA ROFÉ This is well before "Get Out." And then it was January of 2017 when Lorena had agreed to do this project with me that, during one of those Chinese food excursions, I said 'you're never going to guess who I'm making my next project about Lorena Bobbitt.' And he, right away, was fascinated and had a million questions and admittedly had the same preconceived notions that that I had had– that all of us had had. And this is now leading up to "Get Out" being released. And every time I saw him all he wanted to talk about or ask about was this project. He couldn't believe how many layers there were to it. How much depth there was. How--how, you know, he hoped that maybe telling a story about gender and sexual assault and domestic violence that maybe this could do for that what the OJ doc series could do in its examination of race. And it was literally "Get Out" opening weekend that he just turned to me and he said, 'what's going on with the Bobbitt project?' That he loved to be a part of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's interesting because the media have been such a double edged sword for Lorena. I mean since her trial, she's used the media to advocate for battered women. It's given her life a direction. She's willing to tolerate or cut through the jokes to make the most of any platform that she can get. Like on the Steve Harvey Show.
STEVE HARVEY What--What made you take it though? I mean, you cut it off. Why you leave with it? That's what--.
STEVE HARVEY You--you didn't think to just like lay it on a pillow so when he wake up--.
LORENA GALLO I'm glad that after 22 years you still laugh about it. I'’m here to tell you and to tell you what happened when a woman gets abused by a man.
CROWD Woo [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Most people whose lives the media chew up and spit out aren't able to emerge with this kind of strength and agency. Why do you think she was able to do it?
JOSHUA ROFÉ I mean I truly don't know. Her level of resilience is unlike any I've ever seen. It's not only that she was able to make it through this and claim for herself the life that she dreamed of having, which by the way is just a simple quiet life. She didn't want anything extraordinary. She didn't want anybody to know her name. She just wanted to, in her own words, 'live the American dream.' Coming here, finding an honest job, falling in love, having a family–end of story. That's all she wanted. First John Wayne Bobbitt ripped that from her and then the media and the American people and the world at large continued to pull that even further and further away from her. And yet still, she was unstoppable. She got it and that's an extraordinary feat in and of itself. But to me the thing that is, perhaps, even more amazing is she's still just so, her spirit has not been destroyed. There is a purity and a levity to her that, I don't know how she's able to possess those things in light of everything that's happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The series ends on a pretty bleak note.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT If Lorena's story hit today, Fox News would take the place of Howard Stern and the 24 hour news cycle to focus on what she did rather than what he did. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you assume that we the media and we the public wouldn't process these events differently now?
JOSHUA ROFÉ I think that we still see a great rush to judgment. I think that we can see somebody's life sort of torn apart by a tweet that runs wild for a couple of hours. I think that even though we are finally talking about all of these issues there are so many victims of domestic violence and sexual violence that continue to suffer. That far outweighs, unfortunately, any progress that we've made. And so people can read into the ending, you know, however they like, but I think that it should be a challenge to us all to make sure we do better and to try and bring empathy forward as the thing we used to appraise the situation. The ending of the series is the phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. That was something that was important to us. It was something that is important to Lorena. That is the way Lorena has gotten the last word. We are making it very clear that's what this is about. This is for the victims.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
JOSHUA ROFÉ My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Joshua Rofé directed "Lorena." Available now on Amazon Prime. I spoke with Lorena, who goes now by Lorena Gallo, about how she's worked to take control of her own story and redirect the media attention onto a national epidemic.
LORENA GALLO At first it was very difficult. But since I've been an advocate against domestic violence, listening to the stories of survivors, the victims who are trying to leave but they're not there yet–that give me strength. That give me more courage to tell my story. To do this documentary. Basically, my story, I share it with a lot of people within my community because I go to the shelters and I volunteer and as an advocate I know I have a voice. And my goal is to reach out to the victim and the survivors too. Because, you know, survivors go through post-traumatic stress disorders as well. It really ignite fire in me and telling and retelling my story because there is hope and there is help.
BROOKE GLADSTONE After you were acquitted of malicious wounding, you didn't want go to the hospital as the law required. But in the end, you were glad you did?
LORENA GALLO Yes, I was confused. I didn't know where they were taking me. When I heard that I was acquitted by a temporary insanity. I want to go home. They felt that John should have been there. You know, he was an abuser. He needed to be treated. But--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It did help you?
LORENA GALLO: I don't know if it helped me so much because they were questioning me. I just finished an incredibly, you know, emotionally and traumatic interrogation which was the trial–two trials actually. His trial and my trial, my own. And then I was questioning again and again and again and it seems like it didn't stop. But in terms of being quiet and taking care of my own self, it was the start of the healing process. Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as we follow your path, you see people who you relied on as friends taking advantage of you. You realize that your parents weren't really in a position to help and became another responsibility when they came to America. The pressures didn't cease, obviously, after you left the hospital. Was there a moment when you just said, 'enough. This is my life and I will choose to tell it when I choose. And how I choose.'
LORENA GALLO: From the moment I felt that I wasn't alone, I felt security in going to shelters and sharing the stories. So the more I talk, the more I wanted the whole world to actually know what happened. And I started telling this story but it wasn't enough. My whole story, when it first came out 25 years ago, it reached out so wrongly. I felt like the media failed me, the justice system failed me. I felt that all society failed me. And I know that if I'm going to tell my story again and feel justified even though--if I go to a comedian's show, I didn't mind the jokes anymore. As long as I shine the light on domestic abuse and make an awareness against domestic violence, then my mission is a noble mission. And, you know, basically I grew stronger and stronger. And they make me the person that I am today. And I didn't let that or anybody or even John, define who I am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lorena, thank you for being here.
LORENA GALLO: Thank you so much for having me. And also thank you for the opportunity to let me talk about the documentary. I think we're going to help a lot of victims just to bring awareness. This is such an incredible opportunity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was Lorena Bobbitt who now goes by Lorena Gallo, who I spoke to in 2019. Coming up, the place to go for reckonings with maligned women, moral panics and other revelations in the historical record. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's almost expected that the first draft of history will frame women like Lorena Bobbitt, now Gallo, as reckless, careless, violent, stupid and slutty, Kust like Pamela Smart.
NEWS REPORT According to police, Pamela Smart convinced her teenaged lover to murder her husband.
NEWS REPORT Pamela Smart offering to pay each teenager one thousand dollars for the murder of her husband. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or notorious vixen, 17-year-old Amy Fisher.
NEWS REPORT She is accused of an affair with a married man more than twice her age. She is in jail on charges of trying to kill his wife [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or the quintessential gold digger, Anna Nicole Smith.
NEWS REPORT She married an 89-year-old Texas billionaire when she was just 26. And within months, she was in court fighting his son for a share of the dead oil man's estate. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From the view out here in 2021, these women's stories were profitably twisted by tabloid media and lampooned by late night TV hosts in ways utterly devoid of context, much less empathy, because these stories were nothing like they seemed. Enter the hosts of the You're Wrong About podcast, who I spoke to in February. Since 2008, Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbs have been exploding. The myths that have taken residence in the back rooms of our minds maybe briefly, maybe forever. Myths about people so overexposed, so processed, that it seemed as if there was nothing left to tell, but in fact there was everything to tell about them and about America and its media. Then and now.
MICHAEL HOBBES There's dozens, hundreds of these stories that kind of live in your head in these weird fragments. We don't realize the degree to which we're filling in the blanks in our head. Right. So you hear about somebody like Amy Fisher who, you know, shot this other woman. Wasn't she some sort of teenage seductress? And like, that's kind of just living in my head is almost like a meta narrative, but I'm filling in all the blanks. Like, I couldn't tell you the sort of –
SARAH MARSHALL – The Massapequa Mary Magdalene. No, that's not it. Something like that.
MICHAEL HOBBES And so you're like, well, you know, she seems like a terrible person, but you haven't really given it that much thought.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you're telling the stories to each other. And the one who isn't telling the story is vital to the project because they’re observing for the rest of us. You make a point of not knowing much about what the other person is about to tell you.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes, I've been interrupting my boyfriend for the last year. Every time he brings up Jon Benet Ramsey. He's like, "oh, that reminds me of the time that they found..." And I'm like, don't tell me anything, because I know Sarah is eventually going to tell me all about Jon Benet Ramsey. And I want to preserve that in my head as sort of these little bips and bobs of a story that I really don't have the details of. And one of us does a ton of research and walks the other one through. And we try to make it sort of normal to come in with false understandings of these stories, basing our understandings on the information that we had at the time. And oftentimes it was just really bad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned research, but you're not interested in obtaining new documents or exclusive interviews. You're interrogating the public record, reading books that have already been written, poring over old news articles. Is it about the real story that was hiding in plain sight?
SARAH MARSHALL For me it often is. And I think I am a historian who is frequently mistaken for a journalist. The joy of this show is that I get to do stories that pretty much it was hard for me to be able to write about, because if you're going to talk about something that happened in recent history, often it will have to be because you have found some new exciting piece of information, or because there is a timely peg. I would like wait for the anniversaries and click around and say this is my year for a Tonya Harding piece, I’m going to seize the moment. And with this, I love the chance to not have to make up an excuse to just talk about not just getting to the bottom of who this person was but trying to more deeply understand who we were when we did what we did to them.
Part of the joy of doing this show is that we have the same protagonists in every episode, which is us, the people who make and consume the tabloid stories that, you know, if you are trying to pretend you're not interested in a story, then that means you're interested in it. That's not the same thing is indifference. We got to look at ourselves and the choices that we have made.
MICHAEL HOBBES It's also really shocking how easily findable the correct information was then and now. I mean, to just pick one example, one of the most radicalizing episodes that I've done of the show was the Terri Schiavo case in which there was this woman who was in a persistent vegetative state and her husband was trying to end her life and her parents, who were conservative Christians, were trying to save her. And I thought going in it was going to be this like, very murky issue of, you know, bioethics and who can say when life begins and ends. This very difficult issue to untangle, and then you start looking at the actual documents and it turns out that every single independent doctor who examined Terri Schiavo said that she was completely brain dead. That there were no electrical impulses in her brain whatsoever. That she had received excellent care from her husband. He actually quit his job and went to nursing school so that he could provide her with better care and there was no chance of recovery. So a pretty straightforward story. So a pretty straightforward story of a husband doing what he really thought was best for his wife and all of the information was on his side, and yet when that was presented to the public, it was seen as a sort of, well, both sides have really good arguments. And isn't it true, Michael Schiavo, that you haven't been giving your wife this great care? The information was there, like there are court documents, but it appears that people just didn't present that information to the public at the time. It's incredible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Telling a story chronologically really does seem to be key.
MICHAEL HOBBES Because so many of these sort of moral panics and maligned women come to us as these fully formed figures. And we don't get all of the factors that brought them to that situation until much later. Right. We're kind of doing it in this like Memento order every time.
SARAH MARSHALL I mean, I think one of the reasons 90s scandals about maligned women are so interesting is that this is the era of the two-month true crime book. Amy Fisher had three TV movies made about her that aired roughly simultaneously. Two of them were on the same night.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah it was amazing.
SARAH MARSHALL Yeah. And there was this idea at the time, I think people had that if you were the subject of all this attention, you must be profiting. You had to be deriving some kind of benefit from that. It couldn't just be more trauma heaped on top of the trauma that had already brought you to that degree of fame. And it has been really hard. And these stories for us as a public to get past the idea that if someone is the subject of all this attention, they must have won in some capacity. The person at the center rarely is heard, certainly in these 90s stories, and Amy Fisher was ordered by her lawyer to not talk and present her story to the public. And because of that, she was the only person who wasn't able to tell the public who she was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the Anna Nicole Smith episode, you observed that we were focused on her having all the power that Amy Fisher was assumed to have derived from her notoriety. In the case of Anna Nicole Smith, it was like her breasts were worth half a billion dollars, leaving no agency for her elderly husband. But what all these tabloid women seemed to have in common when they are perceived to have power, it's almost always through sex. And it turns out if you dig into their story, it's about other people's exploitation of it. I just think it's very scary to the people who write these stories that these women have any power at all.
SARAH MARSHALL Yeah, this idea that a girl can grow up with nothing and decide to provide for herself and her child by exploiting her own sexuality. I mean, I just will leave it with the paradox that we're fine with exploiting women's sexuality if it's like a man or a corporation doing it, but if the woman is profiting off of herself, declaring her own value, that's where we draw the line.
MICHAEL HOBBES This episode hasn't aired yet. So Sarah, maybe do earmuffs. But another really good example of that is Vanessa Williams, who famously was the first Black Miss America and was the first Miss America to relinquish her crown because she took a bunch of nude photographs. The summer before she became Miss America, she wanted to become an actress, she was obsessed with Meryl Streep. She thought that modeling was a way that she could get into being an actress. She meets a photographer. She ends up working for him for a couple of months as his receptionist. They become close. One night, he says, hey, have you ever tried nudes? There's a sort of photographic technique that I want to try with silhouettes. So we're not going to be able to see your face. It's just going to be shapes. Why don't I take a couple photos? I'm never going to release them. It's just me testing this stuff out, don't worry about it. And she says, yeah, sure, I trust this guy, no big deal. To me that is very legible as a human story. You know, you do something for somebody else because they ask you to. And it would be a little bit awkward if you said no. Then she becomes Miss America and he's hard up for cash and he sells the photos. Most Americans learned that story in this inverted pyramid way as the next issue of Penthouse is going to have Miss America in it. When you learn it in that order, it's like, well, she must be getting paid and this is her way of cashing in on her fame. And that became the story. The people who actually did cash in on this were the photographer and, of course, the publisher of Penthouse. She got nothing, but she was cast as somebody who had all of the power in this situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why have you chosen to tell or retell the stories that you tell? What makes a perfect story for your show?
SARAH MARSHALL Our stories often break down to a few archetypes, and we often will see people regardless of their individuality, regardless of the setting, regardless of the moment, acting in basically the same way and making the same mistakes and receiving the same warnings as in a lot of other stories that we've already told. Humans do the same things over and over. When you see them all in a row, it's just staggering, and I think the two most obvious categories that I can name there are the maligned women and the moral panic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it is remarkable how often abuse lies at the opening chapter of so many of these stories.
MICHAEL HOBBES I have been surprised at how central abuse, especially domestic abuse, has been to the stories that we've looked into. We haven't talked to you about our now fifteen episode series on the O.J. Simpson trial. I remember when that was going on that, you know, you would hear these stories and kind of like this weird hectoring tone of like, well, nobody's talking about Nicole Brown Simpson. And, you know, the victim has been lost in all of this, but yet they didn't really do anything to correct that. They were just sort of scold their audience and then move on with covering the trial. And so what Sarah did, what we did in those episodes was just start with the story of Nicole before we got to the murders. And that's, I think, best understood as a story of also escalating domestic violence. And it makes perfect sense when you hear it in that order. And from her perspective, it's like, oh, it all falls into place. There was also, I think, a lot of shooting the messenger back then.
SARAH MARSHALL Yes.
MICHAEL HOBBES But I think a lot of the information, especially about Nicole Brown Simpson, was coming from her friends and a lot of her friends are, you know, Beverly Hills housewives, and they seem a little bit tacky to people. And most of the people writing book reviews at the time, most of the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was being done by men.
SARAH MARSHALL And so because Faye Resnick has an ostentatious bathroom, no one has to take seriously what she says about how horribly her friend Nicole was being abused by her ex-husband.
MICHAEL HOBBES We find over and over again, especially in the 80s, in the 90s, that the worst thing you could do was be tacky. Maybe you have shoulder pads or maybe you have big hair. I mean, so much of this comes back to these really aesthetic judgments. That were 99 percent being made by men. You know, certain voices, certain people just weren't in the media, weren't represented because, like, they just seemed a little bit cheap.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so you think that in recent years, the media, having been democratized to a degree, has gotten more open to different perspectives?
SARAH MARSHALL As a tacky person myself, I think that tacky people have more of a platform today. And I think that people just have the opportunity to gravitate toward the kind of outlooks that resonate with the way they see the world. And also, I think a lot about the fact that I, as a millennial woman, try to figure out what being a girl in America was about, learning that by watching the examples of girls who were ruthlessly profited off of and then basically destroyed, you know, the idea just you make all the money you can off of someone and then, you know, the last profitable thing they can do is die. You know, you don't hope that that happens, but it never seems like anyone's trying to prevent that outcome either in these stories, and I think there's something very humbling about being now a fully baked adult in a world where younger people in a way that I couldn't at the time, are able to gain a lot of traction just by saying online, going on TikTok or something and saying like, this is ridiculous. Like the media is trying to sell this person as a predator to me and I see them as a victim. This girl has no power. And I know because I'm a girl with no power. Looking back at the times that perhaps you collaborated with that media apparatus, maybe you would have been more empathetic if you had heard someone feel an empathetic perspective first, but you didn't.
MICHAEL HOBBES You know, we're in the middle of the societal moment where we are revisiting a lot of these stories of Lorena Bobbitt and Britney Spears, and we're going back around. And I think that that is great. But I also think that one of the dangers of that approach is that you can go from casting them as these maligned figures who were these avaricious, sex obsessed teenage girls to retelling those stories as like they're not devils, they're actually angels. If we give them this sort of pop sainthood. Yeah, I don't think that's the solution. I think the solution is to always keep in mind it's simply more complicated. We just did a five-part series on Princess Diana. And one of the things we spent a lot of time on was that, you know, she was a very difficult person to live with. And she also at one point pushed her elderly stepmother down the stairs. That's a really bad thing. And like, we didn't defend it. We didn't minimize it. We're just like we're just going to give that to you and let you sit with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights lawyer who created the lynching museum in Montgomery, Alabama, says, we are not the worst thing we've ever done. I guess it means that no one is beyond redemption. I know that you guys say you don't identify as an empathy project, but as a humanizing project.
SARAH MARSHALL Maybe it’s worth thinking about the idea of human rights in the media. The essential goal is to make space for someone's humanity to be present. People came away from our Princess Diana episodes really not liking her. Not that many people, but some people were like, no, I hate her because she pushed that old lady down the stairs and like, that's where the line is for some people. Then the question is, do you believe that someone has the right to not be harassed by paparazzi to receive humane treatment and human consideration, even if you don't like them? And I think the answer has to be yes.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yeah. One of the most difficult concepts, I think, for the American public and the American media to deal with is proportionality.
SARAH MARSHALL Yes.
MICHAEL HOBBES Did Monica Lewinsky behave like super-duper responsibly when she was an intern and had a crush on her boss and sort of approach Bill? Like, no. And she would be the first person to admit that, but also, does that pretty common youthful mistake mean that she should, like, never be able to work again and she should be bullied by the entire country and all these late-night jokes? So much of the project is to sort of demystify what people's actual mistakes were. Oftentimes, they are real mistakes. They are real bad decisions, but oftentimes we find that women and minorities are way over punished for those mistakes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your show is also about what Americans are willing to believe, but it's very, very hard to uproot a lie. So, in making this show, have you learned anything about how to effectively overturn wrongheaded myths?
SARAH MARSHALL I don't think you can take something away from someone if it's a narrative that is making them feel the way that they need to feel about who they are or the society they live in without offering them something to then take its place. My realization that things are not just bad, things are really bad, like everything you know is a lie bad was when I interned at the Georgia Innocence Project in the summer of 2016. I was like, ‘Oh my God, our legal system is in trouble.’ I know, I've been told that, but no, it's really in trouble. And what I think allowed me to accept having that deep faith in the American system and American law that I didn't even know that I had changing their mind about something that they assumed was one way when they were younger. Because I think when you are given the opportunity to step up and to accept this humbling experience of admitting that you had been wrong, you had been tricked, but you had been tricked because someone tried to trick you often because they would sell more copies of something, if you can accept that humbling, when people are seizing the first opportunity to denigrate someone, you can be the person who knows that that might not be the truth and speak on behalf of greater nuance and try and complicate the conversation. It doesn't make you having to interject about that not annoying, but the right people will not be annoyed by you. There are a lot of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you guys so much.
SARAH MARSHALL Thank you so much.
MICHAEL HOBBES Thanks, Brooke.
SARAH MARSHALL & MiCHAEL HOBBES It's such a treat.
SARAH MARSHALL Yeah. Mike, we got to stop saying the same stuff at the same time it’s embarrassing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes are hosts of the podcast You're Wrong About.
And that's the show! On the Media is produced by Leah Feder Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Molly Schwartz with help from Ellin Li. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Our engineers this week were Adriene Lilly and Sam Bair. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.