LEVIN We are watching one of the stupidest events by some of the stupidest people in American history and history will fix this. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A cascade of impeachment facts cast as lies by the usual suspects. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also on this week's show, Malicious myths about questionable people, and how history can fix those.
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 Plus, as Britney Spears seeks legal control over her life, the culture contends with its own bad behavior.
SAMANTHA STARK #WeAreSorryBritney was trending on Twitter over the weekend. Clearly, like, we've been waiting for something to spark her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Riding early on Friday, my impeachment experience this week was incomplete. Consisting of an incoherent improvisation in the first act, that's a rare bipartisan view, and a clarion concatenation in the second. Try listeners too often with a phrase like that and you're asking for trouble, but it's so good. Clarion; a clear ringing, stirring sound. Concatenation; an interlocking sequence – in this case, an unbreakable narrative chain wound around the Senate to extract a verdict of guilty. Some senators said they felt the case presented against Trump, built on months of his words and deeds, climaxing in violent rampage like a physical memory of trauma. Indeed, the point was to convey the truth in body as well as mind.
PLASKETT And the truth is, President Trump had spent months calling his supporters to a march on a specific day, a specific time in specific places to stop the certification. [END CLIP]
RASKIN You will not be hearing extended lectures from me because our case is based on cold, hard facts. [END CLIP]
CICILLINE At trial, we will prove with overwhelming evidence that President Trump is singularly and directly responsible for inciting the assault on the Capitol. [END CLIP]
DEAN They took away your vote. It's rigged. That was not true, according to judge after judge, the truth was exactly the opposite. [END CLIP]
CASTRO President Donald John Trump incited this violence. This is what the evidence has overwhelmingly shown and will show in this trial. And it's also the truth. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Their evidence came from an impressive array of sources: FBI affidavits, media reports, Capitol police radio recordings.
CAPITOL OFFICER They're throwing metal poles at us. Get me DSL up here now! [UNINTELLIGIBLE] DSL get up here now! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Videos captured by documentarians, citizen journalists, capital security camera footage, live streaming insurrectionists.
INSURRECTIONISTS Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump! [END CLIP]
INSURRECTIONISTS Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! [END CLIP].
INSURRECTIONISTS No Trump, no peace! No Trump, no peace! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the presentation of Trump's own tweets as they were posted during the attack to prove to at least 17 Republican senators that he had not only incited the January 6th insurrection, but helped to plan it.
PLASKETT They had originally planned rallies for January 22nd and January 23rd, after the inauguration, but Donald Trump had other plans. On December 19th, President Trump tweeted his save the date for January 6. He told his supporters to come to D.C. for a big protest. The day, billing it as: "wild". Just days later, Women for America First amended their permit to hold their rally on January 6.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was Stacey Plaskett, delegate for the United States Virgin Islands for the prosecution.
PLASKETT Here's what the FBI said, and I quote: "Other members of the group talked about things they had done that day and they said that anyone they got their hands on, they would have killed. Including Nancy Pelosi" and that, quote, "they would have killed Vice President Mike Pence if given the chance." [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Combining CCTV footage with a diagram of the capitol. She showed how very close members of Congress had been to the mob.
INSURRECTIONIST Where are you Nancy? We're looking for you! Nancy! Oh, Nancy! [END CLIP]
REPORTER And they show video of the senators themselves watching themselves evacuate, including a very close call for Senator Mitt Romney. He shook his head. He told reporters he had never seen that video before. I saw Senator Bill Cassidy, an important Republican in this whole proceeding, still as a stone, except for his pen, which was moving in his fingers. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Josh Hawley, Republican senator from Missouri, the guy photographed holding up his fist in solidarity with the rioters on January 6th, did not brandish his mitts Wednesday. He just averted his eyes.
REPORTER All the senators have the option to use the gallery, the upstairs area, for seating, for social distancing. Josh Hawley is the only one taking advantage of that opportunity. He's been sitting with his legs up on the seat in front of him. Essentially reading non-related material. In the 20 minutes or so I was in the chamber just now, I didn't see him look down really at all to engage. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rick Scott, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio read during the hearings, Rand Paul doodled. Nor was Fox News keen to engage. It cut away from the proceedings on Wednesday as the prosecutors were revealing some of their most potent evidence. Fox's liberal ish contributor, Juan Williams, was appalled on Fox's The Five when that happened.
JUAN WILLIAMS I'm kind of shocked. I want you guys to come back, come back, join the conversation, pay attention to the news. What's going on on Capitol Hill, today, is an attempt to hold democracy and the Constitution up. To celebrate that as the basis that we're a country of laws. This impeachment trial that you guys are all ignoring, I guess you're afraid of it because it's a reminder.
JESSE WATTERS We talked about it for 10 minutes.
JUAN WILLIAMS Let me finish.
GREG GUTFELD Don't mind read Juan. Don't mind read. Don't read my mind, Juan
JUAN WILLIAMS There was no need. There is no need cause I listened to all of this. So let me you what I heard.
GREG GUTFELD Then how can you be so wrong? How could you be so wrong?
JUAN WILLIAMS You're being so rude because I'm so right. And now he's forcing Republicans to make a choice. You can stand with the mob that stormed Capitol Hill. Facing the truth is the way that we solve this. It's the way we bring the country together. Ignoring problems is never the way to solve the problem.
GREG GUTFELD You shouldn't be impugning our intentions, Juan, that's the problem.
JESSE WATTERS I hope you didn't say we are standing with these people.
JUAN WILLIAMS I don't need to impugn it, I can listen. I can hear.
GREG GUTFELD And then it goes into your brain and it comes out wrong. That's on you, not on us.
JEANINE PIRRO Don't tell me who to stand with either [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Later that evening, Fox primetime hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity drew on increasingly deranged conspiracy theories to denature the evidence.
TUCKER CARLSON They're just flat out lying. There's no question about that. The question is, why would they lie about this? For an answer, think back to last spring. Beginning on Memorial Day, BLM and their sponsors and corporate America completely changed this country. They changed this country more in five months that it had changed in the previous 50 years. How'd they do that? They used the sad death of a man called George Floyd to upend our society. Months later, we learned that the story they told us about George Ford's death was an utter lie. There was no physical evidence that George Floyd was murdered by a cop. The autopsy show that George Floyd almost certainly died of a drug overdose. Fentanyl. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. A full autopsy report by Minneapolis police found that Floyd had fentanyl and other drugs in his blood. He also had Covid-19. None of that killed him. His death was ruled a homicide. Maybe Tucker will move on to flim-flam less foul, but why would he? Fox's Sean Hannity.
SEAN HANNITY Tonight, unconstitutional shift, sham show, impeachment trade. It continues to drag on in the US Senate. If you haven't been watching the proceedings, you did not miss much. So far, house impeachment managers played a heavily edited clip of President Trump from January the 6th, and of course, they conveniently left out the part when he told the crowd that you will peacefully, patriotically let your voices be heard. [END CLIP]
DEAN In a speech spanning almost eleven thousand words, yes, we did check, that was the one time, the only time President Trump used the word peaceful or any suggestion of nonviolence. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE So not left out. Addressed, in fact.
LEVIN We are watching one of the stupidest events by some of the stupidest people in American history, and history will fix this. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Maybe, but in the meantime, Hannity guest Mark Levin, micturated a stream of accusations, real and imagined, against individual Democrats and the party in general – utterly immaterial to the case at hand. The strategy of sidetracking, of filling the air with false equivalence, detours and distractions is well underway. Like this from Trump's defense team Friday, a tape montage of Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Cory Booker, Joe Biden and Maxine Waters.
NANCY PELOSI I just don't know why there aren't uprisings all over the country, and maybe there will be
DEMOCRAT There needs to be unrest in the streets for as long as there is unrest in our lives.
NANCY PELOSI You gotta to be ready to throw a punch.
DEMOCRAT Donald Trump, I think you need to go back and then punch him in the face.
DEMOCRAT That I thought he should have punched him in the face.
CORY BOOKER I feel like punching him.
BIDEN If we were in high school, I'd take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.
MAXINE WATERS I will go and take Trump out tonight. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Fully anticipated. Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline in Congress Tuesday.
CICILLINE Apparently, they think this will establish some sort of equivalency, or that it will show, in contrast, that President Trump's statements at the Save America rally weren't so bad. Like so much of what President Trump's lawyers might say today, that's a gimmick. It's a parlor game meant to inflame partisan hostility and play on our divisions. So let me be crystal clear, President Trump was not impeached because the words he used, viewed in isolation without context were beyond the pale. Plenty of other politicians have used strong language, but Donald J Trump was President of the United States. He sought to overturn a presidential election that had been upheld by every single court to consider it. He spent months insisting to his base that the only way he could lose was a dangerous, wide ranging conspiracy against them and America itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The defense will equate protests over criminal and racial injustice with insurrection. They will, to paraphrase Hannity, conveniently leave out the role right wing militias and brutal policing played in the violence that sometimes followed. They will forget the widespread condemnation of that violence by Democrats. History may fix that or not. History, it turns out, is a living thing in constant transformation, renewed by research, reconsiderations and reckonings in every realm of human endeavor. That's what we focus on this hour.
Every person has their story and their take on other people's stories, so tweeted Britney Spears Tuesday. Up next, we reckon with her story.
[BRITNEY SPEAR'S "...Baby One More Time" Plays]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
This week, a fringe fan protest movement resonated with a wider audience.
PROTESTERS "What do we want? Free Britney! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Free Britney! When do we want it? Now! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 13 years ago, Spears was placed in a conservatorship that put control of her finances and person into the hands of her father. Thus was she shorn of the freedom to live as a grown up at the age of 39.
BRITNEY ARMY This is Free Britney 102 where we explore issues related to the Free Britney movement. The Free Britney movement is advocating for the end of Britney Spears' conservatorship. [END CLIP]
BRITNEY ARMY I need everyone who is scrolling right now to stop and watch this video. [END CLIP]
BRITNEY ARMY Britney Spears needs our help now. [END CLIP]
BRITNEY ARMY A conservatorship literally gives someone else the control of your life. They decide what you can and can't do. And it's usually used by elderly people who don’t... [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Unable to reach the star directly, her fans have been turning to the only place Britney appeared to speak for herself: her social media.
GRAY Hello, everyone, and welcome to Britney's Grab, the happiest place on the Internet. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is Barbara Gray, co-host of a podcast that scrutinizes Spears Instagram posts.
GRAY We started noticing more and more of these very cryptic things she would post. Like a hole cut out on the wall, and the caption is, "there's always a way out." And it was just like, God, like, what is this? It almost seems kind of dark. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some fans believe she's reaching out, for example, by writing a message in tiny print on her hat.
BRITNEY ARMY So I zoomed it in, edited it so I could read it. And I think it spells help. No, I think this is an ‘H’, this is an ‘E’, an ‘L’ and this is probably a ‘P’. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But last year, Spears made her feelings about the conservatorship plain. No zooming in required.
SAMANTHA STARK We had actually started filming this reckoning with the media piece around Britney, and while we were filming that, all these court filings started happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Samantha Stark is the director of the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, which has brought renewed interest to her legal predicament, as well as her treatment in the media. And those court filings, Spears requests that her father be removed as conservator.
SAMANTHA STARK And so as we were filming, the free Britney fans, who had been really written off as conspiracy theorists or made fun of a lot because they were operating on this gut feeling that something was wrong with the conservatorship, that Britney wanted something to change. They all of a sudden had this vindication because now she does want something to change. So we were able to capture that, and then the film really took off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just for a little background after some all too public meltdowns, today, I think we'd see them as obvious cries for help, she was forced by a judge to surrender the control of her person and her money to her father, even as she continued to make millions.
SAMANTHA STARK Yeah, a conservatorship is this unique legal arrangement where a person is considered unable to make decisions that are in their own best interest. It's most often used for elderly people with Alzheimer's. That's what it's primarily meant for. It's not unheard of for a young person to be in it, but it happens not very often at all. Up until very recently, 2019, her conservator of her person was her father, Jamie Spears, and the conservator of her estate was her father with a lawyer named Andrew Wallet, if you can believe it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah. He also refers to the conservator relationship as a kind of hybrid business relationship, which talk about unusual.
SAMANTHA STARK Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That you can both regard people as incompetent and develop a business relationship because this incompetent person is generating millions of dollars a year... as a performer.
SAMANTHA STARK Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE With a grueling schedule.
SAMANTHA STARK Exactly.
SAMANTHA STARK So that's a central mystery of what's happening now and why people are so fascinated by it and also what the free Britney fans have been trying to point out for a long time. Her conservators have the power to access all her medical records, choose medical care for her to oversee all her money, sign business deals for her, restrict who comes to visit her, decide where she lives. There's a lot of basic decisions that Britney has been deemed incompetent of making, and yet at the same time, she's jumping through fire in Las Vegas, being a judge on X Factor, TV appearances, albums, tours, all while being told that she is constantly at risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seems impossible to imagine this happening to even the most out of control Hollywood male actor.
SAMANTHA STARK You know, one of the reasons is called framing Britney Spears is there's these very popular photos of her, one where she's shaves her head and one where she is brandishing this umbrella that she used to hit the car of a paparazzo. And those still images, you know, there's no context around them, they were on the cover of tabloids with headlines like Shocking Meltdown, Britney blows up. I had this theory that those still frames have followed her, and so one of the things we wanted to do with the film is really to pull out outside of those frames and give more context. One of the big things we found was that while this was all happening, this, quote, meltdown, Britney was in a really heated custody battle over her kids with Kevin Federline. And she loses custody but has visitation rights in early January 2008. And then mid-January, she loses visitation and at the end of January, she has a police escort while she's in an ambulance going to the hospital to be under a 5150 medical health hold. And her father files for the conservatorship while she is still in the hospital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Her father doesn't seem to require any credentials to be a conservator beyond that familial role. But he wasn't much of a presence in her life up until that point, and she fought more than once to free herself of her father. The film points out that she always knew that she would probably lose in the court. So she offered to submit to other conservators, basically in order to see her kids, right?
SAMANTHA STARK During this custody battle when she's losing visitation. There's a lot of speculation that she may have felt that submitting to the conservatorship would allow her to see her kids. And she does get visitation rights very soon after she is in the conservatorship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You weren't able to secure interviews with her family, but you did see some tape of her brother from a podcast called As Not Seen on TV. The interviewer was Drew Plotkin.
PLOTKIN Have you ever seen anything that led you to be concerned that your sister was being held against her will?
BRYAN SPEARS Oh, Everyday. No, I mean, like with the women in this family are very, very strong minded and have their own opinion and they want to do what they want to do. And as much as I admire that as a guy and being like one of two guys, this entire family, it kind of sucks.
PLOTKIN They're strong minded. They want to do what they want to do, kind of constitutional.
BRYAN SPEARS I mean, yeah, they have a right to do that. [END CLIP]
SAMANTHA STARK The moment the interview with Bryan Spears, Britney's brother, came out, it was so huge because no one in the family was talking about this at all. There's this cone of silence, it seems, around Britney's conservatorship. And so when this interview came out, I remember where I was standing. That's how big a deal it was that Bryan spoke. The interview was really shocking because in it he makes this joke that his sister's been held against her will every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was there another Eureka moment for you when you were making the film?
SAMANTHA STARK One of the most surprising things that I found, actually, that seems like it shouldn't be surprising, but it was is how in control of Britney's career she was when she was young. I think there's this kind of assumption, probably because of all this media coverage of her, that Britney was a puppet that was over sexualized and she didn't know what she was doing and she just did whatever the male executives told her to do. That is kind of what I thought going into it, and now I'm examining why did I think that? Because every person that I talked to who was with her in her early career made a point to say Britney was the boss. When we were there, she was in charge, she was very creative, she had creative ideas for her music videos and her shows.
BRITNEY I know all the ins and outs of what I am doing, I know about all the contracts and all the deals I'm about to do. I'm not just some girl who's listening to my manager. [END CLIP]
SAMANTHA STARK She was even marketed by Kim Kaiman, the marketing director at Jive as strong because that's what Kim saw in her. And so it makes it an even larger contradiction, looking at where she is at now, where she's not able to be in control of a lot of her life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, the documentary seems to be having an effect, at least potentially. I mean, just this week.
SAMANTHA STARK Oh, yes. It was such a surprise. The reaction to this, I have to tell you, the whole time that I was making it, even seeing these, you know, these awful pieces of archival footage, for example, there was this thing that people did where they would confront Britney with horrible tabloid headlines about herself and then have her react. And a lot of people did that. Diane Sawyer shows her this news coverage of a governor's wife.
SAWYER Britney Spears has upset a lot of mothers in this country, starting with the wife of the Governor of Maryland who appeared at an antiviolence rally. And we'll listen to what she said.
EHRLICH Really, if I had an opportunity to to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.
BRITNEY Oh, that's horrible that's really bad.
SAWYER Because of the example for kids and how hard it is to be a parent and keep all of this away from your kids.
BRITNEY Well, that's really sad that she said that. Ew. [END CLIP]
SAMANTHA STARK Britney is visibly shaken by this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was her fault that somebody wanted to kill her.
SAMANTHA STARK Right. There was I mean, so many different versions of this. When we were trying to have people reckon with their complicity in being a part of this media coverage, whether you were enacting it yourself or you were one of the people who bought the magazines or even that you were just a person who believed what they were saying about her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When younger generations revisit stories from the 90s, there seems to be a general horror at the public record of how the media treated women. And films like yours have become a bit of a general reckoning.
SAMANTHA STARK You know, I've been looking back on my adolescence and teenagerhood and thinking about how that affected me. She's asked if she's a virgin. She says yes, who knows if that was true. But it's like there's so much pressure to say yes. And then when she and Justin Timberlake break up, which they were so young, it was spread that she cheated on Justin. So then you could say anything you wanted about her then because she's a slut. It gives you blanket permission. I feel like that happens in high school, still. It happens everywhere. And I think that's why a lot of people are standing outside the courthouse protesting. The Free Britney people that I talked to are in their late 20s or early 30's. So they were the 12-13 year olds that she was marketed to at the very beginning. And I think they see a lot of themselves in her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's interesting that a lot of the fans you interviewed, what they loved most about her was how she seemed to represent them, even though visually she wasn't much like a lot of them at all.
SAMANTHA STARK Yes. Something that was surprising. And also moving to me when I started interviewing the fans and standing outside the courthouse and seeing who showed up was how outsider-y they were. I heard so many stories from people who were bullied when they were kids, particularly people who are LGBTQ. And Britney had this message that was, you know, be yourself no matter what. I'll wear what I want to wear. You can't please everybody. When Britney was shown in the tabloids as having a, quote, meltdown, a lot of those fans loved her even more for that because they loved her vulnerability. Yeah. So I heard a story from a young man who, when he was a freshman in high school, was having a lot of mental health issues. He's gay. He was getting bullied a lot. And he told a story of having a Britney Spears lunchbox in elementary school and no one would sit and eat lunch with him, so he would pretend he was eating lunch with Britney. And he wrote her a letter about how she was an example that it was OK to seek mental health treatment. I actually heard this independently from him, and Felicia, who started out as her assistant and kind of lifelong friend, told me that Britney read it and started crying because she was so moved by that. And she has written him a letter back to his freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year of high school. And he told me that she said if no one ever tells you they're proud of you, know that I'm proud of you. And it's just like she's such a different person from those stories than how she has been portrayed, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You are unable to get hold of Britney, obviously, did you wrestle with the ethics of doing a documentary about her and her tribulations, given that she's been so often misread and mistreated in the public eye?
SAMANTHA STARK Absolutely. It was such an I mean, it still is such an ethical internal conflict for me. The main goal that I had was that I didn't want anyone to assume what was in Britney's head, and so we selected people who had firsthand experience with her. If you listen, they're not really saying how she felt. They're telling their own perspective of what happened. Hopefully, the film tells the story of our culture and what was going on through Britney's story, but yeah I still feel an ethical conflict about that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, if the response has prompted a reckoning, we have to keep being reminded because we'll keep making the same mistakes. We do keep making the same mistakes.
SAMANTHA STARK #WeAreSorryBritney was trending on Twitter over the weekend, and it moved me to tears because people were apologizing for their role in how she was treated. Clearly like we've been waiting for something to spark this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
SAMANTHA STARK You're welcome. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Samantha Stark is the director of Framing Britney Spears, a documentary from The New York Times, which you can find on FX and Hulu.
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. Britney Spears is enshrined in that rarefied gallery of women maligned in the 90s and the 00s, women like Tonya Harding.
COMEDIAN Hey Tonya, I got this great idea now to get rid of Nancy Kerrigan. Kill her now. [END CLIP]
WOMAN I think Tonya Harding is just white trash. I think she's white trash. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Lorena Bobbitt.
COMEDIAN 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. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Monica Lewinsky.
MAN Monica was a young tramp. [END CLIP]
WOMAN Monica Lewinsky's behavior was unacceptable. [END CLIP]
COMEDIAN Something about Monica. Her lips never say no. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Pamela Smart.
NEWS REPORT According to police, Pamela Smart convinced her teenage lover to murder her husband. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Pamela Smart offering to pay each teenager one thousand dollars for the murder of her husband. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so many others, women who the first draft of history framed as reckless, careless, violent, stupid, slutty. Women whose stories from the view out here in 2021 were profitably twisted by tabloid media and lampooned by late night TV hosts in ways utterly devoid of context, much less empathy. Like that 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 Stories that actually were nothing like they seemed. Enter the You're Wrong About podcast. Since 2018, hosts Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes have been exploding the myths of people who've taken residence in the back rooms of our minds. People so overexposed, so processed, it seemed 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 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, 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.
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. 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 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. 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 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 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. 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 Tik-Tok 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 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 I know that you guys say you don't identify as an empathy project, but as a humanizing project.
SARAH MARSHALL Maybe 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. 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 until that piece of rebar was taken out of me. And I was like, oh, am I going to collapse? And and the reason I didn't, I think, is because the thing that replaced it was like, this is reality. Like you're seeing reality. And that's better than seeing the lie. And the reality is that good people work incredibly hard together to be like antibodies to the massive and brazen injustices of a larger system. I feel like often we see people actually responding with greater enthusiasm to 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 Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Adriene Lilly. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.