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.