Charles Ramsey interviews reveal risks of jumping on a good story too soon

What big media gives, it can take away just as quickly.

That’s the feeling in the air as some news outlets continue chewing over the story of Charles Ramsey, the struggling dishwasher who became a media hero and Internet sensation after telling his story of helping save Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight from 10 years of captivity in an Ohio home.

But what Ramsey’s tale may really reveal for journalists is the danger of jumping on a good story too soon with too little information.

Ramsey was hailed as an entertaining, compelling figure after attention-getting interviews with WEWS-TV in Cleveland and CNN’s Anderson Cooper in which he vividly described helping Berry crawl through the door of a Cleveland home where she and the two other women had been held captive.

First, the Smoking Gun website revealed Ramsey was a convicted felon with three domestic violence convictions to his name, resulting in prison time. Then WEWS interviewed a second neighbor, Angel Cordero, who said he was the one who helped Berry break free of the house and that Ramsey showed up after she was already outside. (Cordero may not have gotten as much attention because he spoke to a TV reporter in Spanish.)

Both stories reveal the dangers in lionizing someone at the heart of a breaking news event too soon. As a writer for Time magazine noted, even a tweet from McDonald’s acknowledging Ramsey could backfire if his story changes course too much. (He talked about eating a Big Mac before hearing Berry’s screams for help).

But TV outlets, flooding Cleveland for any scrap of information about the case, could hardly resist an expressive, talkative guy given to calling every interviewer “bruh” and using colorful metaphors to make his case. “I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” he told WEWS. “Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.”

Some critics saw something more troubling in all the interest. Slate writer Aisha Harris decried the way Ramsey began to look like a stereotypical example of the “hilarious black neighbor,” whose street slang, eccentric behavior and bedraggled appearance offered a comedic tinge to a horrific story.

Harris writes that “it’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.” The videos perpetuate the “most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the ‘ghetto,’ socially out of step with the rest of educated America.”

Indeed, the fuss over Ramsey seemed to dwarf the reaction to another eccentric media figure, Paul Kevin Curtis, the oddball Elvis impersonator first arrested on suspicion of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama and a U.S. Senator.

“I heard the word ‘ricin’ for the first time in my life by a federal agent Homeland Security while being interrogated for four hours,” Curtis told CNN’s Piers Morgan in an interview the host later tweeted was the weirdest he’d ever experienced. “I thought he said ‘rice’ … I said I don’t even eat rice usually. You know, I’m not even a rice lover.” Why did Ramsey’s words become an auto-tuned Internet sensation while Curtis’s didn’t?

As Ramsey’s neighbor and former school-bus driver Ariel Castro faces rape and kidnapping charges, it seems obvious that there are race and class issues bubbling beneath this story that journalists may overlook in the rush to get interviews.

Ramsey’s story seemed to fulfill a couple of needs in the news cycle. First, he was the most willing source of information in the early moments of a horrific story in which police, victims and suspected perpetrators were not yet talking at length. He was a natural storyteller, and his detailed account filled in lots of early blanks — provided he was telling the whole truth about the circumstances.

But he also let viewers process a horrific crime in a way that was less jarring and even entertaining. Those watching his interviews could chuckle at his lines and laud his heroism while skirting a basic fact — a woman emerging from a house after 10 years of captivity with a 6-year-old child is likely a victim of sexual assault. As news outlets relay more alleged details of the women’s captivity, the extent of what the women endured as sexual slaves is shockingly apparent.

Ramsey himself seemed to display a camera-ready attitude that was surprising. It’s as if, after many years of seeing bystanders and participants in crime and emergency stories interviewed by TV cameras, people now know how they are expected to react if they ever find themselves connected to a major news story.

In some ways, Ramsey seemed ready for his closeup. Whether the news media was ready to handle such a compelling, complicated figure at the center of a hot news story, remains an open question.

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  • Domingo

    Let he who has a perfect life be the first one to cast a stone!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.brij Jen Brij

    Shame on you! this man has done right! And as usual, the media won’t let someone’s past alone. Why would anyone want to change and do what is right if he is going to be attacked?! I am ashamed to say that I am from this area.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kimberly.nikanowicz Kimberly Nikanowicz

    Also…so THIS is the story that you’ve chosen to use to show us how the media (which includes yourself as a journalist) distort facts, twist truths, and ultimately go for sensationalism? Why was this not done when they were spreading outright LIES regarding the Boston Bombings? Can you link me to the Poynter story about that?

    I’ve read some articles by your little royboy down there…he writes like CRAP and so do you…You people really need to get a REAL career with a REAL media company…from what I’ve seen the two of you would fit right in at FOX or CNN…because you’re doing the very thing you are accusing other’s of doing…except you are simply being contrarians…and THAT we all know gets sensationalized…what a cute little trick…go against the flow, accuse, accuse, accuse, throw in some racism or class bullshit then roll on like a wind up 18 wheeler…blah, blah, blah…

  • http://www.facebook.com/kimberly.nikanowicz Kimberly Nikanowicz

    Wow…so, my first experience with YOUR site here “Poynter.org” is that you are a racist bunch that don’t want to see a blackman be acknowledged for who HE is…who cares if he’s “ghetto”? What is wrong with being “ghetto” anyhow? He had the courage that most of whitebread, “educated”, Americans do not possess…His “ghetto” mentality wouldn’t have ANYTHING to do with the fact that the guy who kidnapped those girls kept them in a house IN THE GHETTO…now would it?

    As for 3 former domestic violence charges, listen man, my friends’s ex-girlfriend used to hit him, punch herself in the face, then run outside screaming, “Help, help…He’s going to KILL ME!” and my friend would get hauled off to jail (despite their being witnesses, and cops who knew she was lying) because our local law states that SOMEONE HAS TO GO TO JAIL IF THE COPS ARE CALLED FOR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE…AND WHO EVER DOESN”T HAVE THE MARKS ON THEM IS THAT LUCKY PERSON…PERIOD. And, they do charge you…so using such an image to try to down Charles because he’s black…well, wtfe…You have a HORRIBLE site, and I will never be coming back here because you are dirty, racist pigs who are doing exactly what you are accusing other’s of doing…shame on you.

    AND, I’m glad that I have to log into my facebook to post this, because all the people on my list can see how shitty this site is as well…too bad for you racist poynters…

  • http://www.facebook.com/Kimathii Kimathi Kevin

    Black Problems

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1113715224 Destinee Ryder

    Your an idiot!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=618006164 Folat Sunday Mabamisoro

    just leave him alone………there are just some people who cant forgive or let other people be happy for s moment.

  • http://homewoodsuitesmiami.com/near-fiu-university-of-miami/ Suites Near University Of Miam

    Got significant coverage across media platforms. I think the media has a
    preference for colorful sources, who
    will speak in unguarded ways on the record.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000015863843 Dan Salazar

    No one is perfect- No matter what – Three women were saved. And this bastard won’t be doing this again — Texas would hang him

  • http://twitter.com/aswerty911 chad
  • Michael

    Paul Kevin Curtis’s statements weren’t autotuned? That’s not racism — that’s the Internet not doing it’s damned job.

  • dryfish

    To all the reporters and writers who dug into Ramsey’s past instead of
    digging into why the police screwed up : You Are Irresponsible
    Journalists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amandaconk Amanda Conklin

    This is the most rediculous article I have ever read. I agree with davej whole heartedly.

  • NFairbairn

    Anyone else see the parallels? ;D http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfTgxrxL9ug

  • NFairbairn

    It’s amazing how immediately people are personally invested in this guy’s version of events being true. The American need for heroes is almost pathological. Anyway, thanks for doing some actual journalism, Eric. It’s a refreshing change.

  • gd

    The man rescued the women that’s it….who cares about his past!! Didn’t know having a clean past was a prerequisite for helping people!!!

  • http://twitter.com/aswerty911 chad

    that was 10 years ago…..how has he treated women more recently?? ohh wait you dont know because just like accusing others of going with the story too soon, you havent dug around to find females who have been in contact with him over the last decade! What should people do? Not air his money sound bites until they do a full background check?? The other guy said he saved the girl?? Based on what? his english which you already said is essentially incoherent!

  • http://twitter.com/Scoop0901 Dave J. (Scoop0901)

    Wow! It seems Eric Deggans has really put a lot of thought into belittling the non-thinking and immediate reactions of a person — a man, or, as self-described, a black man. Berating Ramsey for speaking as he did, assuming Ramsey was getting his digs in to get the biggest bang for his 15 minutes is shameful.

    Deggans has no idea who Ramsey is, how he speaks, how he thinks, the ‘hood where Ramsey lives, so if Deggins’ first thoughts are tat Ramsey is getting his shine on, well, Deggins must have a really sad life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stretch-Ledford/100000207548944 Stretch Ledford

    100% agree with Roy’s comment below and he beat me to the punch. I will add that, IMHO, playing the race card here is exploitative of Mr. Ramsey, of the media and of the victims. Completely uncalled for and disappointing. What’s the old saying? “To a hammer everything looks like a nail?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Eric, another example of this kind of source is the uncle of the two Boston Marathon bombers. I believe that his commentary on the brothers — that they were “losers” — got significant coverage across media platforms. I think the media has a preference for colorful sources (as opposed to sources of color), who will speak in unguarded ways on the record.