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.