In April 2008 a story emerged from a small town in Austria that a man named Josef Fritzl had not only imprisoned his daughter in his own home for almost 25 years, but also engaged in incest with her, which led to her bearing his children, all of whom were raised in Fritzls makeshift basement dungeon. His eldest daughter (also mother of the rest of his children) escaped that day in April 2008 and alerted neighbours in the area, who called the police. The ghost of Josef Fritzl and his basement family haunts the mindset of most Austrians. The rest try to erase all memory of such a horrible, unimaginable event. Fritzl himself lived in plain sight for the entire time he had imprisoned his extended family. This begged questions about what exactly Austrian society was, or if Austrian society even existed, since this occurred in a small community where everyone should theoretically be looking out for each other. The focus of all media coverage was on the event, and how it could possibly have happened without anyone finding out for a quarter of a century.
This week a story came out of the USA where it was discovered that a man had held three women in captivity for almost a decade, in a house in a normal suburban housing district in Cleveland, Ohio. One of the women escaped from the house earlier this week and ran to the house next door, where she found her oblivious neighbour Charles Ramsey, who then phoned the police. I know Charles Ramsey’s name because the focus of media coverage of this story was not on the women, or the societal implications of the unlawful imprisonment of women, it was on him: the neighbour who phoned the police. Ramsey was instrumental in ending the whole sage, but this is not why he has been interviewed repeatedly on TV shows all across America, nor why he has become a viral sensation online. Ramsey is a hero, but he is also a poor, straight-talking black man. And this archetype is the lynchpin of local news networks all across America.
We have all watched a news broadcast at some point and wished for some way to liven up what is a pointless, boring story. In America, they do this by asking poor black people what they think about, for example, recent Leprechaun sightings in the area. Or why they want their car fitted with a device that ensures they can be heard up to a mile away. Or how they reacted when they discovered there was a fire in their building. Or what they did when they found an intruder trying to break into their home. None of those stories sound particularly newsworthy, yet all have amassed over 20 million views each on YouTube, and many of the interviewees have spawned careers based around their seconds of air time in that news report. Sweet Brown, Antoine Dodson and Bubb Rubb are all well known in the world of internet memer-y, and autotuned mixes of their interviews and catchphrases will stay in your head for days.
Most of the people reading this will be able to name the catchphrase of all those videos. It is hard to believe that news reporters in America do not go out looking for these colourful (I will get in trouble for that) characters in the hope of gaining national exposure through people sharing the insane interview online. It is easy to understand the logic of such a scheme, as the interview itself if popular enough will be picked up by national news networks, with the logo of the local news channel in the corner of the screen the entire time. Also if the interview itself becomes a story, the local news channel can report on it for days and weeks, thus filling their own airtime with trumped-up advertisements for themselves.
The Charles Ramsey case is different, of course, as it is a real, serious news story that has real victims who will be damaged psychologically for the rest of their lives. It is merely a coincidence that the rescuer was not embarrassed to explain that he was eating his McDonalds meal when the woman approached him for help. I am sure there was discussion in the editorial room of the news network that filmed the interview about whether to focus the story on Ramsey rather than the women or indeed the man who locked those women up for so long. The Ramsey angle won in the end, and now this is the story. From one perspective, it is a good thing that the hero of the day is celebrated, rather than endless focus on the monster who perpetrated such a crime. More people could tell you who Charles Ramsey is rather than the criminal. Similarly, focus on Ramsey deflects attention away from the women who were imprisoned for so long and obviously need time to prepare to re-enter society rather than being the focus of media attention.
This rationale is probably not what swayed people to focus on Ramsey, however. Make no mistake, the reason this story has received so much attention is not because of the horrible crime that was committed, but because of the internet laughing at the poor black man who helped end it. It is a type of racism, of course, but so is everything about how we view people different from ourselves. I see it as more of a socio-economic divide. Black people in America are poorer than white people in America, this is a fact. Some can’t afford to miss a days’ work in order to recover from bronchitis. Some know that their area is so dilapidated that the police are no use in helping to locate a home intruder, while others hear a story about a leprechaun and hope to god that it is true just to find the pot of gold that must surely be there also. The case of Charles Ramsey was an interesting one as it asked the internet what was more important: the story or the lampooning of borderline poverty. The latter issue won the day in the end, but I can’t help feeling that all of those previous memes about ridiculous interviews had been leading to this, a meme attempting to reconcile the fact that while the subject is a hero, that particular hero is too idiotic not to make fun of. 9Gag, Buzzfeed and Reddit are the forums where this issue has been resolved.