Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The missing girl and the golden voice:
A tale of two tales

Their stories almost dovetail chronologically, in a perverse coincidence of public exposure, race and fascination with the unexpected. But that’s where the similarities between Phylicia Simone Barnes and Ted Fred Williams begin to break down.

At one point, the trajectories of these two African American lives diverge; the public reaction to those lives, their value in the calculus of modern media, say as much about the culture they’re a part of as it says about either of these hostages to fortune — or at least, to the attention span.

They seemed to show up in our attention at almost the same time.

It was Jan. 4 when the news seemed to first surface, spreading everywhere fast: The Columbus News-Dispatch had released to YouTube a video shot by Doral Chenoweth, a News-Dispatch videographer. In the video, Chenoweth rolls up on a homeless man standing at I-71 and Hudson Street. The man carries a sign, a cardboard confessional announcing that he has “a God-given gift of voice.” Chenoweth offers the man some money in exchange for a few words in this supposedly honeyed voice.

What followed from the homeless man, Ted Williams, was a voice manicured for radio in Williams’ earlier years, before hard times, drugs, alcohol and the burdens of nine children landed on him. His voice  was a wholly unexpected vocal instrument in a scruffy, disheveled package, one that captured the attention of a public hungry for novelty in the dead of a cold winter.

The combination caught everyone who saw him off guard. Within hours, the YouTube video had exploded around the world. Between Jan. 4 and now, that video, others copying the original, and still others on the exploits of Ted Williams — the first viral-video star of the new year and the new decade — have been viewed online tens of millions of times.

In that same time, Williams has gone from being homeless to strapping himself into a rocket to the moon. After his discovery, Williams (media-dubbed “the golden voice”) found himself fielding job offers, including proffers from NFL Films and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He did voiceovers for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, for MSNBC’s new “Lean Forward” ad campaign, and a brief on-air lead in for the "Entertainment Tonight" news program. They cut his wildman hair, got him in collared shirts and slacks, and flew him to Hollywood to ogle the stars in the Walk of Fame. Ted Williams has arrived.

◊ ◊ ◊

And it was the end of 2010 when the world, via local television outlets, discovered Phylicia Simone Barnes, was missing. According to the FBI and various media reports, Barnes was last seen early the afternoon of Dec. 28, at or near her older sister’s apartment on Eberle Drive in northwest Baltimore, Md. She was said to be going shopping, but hasn’t been seen since.

Barnes, from Monroe, N.C., was visiting relatives at the time of her disappearance. An A student, slender at 5’8” and 120 pounds and strikingly beautiful, Barnes has everything to look forward to. Wednesday, Jan. 12, is her 17th birthday.

The media has begun to weigh in on Barnes’ days of absence. NBC Baltimore affiliate WBAL has covered the case with regularity; ABC News has filed an interview with Barnes’ mother, and CNN’s Nancy Grace, reliably a bloodhound on covering missing persons cases, has the Barnes disappearance featured on her program Web site. Clear Channel Communications has also donated billboards with information on Barnes’ disappearance in the region, AOL News reported.

CBS Baltimore affiliate WJZ has filed a report on Barnes’ case; so has the Charlotte Observer.

“Aside from Baltimore and her hometown near Charlotte, N.C., Phylicia’s disappearance has garnered little media attention, raising the issue of a double-standard because of her race,” NewsOne reported on Monday.

Clearly there’s been media coverage in the case of Phylicia Barnes; maybe the threshold of complaint is the level of media coverage. There’s a difference, both real and perceived, between this case and the fascination that attached to the case of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on vacation in Aruba.

Some have argued, compellingly, there’s media bias afoot for not giving the Barnes story the attention of other head-turning stories in the nonstop carnival of 24/7 media — stories that seem to blow up everywhere, news reports about the wild and improbable, about people dressed as superheroes prowling streets of American cities, about two-headed calves and birds that drop from the sky en masse, and other stories, one in particular ... about a homeless man with a “golden voice” tailor-made for prime-time, and selling macaroni and cheese.

◊ ◊ ◊

Where are the lines drawn? What provokes absolute neck-snapping media fascination with one story’s narrative and a relative indifference to another one?

To some extent, it’s familiarity; Williams had media exposure before; so for media types, maybe there’s a familiarity there that, for now, seems to transcend race. Maybe to the media collectively, Williams is “one of us” who fell on hard times, and now he’s back in the fold.

And there’s another kind of familiarity. The Williams story has the nice union of reality and fantasy, of a dream come true in the grittiest, most unlikely place. Like the story of Nathaniel Ayers, the black Juilliard-educated cellist whose painful but powerful story Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez transformed into journalism that led to wide attention that led to a Major Motion Picture. There’s a feel-good story that's built-in there.

The Barnes story? Not so much. At least that’s what many in the media believe. Like the police officials they cover, news editors and reporters are given (sometimes without realizing it, sometimes without caring) to assuming the worst of human behavior. Rightly or wrongly they assume that, based on past history and their own previous journalistic experience, a missing-teenage girl case tends not to end well. From their perspective, the only thing worst than predictable is predictable and sad.

But curiously, the old editors' adage “If it bleeds, it leads” doesn’t seem to apply nearly as often if the victim is black or minority; that inconsistency justifies the complaints that Barnes’ disappearance is being overlooked or ignored by the major media players, whose breadth of audience could make all the difference.

◊ ◊ ◊

Two people of color, two events, seen through two of the media’s favorite looking glasses: one imparts a fairy-tale vision, a taste of urban life with the funhouse mirror attached; the other regards an event through the cold, clinical viewfinder of a police blotter. Both play into the (slowly-changing but) persistent media meme of blacks as curiosities, pathological abstracts, traumatic survivors.

How mostly unlike our own African American lives, lives lived somewhere between rags and riches, or life and limbo — the existential extremes that endlessly fascinate the media.

How unlike our own hunkered-down lives, out of the spotlight, from sideline to sideline, neither victims nor rulers, visible and invisible at the same time.

Image credits: Williams: Columbus Dispatch via YouTube. Barnes: Baltimore Police Department. "The Soloist" poster: © 2009 Dreamworks/Universal Pictures.

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