Anthropologists talk about this idea of observers unduly influencing the subjects they observe. A child might behave differently if their parents are in the room with them. I might behave differently at Popeyes if there are judgmental white people around and any given person may act differently if they know they’re on TV. Deep down, most people are prone to performative behaviors if they know it brings attention, and the more attention that comes, the more amped up that performance may become.
Tonight, I watched a documentary on HBO titled Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart. It’s a documentary that came out over a year ago which captures the salacious story of a small-town woman accused of getting the teenage boy that she was sleeping with to murder her husband. The trial became famous due to media coverage of the entire affair from start-to-bottom and, as a result, her guilt by public opinion turned into guilt by the law. It was an almost perfectly gift-wrapped story: you had this woman, temptress if you will, who seemed to “love being a widow” as one talking head points in the beginning, who had an affair with a teenager and, worst of all, didn’t come off as warm or innocent enough. I don’t think it’s out of order to see that she did initially enjoy the attention of newscasters and reporters visiting her and putting a camera in her face allowing her to tell her story. Attention is addictive, no matter the context it comes in.
It’s 1990, the internet we know of doesn’t exist yet, there’s no social media and there’s no reality programs. When Pamela Smart went on TV for the first time to talk about her husband being murdered, this was the highest platform a woman like her from a New England town would ever get and she worked it. She tried to sell herself as a loving, caring wife; maybe this was because she didn’t want anyone to know about her affair, maybe she didn’t want anyone to know she was an accomplice to murder or maybe she just genuinely liked the lights and the cameras and the reporters (one of the original reporters mentioned that she’d told him her dream of being a news anchor at one point), maybe she just liked the attention.
As a collective people like to be entertained more than anything else (except maybe loved but even love can be entertainment, but that’s another essay). Neither Donald Trump nor Ben Carson have any business in an American political race, yet they persevere because they’re “fun”. They get the blogs bloggin and let them churn out that sweet, sweet content. There’s a reality show/webseries about any subject under the sun because why not? Everyone wanted to be on The Real World right? This is your chance. True crime and Court TV specials have assembled an audience on onlookers mesmerized by horrific, psychotic actions who remove themselves from the fact that they’re watching real people in order to enjoy it as pulp. Every year, there’s guaranteed to be a “Trial of the Century”, where the court of public opinion can armchair quarterback a case instead of worrying themselves about reasonable doubt or the justice system. It is a wonder that we haven’t installed court side seats at these trials for Jack Nicholson or Rihanna to show up in or installed a kiss-cam to hover over the trial audience. The next big televised trial might even be sponsored by DraftKings.
The Pamela Smart case gained attention fast and as more and more info about it came out, the more people became enamored of it. For as much as Pamela was assumed to have enjoyed the cameras, as the story got a national audience, you suddenly had local news reporters, local police and eventual trial witnesses being invited to talk on national news programs and daytime talk shows and wherever Geraldo Rivera’s mustache was located at that moment. It’s easy to say that this holds no bearing on a criminal case but you have local players going on TV and maybe they’re being completely honest, but they’re also visibly getting into being on a platform and having people listen to them and watch them. You become cognizant of this and you start acting like it, you put on a performance. Maybe it’s an honest one but it’s an exaggerated one for an audience that’s eager to eat it up. Pamela Smart’s case became the first huge Trial of the Century: filled with TV cameras, reporters and onlookers, many of whom already forming a belief about what they think happened based on the sensationalist, exploitative nature of the news up until that point. By the time the trial started, there were already TV movies and books being written about this case and this woman and key witnesses were signing TV rights for this story. It’s easy to say what the media can and can’t do to influence public opinion, but to be a juror (or judge) and see so many people this captivated and entranced by a story will put pressure on you to make the “right” decision. Because you know that everyone is watching.
Today, we’re in the “age of social media”. The internet is evolving and with that comes ways for any person to reach a large audience. Twitter, i particular, has been in my life since 2009. What started as a silly platform to be an idiot on with friends during breaks between classes at my college, turned into my most honest public mouthpiece. I connected with people I never would’ve without it and it was cool. There were people who had more followers than me and whose tweets got more attention than mine, which was fine but like anyone else would, I wanted to say something that would garner similar attention for no other reason than the self-satisfaction of someone liking the things you say. I don’t know when exactly the first person who became famous because of twitter happened or even who it was; what I do know is that a shift happened where people realized that an online audience could translate to offline success. I saw people who never would have been given a chance without the internet prove that they could make something of themselves and build a loyal audience. In a lot of ways, it was beautiful but twitter/internet popularity is a lot like a popular TV show. Whatever persona you created to make yourself a more marketable personality becomes your calling card: if you’re a comic, you’re just the comic, if you’re a sports guy, you’re just the sports guy, if you’re a feminist, you’re just the feminist. People want all the old familiar beats from their old favorites and you can see people straining themselves to fulfill these roles. In the end, what you’re left with are characters rather than people and agendas over conversations. The worst byproduct of this is the need to be right on the internet. No learning, no growth for people who do this; the point is to look smart, worldly and perceptive in front of an audience. Admitting you’re wrong would make you human and being human isn’t marketable. Nobody wants to be the one who doesn’t say the “right” thing, even if that right thing is based on nothing but popular perception.
There’s a way in which you can become so invested in the news the way you are invested in a movie. It happened during Ferguson and Baltimore, it happened when Tonya Harding sent the goons after Nancy Kerrigan, it happened for the OJ car chase. As you watch these news stories, you invest in them the way you would characters in a movie and it becomes most dangerous when it’s time for the payoff. When it was time for a verdict to be passed down regarding Pamela Smart, there had been days and days of content and rhetoric and opinionating done on her character. If you had access to a TV or to a newspaper, you knew who she was and a picture of her had been painted in your mind. Her guilt or innocence is almost an aside to the much more tantalizing story of a Hot-to-trot married psychopathic schoolteacher who seduced a teenager and got him to murder her husband. That’s a movie anyone would want to see but not if it doesn’t have the right ending. To pretend that the spotlight and wild narratives written had no bearing or influence on a jury is incredibly silly. Nobody is impervious to that shit. “Listen to the music. He’s evil!”. Perception isn’t the only thing but it’s a thing,
Attention is addictive. It might be more loved than money but the desire is supposed to be secret. It reveals our narcissism and that’s not proper etiquette. The Trayvon Martin case is one of the most heartbreaking public trials of my lifetime. One of the more poisonous, corrosive narratives that took place was that of George Zimmerman the folk hero who stood up to a scary black teenager. Whether or not the jury was influenced by outside media is unknown but what I do remember is rumors of a juror signing a book deal to recount her story of her time on the trial and going on the 24 hour newscycle to talk about how hard of a decision this was for her and her fellow jurors. Brave. What’s a good movie without a sequel right? The thing about the cameras is that they always leave and sometimes you’ll do what it takes to keep them around a little bit longer.
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories because most of them are boring. The truth is always more fascinating than some overly wrought, Game of Thrones-style deception. By the end of Captivated, I didn’t know if Pam Smart was guilty or innocent but what I do know was that her trial was not objective and everyone deserves that. The main takeaway from watching this was getting to see the early road towards twitter/instagram, reality TV and 24 hour news, and getting to see how the promise of ratings, fame and even money could play a part in influencing behavior. Blogs write outrage-inducing headlines because it gets clicks, the news shows exploitative images because it keeps eyes glued and violent images are popular in our media because people love violence. You do what works until it stops working. To pretend that the media or even other people are expected to keep a moral code is a convenient way to ignore how culpable we are in helping engineer this ship. You get the culture you deserve and so far we’ve all decided we want to be entertained.