Deconstructing TBT and the Gangsta Rapper Story
One of the toughest tasks a media writer faces is trying to report on the institution which employs them.
So, initially, I was going to pass on writing anything about the story on the gangsta rapper who ran from gunplay featured on the front pages of the St. Petersburg Times and TBT*. But then I read an item on the issue on Creative Loafing's Tampa Calling blog that seemed a little off base, so I figured I'd weigh in.
Regular readers may remember I wrote months ago about my dismay over a TBT headline and cobbled-together story which I felt was unduly harsh regarding the suicide of WFLA-Ch. 8 meteorologist John Winter. That item and this more recent controversy speaks to a problem we regularly face in Timesland: What to do when TBT slaps a saucy headline and blurb on a sensitively reported and written story?
As the Loafing item indicates, reporter Ben Montgomery tried hard to write an even handed story about 24-year-old rapper Anthony Blocker, also known as Black Reign, who wrote a song called Gun Shine State but didn't recognize a gunshot when it was fired at his show. As the Times story leaves Blocker, he's admitted hiding in a women's restroom when panic erupted and is struggling to cope with the consequence of knowing a woman was shot to death at the concert.
Unfortunately, the TBT headline -- "Street Cred? Shot"! -- states something that was never directly addressed in the story, amping up the idea that Blocker's real-life response undercut his onstage image. This, it seems, was the reward Blocker got for being honest with Montgomery about what happened.
It's a problem I also had when TBT featured a story I wrote about WFTS reporter Don Germaise, who agreed to provide an interview to a white supremacist in exchange for getting the activist to speak with him on camera. Though I tried hard to keep the story evenhanded, the TBT headline was simply "Idiot," which belied the careful way I laid out facts so viewers could make that judgment for themselves.
Where I part company with Loafing's analysis, is the contention that rappers are held to a different standard than artists in other genres who create songs about negative fictional characters.
One of the reasons the story resonates so powerfully, is that anyone who knows rap music knows some artists go to great lengths to convince fans that they personally live the lives depicted in their songs. Snoop Dogg doesn't claim the player depicted in his songs is a persona; instead, he tells Rolling Stone that he served as a real-life pimp to working prostitutes just a few years ago.
Ben's story shows an artist who was brought face-to-face with the possible consequences of that culture, and as a result, he's questioning many things. Suggesting that this isn't a valid issue feels a bit patronizing; as if rap artists can't be held to account for their obvious behavior.
To me, the real story here is that TBT's headlines, blunt as they are, sum up what many of us are thinking about these stories, anyway. Consumers increasingly want journalism which doesn't tip toe around the story's central message; people want journalism which states obvious truths.
But sometimes being fair to sources means letting the public take that step on their own, if they so choose. And I have a feeling the friction between that old school fairness doctrine and TBT's in-your-face frankness will be a continuing problem, as long as both outlets share stories.