Last year, the City of Hemet, California decided to cast itself in the roll of the hamlet of Carbonville in a fifth rate remake of The Wild One.
The blatantly obvious point of this dramatization was money. A series of nasty and dangerous pranks had annoyed the overbearing local cops for months. Hemet decided to blame the pranks on the Wild Ones. Hemet had no choice. Hemet would have had to lay off cops unless the Wild Ones menacing their town could be cowed. Of course, you can’t lay off cops when your town is menaced by Wild Ones. The Wild Ones turned out to be the Vagos.
But it was always about more than just meeting payroll. As was obvious a year and a half ago, modern policing has become more like the cargo cult than like Sherlock Holmes. Police no longer simply need uniforms, guns and badges. Police must also have Swat vehicles, body armor, customized M4s, and for training they must have $600-a-piece M4 replica BB guns. They must have these things to protect us, all of us, from the Wild Ones.
“Public safety,” officials say all the time, “trumps everything.” In Hemet, it obviously trumps truth, justice and the American way.
Both the national and local press eagerly swallow this absurd nonsense. The hoax would have been dismaying if it had stopped at some reasonable boundary but it did not. There were days of press conferences, biker gang talking heads, stock footage and even a couple of cynical politicians right out of central casting.
When at a loss for anything to say, the busty babes and borderline morons who “bring us” their eye-witnessing of the “news” connected the Vagos and the Mongols because neither club is the Hells Angels. The implication was that the Vagos were the equivalent of one of New York’s “Five Families.” And the Mongols connection was a most excellent reason to play that old surveillance footage from inside Rosa’s Cantina in Harrah’s over and over.
Actually, the eyewitness formatted news accounts were the best. The eyewitnesses eventually caught on that big chunks of the story was fiction. But the eyewitness news format is now your grandfather’s news.
Tha Dialogical Newz
The cutting edge of television news follows what is called a “dialogical format.” Dialogical news is the emerging successor to the “eyewitness format.” In the eyewitness news format, an actor portrays himself as an eyewitnesses to “news events” by standing near them in a standard device called a “Stand Up.”
The dialogical format is very different. The beauty of the dialogical format is that it does not need news. It only needs excitement. The point of dialogical news is to generate hits on television station websites by asking viewers to “tell us what you think.” It is standard in the dialogical format for viewers to be called “reporters” or “I-reporters” or something like that. These “reporters” are encouraged not only to editorialize but also to submit content. So the Balloon Boy’s Dad was routinely called a “journalist” and a “reporter” as that story broke. That story turned out to be a hoax, too.
The great, mad, restless beauty of the Hemet hoax was that it excited everybody. Politicians, cops, pundits and others fed off that excitement like energy vampires. For days most news coverage followed that excitement too.
More than a year later it seems that the media coverage of the great Hemet hoax should be studied in journalism schools. Unfortunately, it also seems that if it is it will have to be studied in the journalism schools on distant worlds in galaxies far, far away because there doesn’t seem to be any actual journalism left on this planet. The soul of journalism is skepticism and the heart of journalism in a democracy is distrust of official authority. And these were not qualities that were evident in the coverage of the Hemet hoax.
The Usual Suspects
One of the cynical politicians, then Riverside (California) County District Attorney Rod Pacheco announced at the beginning of the hoax that he was responsible for enlisting more than 400 police from more than “sixty local and federal police agencies” to raid “94 locations in four states.” The raids cost at least $250,000 and possibly as much as $1 million when all the associated costs are added in. That money might even have saved a few cop jobs in Hemet. But then what would Pacheco have gotten out of that?
Pacheco called these raids, which apparently every politician in a difficult reelection campaign has a right to order, “Operation Everywhere.”
The Associated Press reported “The tense atmosphere surrounding a California police department plagued by booby trap attacks has been stepped up a notch following the latest threat against officers… About 30 members of the Vagos, California’s largest motorcycle gang, were arrested in Riverside County on Wednesday, as part of a crackdown across the state and in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The gang specializes in methamphetamine sales, identity theft and violence…Dana said someone he believes may have been a gang member tried to get into a news conference Thursday at the district attorney’s office in Riverside. The person was turned away, he said, because he didn’t have a press credential.”
The Associated Press reported this. Not Fox 11 Newz. The Associated Press.
Pacheco called the Vagos “an extreme threat to law enforcement.”
Jerry Brown, who was running for Governor of California at the time, called the Vagos “urban terrorists.”
“It is incredible and even unprecedented for police officers here to be subject to terrorist attack,” Brown elaborated. “We have seen it south of the border, but not here yet.”
Of course, none of what was said was true. The Vagos had nothing to do with the pranks. The club was simply a manufactured scapegoat and the hoax barely worked anyway.
Pacheco lost his bid for reelection. Brown became Governor. But Chief Richard Dana took his retirement money and ran. And, Hemet is still drowning in the depression.
The Vagos hired an attorney named Joseph Yanny who sued Riverside County and others for defamation.
In a statement released August 1, Riverside County announced it was settling the suit for no money and an apology. The apology stated that authorities were “reasonably satisfied, at this time, that the Vagos International Motorcycle Club was not involved in the 2010 attacks on law enforcement officers….. Any emotionally charged or colorful remarks made by, or at the direction of, the former district attorney, Rod Pacheco, during the heat of the investigation which were expressly or impliedly offensive to the Vagos are unfortunate.”
“The fact of the matter is, the Vagos didn’t have anything to do with the incidents out in Hemet” Yanny said about the settlement. “Now these men can get on with their lives and enjoy their rights without being harassed.”
Well, maybe. That would be the end if it were still possible to find endings in world defined by television. But on this planet, defined by television imagery and dialogical hysteria, it is not.
The Take Away
Television journalists are partial to the term “take away.” The “take away” is what television viewers remember when they have forgotten all the rest of the story. It is the toothpaste you can’t shove back in the tube. The “take away” is what fuels most viewer opinions in dialogical news.
The take away from the Hemet hoax is that the Vagos are urban terrorists. It does not matter here now whether this is at all true. It only matters that people get excited when they think about it.