Girls Gone Wild and journalistic ethics

![][1]If you ever thought that "Girls Gone Wild" was meaningless fun instead of exploitative trash, last weekend's profile of Joe Francis - the franchise founder, in the L.A. Times magazine - ought to be a bit of an eye-opener.[Here's the first few paragraphs:][2]_Joe Francis, the founder of the "Girls Gone Wild" empire, is humiliating me. He has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back. He's pushing himself against me, shouting: "This is what they did to me in Panama City!"It's after 3 a.m. and we're in a parking lot on the outskirts of Chicago. Electronic music is buzzing from the nightclub across the street, mixing easily with the laughter of the guys who are watching this, this me-pinned-and-helpless thing.Francis isn't laughing.__He has turned on me, and I don't know why. He's going on and on about Panama City Beach, the spring break spot in northern Florida where Bay County sheriff's deputies arrested him three years ago on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and promoting the sexual performance of a child. As he yells, I wonder if this is a flashback, or if he's punishing me for being the only blond in sight who's not wearing a thong. This much is certain: He's got at least 80 pounds on me and I'm thinking he's about to break my left arm. My eyes start to stream tears._And then, a few paragraphs later:_I wriggle free and punch him in the face, closed-fist but not too hard._The opening paragraphs caught my attention when I read the piece last week -- I stayed for the whole thing. So I admit to being mildly surprised by [this inquiry:][3]_Aren't reporters supposed to be objective? How can someone who has been abused by her subject continue to write objectively, particularly when so much of the material also deals with abuse? ... Hoffman's editor should have scratched her article, on the grounds that she was too compromised to give Francis an objective treatment. Then, her editor could have assigned another reporter to present Hoffman's story as well as Francis's._Surprised, I guess, because I thought folks outside the journalism craft - not the folks inside, mind you - had years ago given up taking seriously the notion of journalistic objectivity. So there's something refreshing in the fact that some people still believe in that ideal.That said, the first answer to the question above is: Yes, but...Yes, but journalism comes in all shapes and sizes. Newspapers and your 6 o'clock newscasts should stick to a just-the-facts tone when delivering the news; magazines have greater leeway, and so, I think, do in-depth profile pieces - always with the mission of getting the facts right, of course.Truth is, Claire Hoffman - who covers Hollywood and the adult entertaiment industry for the Times (and how icky a beat does THAT have to be?) - didn't, as far as I can tell, set out to be part of her own story. She was setting out to do an exploration of Who Francis Is and His Larger Meaning in Society. It was Joe Francis who crossed the line. He shouldn't be able to dictate who covers him - and how - through the act of physical assault. And that's what the above questioner is suggesting. If there is a conflict of interest here, the reader is aware of it from the very first sentence of the piece ... and readers are smart, aren't they? [1]: http://www.radaronline.com/the-wire/09_2005_joefrancis.jpg [2]: http://www.latimes.com/features/magazine/west/la-tm-gonewild32aug06,0,2664370.story [3]: http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/oped/news_gone_wild.php

Comments

Chris Tackett 11 years, 3 months ago

i'm glad you wrote about this. i gave it a bit of thought, but chose not to. Wasn't sure what approach to take.

I enjoyed the piece. very interesting. it reminded me, in a way, of the Gonzo style of Hunter Thompson. She was covering the events as a very active participant, which adds a perspective we don't normally see.

re: how the reader will take it. I think the biggest issue, and this is something i've been hearing a lot lately, is that a lot of people don't understand the differences in journalism and the many forms it can take. They think it's all supposed to be "fair and balanced". And anything that makes one side look worse than the other appears biased to the amateur reader.

emawkc 11 years, 3 months ago

The problem is that those biases lead to credibility gaps. Like, if a news organization fakes a document for a story about the president's war record or uses a doctored photo of a (not-so) smoking building for example.

These "forms of journalism" reflect on the industry as a whole, leading a lot of people who don't understand them to suspect the motives and accuracy of the story teller.

This in turn pushes the traditional news industry further into irrelevance. Credibility is much easier to lose than it is to gain.

MyName 11 years, 3 months ago

"Sex sells everything," he says. "It drives every buying decision . . . I hate to get too deep and philosophical here, but only the guys with the greatest sexual appetites are the ones who are the most driven and most successful."

Okay, I have no strong feelings one way or another about those kinds of videos, but, judging from this quote, that guy knows s**t about philosophy or about how people with an adult maturity level actually function in society. Porn is an outlet for grown men to act immature and fantasize, and the amount of smut they do (or don't) buy has little to say about how well they do in life.

Setting that aside for the moment, this piece isn't really about journalism at all: it's about publicity. He acts out for the camera/journalist, she gets to sell a story that people will read, he gets tons of free publicity. It's yellow journalism pure and simple.

What makes this different from Thompson is that Thompson's writing was always about the story, while this piece was all about the 30 y/o frat boy and the product he sells.

Joel 11 years, 3 months ago

Emaw: Hmmmm. I think we journalists maybe need to do a better job explaining what it is we do, then.

I think there's a huge difference between journalism that presents facts with a point of view -- magazines and other long-form reports (and not, incidentally, the part of the business that I'm involved with) -- and the delivering of outright untruths (faked documents and doctored photos.) Without the former, we don't have, for example, the New Yorker -- no "Hiroshima," no "Silent Spring," and no "We Regret to Inform You Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families." Those are classic works of journalism, and we would be poorer without them. The faked stuff we can do without; no self-respecting journalist wants anything to do with that , no matter what biases they possess.

MyName: I agree that the line between publicity-journalism can be blurred. I'm pretty sure, though, that Joe Francis doesn't see this piece as a commercial for his brand.

Joel 11 years, 3 months ago

Here, btw, is something I posted in another forum a few weeks ago.

Motivations are always murky; we can't crawl inside somebody's head. So I think we judge the work. And I think the real questions to judge a piece of journalism by are these: ¢ Is this real? ¢ Is this accurate? ¢ Is this fair?

I think it's possible to quibble with the Joe Francis piece based on the last criterion. I don't know that the first two are disputed.

Terry Bush 11 years, 3 months ago

I personally would LOVE to understand the role and/or motives of journalism better. So, thanks! It helped to get your list of the TYPES of media that exist because I am able to better grasp the fact that "news" differs from "entertainment". That makes sense. However, how often does entertainment masquerade as news? Has the news media always had a bias, but the public is just now realizing it and/or the media is admitting to it?

Perhaps it is the blurring of this and other lines that causes the credibility gap. The distrust of in our society seems to be growing. The left hates and suspects anything said by a FOX reporter and the FOX viewers can't listen to NPR without turning off every other story they hear. The same story spun by either end of the pendulum can sound planets apart; each coming forward with conflicting conclusions (and photos or facts). As a result, people tend to not believe anyone/thing they didn't see with their own eyes - or they stop caring about things/people they do not personally know.

I wish there was a source of information that was 100% reliable. Not 100% complete mind you (that's probably impossible). Just some source of information that is dependably accurate, and was not bent, poked, prodded into producing desired outcomes in the reader/hearer/watcher.

There is a difference between facts, opinions, and the combination of the two - propaganda (propaganda to me is personal opinion being conveyed as facts).

Sooooo.....what is it that the media wants to see happen? Do they want to give people the whole story or convince them of a particular view point? Or both (no matter how conflicting those goals may be).

And what's with the trend towards news media being the focus of news? So often it seems the news people are interviewing each other - so they, and not local or national events, are conveyed as the news. Are we that hard up for entertainment?

Chris Tackett 11 years, 3 months ago

Terry (and anyone else that would be interested in this topic), i suggest you read The Republican Noise Machine by David Brock. I just finished it and it's a great explanation of how journalism has changed in the past 30 years to be more about profits and less about justice/search for truth etc. Plus, he really hits the nail on the head when explaining how the advent of cable news brought opinion into the forefront and how the media hasn't been the same since.

I think the crux of the problems these days is that there are too many media execs that view journalism as a commodity, a product to sell and have forgotten (or never knew) that journalism is about providing a public service and working towards a greater good.

"And what's with the trend towards news media being the focus of news?" laziness, it's cheaper than sending someone to Lebanon. And maybe there'll all just smug enough to think they are worthy of being covered? (Colbert had a good segment a while back about the morning shows covering his interview with a politicians as if it was news and not comedy)

Joel 11 years, 3 months ago

Chris, I think, nails down pretty accurately why you see journalists interviewing journalists more often -- it's cheaper than sending somebody somewhere to do reporting.

And I think he's right that there's a sense within journalism that the whole enterprise has become more profit-driven in recent decades - profit, I should add, has always been part of the equation, but most newspaper owners (for example) felt they had a public trust. It's a tough balance, which might've swung to far to one end in the last 20 or 30 years.

But Terry, journalism is a human enterprise -- and as such, I don't think you're ever going to find an outlet that everybody agrees is 100 percent reliable. Just to borrow an example: I don't think anybody disagrees that the New York Times accurately reported the existence of the so-called "warrantless wiretapping" program last year. But that story left a lot of people unhappy -- the left, because the Times could've reported the story during the election; and the right, because a secret program was exposed, potentiallly aiding terrorists. I don't think those kinds of arguments are ever going to go away.

Terry asks: " Has the news media always had a bias, but the public is just now realizing it and/or the media is admitting to it?"

Actually, the idea of trying to present objective reporting is a pretty modern invention. Used to be most towns had a Republican newspaper and a Democratic newspaper, and everybody knew what they were getting. There's a number of folks who suggest the current model of trying to present news with a neutral point of view is untenable -- I don't think I agree with that, but I also think that it's not going to dominate the landscape the way it did in the 1950s and 1960s; the media world is too fractured for that, now, and lots of folks want their news with a point of view, so they're going to go find it.

Terry asks: "what is it that the media wants to see happen? Do they want to give people the whole story or convince them of a particular view point?"

Well, I've said before that I think it's a mistake to speak of "The Media" generically. Some journalists want to give the whole story. Some want to make a case for something. The Joe Francis piece, I'd say, exists closer to the latter -- and while that's not the kind of journalism I'll be doing, I don't think that means the Joe Francis piece is without value.

CafeSiren 11 years, 3 months ago

I read this article when it came out, and was too overcome by the subject matter (I was close to physical illness at a couple of points) to think about journalism. But now that Joel brings it up:

Joel can't possibly post the whole article here, as it's an extremely long piece of investigative journalism, wrapped in a frame story of personal experience -- the author begins with a short story of Francis assaulting her, then moves on to the investigation of Francis' history, career, motivations, and the motivations of the young women who participate in his videos. She pops up in the first person now and then, as she chronicles her day following Francis ("I follow Francis and his bodyguard through the crowd to find Kaitlyn Bultema. She's dancing on a podium and leaps off at the sight of Francis."), then returns at the end of the piece to briefly finish the story that she begain with, concluding on a chilling line that seems to sum up the sad story she's been telling for the previous several pages.

The point I'm trying to make is that the personal aspects of the story are certainly there, but they're not the core of the story. If they were, it would be an editorial column. But if you read the whole story, it's clear that she's done a lot of homework for this piece.

I think the Hunter S. Thompson comparison is apt.

Chris Tackett 11 years, 3 months ago

joel's correct in that it's really tough to have these types of discussions and use such broad terms as "media" and "journalism" where there are so many forms both things can take.

i think what's done the most damage is the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in the 80's. It ensured (or attempted to ensure) that radio and tv stations provided quality news as a public service. Since the broadband (as pq puts it) is limited station owners had to give both sides equal time in order to keep their license to use the radio waves/tv waves.

There was infinite # of printing presses that could be made and used, so you could have biased papers. But the readers knew that's what they were getting.

Now, everything has shifted to the Right. With the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine and the deregulation at the FCC, the radio dial is almost entirely Right Wing, media ownership has been consolidated into 10 or less mega corporations. And the owners see profits and market share as the bottom line. If Opinion, Spin, Blood or Sex sells, that's what your gonna see, hear and read.

Joel 11 years, 3 months ago

A point I've made before and I feel is good to make again: There's no reason, in this day and age, why people shouldn't be tuning into as many news sources as they can/desire. I read the Journal-World every day, but I don't just read the Journal-World. I think one can get a sense of the Truth -- and all the tensions in getting at it -- if one has a robust media diet.

cvillehawk 11 years, 3 months ago

And that's exactly why journalists are blurring the line between objectivity and entertainment. If you have the entire internet plus cable TV at your disposal every day of your life, are you more likely to read "Joe Francis and his greater meaning within society" or "Joe Francis beat me up!". You're at least going to click the link to find out what she's talking about, aren't you? And that's a major part of the battle in this crowded, 24-hour-a-day news cycle we have going on now.

Joel 11 years, 3 months ago

Well...

I actually don't think the story was sensationalistic -- outside of the fact that "Girls Gone Wild" is a sensationalistic story in and of itself. I don't think the writer asked or invited the abuse he gave her, and I do think it's pertinent that a man who makes a living exploiting women felt free to, you know, beat up a woman.

Sometimes life is sensationalistic, and it has nothing to do with entertainment.

Terry Bush 11 years, 3 months ago

There is definitely a lot of food for thought (on my part at least) in the above discussion. I understand, and accept (albiet maybe reluctantly) that getting the "news" is not going to be just about being informed on facts (if it ever was). Because there is more competition for $$ and attention, they providers of "facts" are going to package or put them in ways that help bring the most $$ their way (or the way of their employers). Give the people what they want, viva la free market.

As Joel says "journalism is a human enterprise" Thus, we can expect there to be failings and flaws. Just as with any profession or vocation practiced by human beings. Plus, I'm 110% sure that no human being, let alone news outlet, will ever know all the facts.

However, - as to your example

" I don't think anybody disagrees that the New York Times accurately reported the existence of the so-called "warrantless wiretapping" program last year. But that story left a lot of people unhappy -- the left, because the Times could've reported the story during the election; and the right, because a secret program was exposed, potentiallly aiding terrorists. I don't think those kinds of arguments are ever going to go away."

Per your above thoughts, one side is arguing about the TIMING of the story while the other side is upset by the release of the facts. Neither apparently takes issue with the accuracy of the facts.

I can go to lots of sources to find out what is going on. But most of them (if not all) spin it somehow!

What I would dearly love are a few sources to get the facts alone; let ME make up my mind how I feel or what I think about those facts!!

I'd like a way to get at more of the facts, with a whole lot less opinion, entertainment, or propoganda included!

Joel 11 years, 3 months ago

"Per your above thoughts, one side is arguing about the TIMING of the story while the other side is upset by the release of the facts. Neither apparently takes issue with the accuracy of the facts."

Exactly. My point is, nobody disputed the accuracy or reliability of the story, and yet it was still highly controversial. Accuracy and reliability isn't the end of the argument about news these days, not by a long shot.

Chris Tackett 11 years, 3 months ago

joel: "My point is, nobody disputed the accuracy or reliability of the story, and yet it was still highly controversial. Accuracy and reliability isn't the end of the argument about news these days, not by a long shot."

well, put. another example of this is the news coming from Iraq. The Right thinks all the stories about horror and death are being covered to paint the War as a failure and that the "good news" in Iraq isn't being covered for the same reason. So in their eyes, the bias isn't in inaccurate stories or facts it's that Editors or reporters are actively deciding NOT to cover certain things because of their political/ideological leanings.

This is of course - mostly - bullshit. What average news readers don't realize is that reporters and editors are 'trained' to cover what needs to be covered. It's why pg. A1 and A10 have much different tone and types of stories. They make judgements based on why a certain story should go before others.

For example, this is like saying during the Katrina disaster, "Oh! The Liberal Media is only covering the bad news out of Katrina! Why aren't they covering all the good weather we had in northern Louisiana. Or talking about all the people that successfully made it out of New Orleans and are enjoying their mini-vacations! And did you hear they finished building a school? Probably not since our Liberal Leftist Media is trying to cover-up the truth!"

The point is, there are judgement calls that have to be made, but that's why newspapers don't just let anyone be the news editor. They hire trained professionals to decide which stories the public needs to hear.

But, in all of this, we have to keep in mind that there are the profit motives, the execs breathing down their necks etc and of course there's also bad editors out there as well.

justthefacts 11 years, 3 months ago

http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/ has some interesting photo comparisons; more journalistic attempts to influence sentiment or outcomes.

MyName 11 years, 3 months ago

I agree that the line between publicity-journalism can be blurred. I'm pretty sure, though, that Joe Francis doesn't see this piece as a commercial for his brand.

I think if Joe was expecting the story to have him come across as a nice person with a notorious occupation, he'd be very disappointed, but I think the piece generated a lot more publicity for his brand than those late night TV ads ever would, and that's where it's a homerun for Francis. IMHO, Francis is probably alot more worried about the publicity factor then whether people think he's a nice guy (I think the guys a sleaze, BTW). The reporter did her homework, but her reporting on the business aspect of the story didn't make it come across as better or worse than most of the porn industry.

big_honey_daddy 11 years, 3 months ago

When it comes right down to it, aren't there some days, even in your obvious sincere quest for an objective story that the question of "what is the truest truth"begins reverberating in your head? Existentially speaking, what is the truth?

MyName 11 years, 3 months ago

well, put. another example of this is the news coming from Iraq. The Right thinks all the stories about horror and death are being covered to paint the War as a failure and that the "good news" in Iraq isn't being covered for the same reason. So in their eyes, the bias isn't in inaccurate stories or facts it's that Editors or reporters are actively deciding NOT to cover certain things because of their political/ideological leanings.

The problem with a big story, like Iraq (or terrorism for that matter), is that it's been going on for long enough that most people who are going to have an opinion have already made up their minds. What's the point of being 100% objective in day to day reporting when your audience is unlikely to be swayed by your opinion anyway? The big story is pretty simple: we've invaded, we're having some trouble, and nobody really knows when we're going to leave.

If you look at the numbers from a business standpoint, it seems like there are two audiences: those who are looking for new News, and those who are looking for an update. The ones who are looking for new News are usually only around for a big story, and they want objectivity. The ones who are looking for an update have probably already made up their mind, and are usually looking for something that confirms their opinion. The second group is often the one that gives you your day to day subscriptions/ratings, which is why you see new outlets that try to give them what they want, even if it is a little bias. However during a big story, you try to give the first group what they want to keep them around, and that is objectivity.

So I think those who want objectivity 100% of the time are probably going to lose out for the day to day coverage because most of the people who want day to day coverage of the story don't want objectivity, but confirmation of their opinion.

BTW, I'll agree with you on Iraq: it does seem a little silly/naive for someone to want a story about how we're fixing sewers to beat out a story where 1,500 are killed in the last month.

bubbahotep 11 years, 3 months ago

Think about it like this. If the reporter had left out the fight and Francis' comments to her we would still have read a lot of bad things about Mr Girls Gone Wild and thought he was an ASS. Now we can at least know that the writer hated her subject enough to punch him in the face and might have left out the part about how Francis walks blind men across the street and finds homes for abandoned puppies.

What I don't like is the way the writer seems to assume what the truth is. For example when she describes the "obediant" staff laughing on command at an overplayed joke. Did she ask them if he Always says that? Maybe...

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