Artists Pay Back (The Blog)

January 23, 2011

NEW Cautionary Tales! (Now With 100% Less Caution!)

"Don't do as I did...unless you like fame and fortune."

As 2010 came to a close and 2011 was dawning with all its shiny newness, there were three seemingly disparate stories that all had a similar thread running through them. Though each of these were potentially niche stories (in the areas of football, trash TV, media) they all made their way into the general flow of conversation in the public consciousness. Representing football, you had Michael Vick’s journey from NFL superstar to convicted felon back to NFL Superstar (V2.0, now with pocket passing!). As for trash TV (in every sense of the word), you had all the subjects of 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom in general and Amber Portwood specifically, the show’s de facto breakout star (for all the wrong reasons). Finally, there is media’s new “Golden Voice” Ted Williams, and his one-in-a-million (YouTube hits) journey from rags-to-Seacrest.

At first glance it wouldn’t seem like these stories had much in common aside from being discussed and debated in their own ways ad nauseam. Yet all three were incorrectly touted as being “cautionary tales” either by the subjects themselves or those responsible. Not only are none of them effective cautionary tales, they have the distinction of contradicting the very caution they purportedly offer.

There are a great many words you can use to describe Michael Vick depending on your point-of-view: amazing athlete, criminal, redeemed citizen, animal abuser, good teammate, etc. And all of these are fair and true in some way (again, depending on how you see his case overall), but the one thing he is not, is a cautionary tale. He has been hitting the talk circuit preaching to teens the dangers of falling in with the wrong crowd and professing a newfound respect for animals. But it’s really hard to listen to his message that “everything can be lost with bad decisions” now that he is on the verge of signing what should be a pretty lucrative contract after not only performing beyond anyone’s expectations, but better than he ever had pre-arrest (Prison! Better than training camp! Discuss!). Sure he’s still in a lot of debt, but it’s hard to imagine that in a few months from now, that last remaining concern will have faded. But cautionary? How so? He committed a crime and went to jail losing huge fortune, a (more or less) sterling reputation and a job that is the envy of millions. Then he got out of prison and struggled with a hostile public, crushing debt and a skeptical league. A cautionary tale ends there. You can find the moral where you want, depending on how much personal responsibility you want to take, it’s either “don’t torture and kill dogs for enjoyment because it’s highly illegal and makes you pretty disgusting human” or “don’t let peer pressure/the wrong crowd ruin your life” and the capper should be “just remember Michael Vick.” Except that he is on the verge of regaining everything he had before. Sure the prison time must have sucked, but that’s all in the past and now he is set up to be someone with a huge fortune, a (more or less) sterling reputation and a job that is the envy of millions. So really the lesson is, don’t commit the crime if you can’t back it up athletically after your prison sentence is over. Should he have gotten a second chance. Sure? The Eagles took a chance and it worked out for them. He served his time and the NFL decided to reinstate him. (Though it would have been perfectly fine and reasonable had they made the decision to not reinstate him. They didn’t “owe him another opportunity” as some had suggested upon his release. There was work for him elsewhere had they decided the PR hit wasn’t worth the potential upside.)

Then there is 16 and Pregnant. From the start, this show was touted for its gritty look at how hard life is for girls who become pregnant in high school. It was designed to show kids who have a hard time grasping the ramifications of such a colossal decision/mistake. The producers and network seemed so earnest in their hopes to open a dialogue and hopefully do their part to curtail probably the worst decision/mistake a teenager can make. And that was all well and good (and, for the most part, true). (By the way, yes, I do know that every now and then it works out and it doesn’t apply to everyone and I’m sure you were/had/knew a super-awesome teen mother. But, isolated incidents aside, it’s still far more likely to be a tremendous mistake for all involved than a good thing. And even when things turn out okay, it’s fair to say they would have been as good if not exponentially better had the parties involved waited. And yes, it is a worse decision than drug use. Drug use is bad and idiotic and so on, but at least it only has the potential to ruin one life. A pregnancy drags down two young people and, worst of all, the poor kid who had no choice in being raised by the knucklehead teens who aren’t smart enough to properly implement birth control.) The problem is the same producers/network then decided to cash in on the teens with the follow up series Teen Mom by bringing back the same girls and following their lives after the birth, not so much out of societal concern now but more out of ratings points. And, in the moment the girls went from “Documentary Subjects” to “Cast Members,” the caution went out the window with the bath water. These girls are now showing up on Access Hollywood, gracing the covers of People and living a life that most teens would kill for. Or at least, get pregnant on purpose for. Which brings us to Amber Portwood. She’s pretty much an awful person and horrible mother (shocking, I know), but none of that matters to some young girls because she is FAMOUS and has a six figure salary. (And, much like the Kate Gosselin’s and Octomom’s out there, she is more famous BECAUSE she is an awful person and horrible mother. Good job, society.) These girls are now just more of the MTV detritus that have more zeroes in their paychecks than brain cells in their heads. They are barely distinguishable from their channel mates at this point, really the only difference is that the Jersey Shore kids are payback for bad parenting, Amber Portwood is just a bad parent. The sad thing is that for many of these girls, the cautionary tale part is likely yet to come. Stay tuned.

And finally we have Ted Williams, who, until about a month ago, WAS a legitimate  cautionary tale. Here was a man who was gifted with a great radio voice and found some success in his field until his life was derailed by drugs and alcohol. He lost everything and wound up homeless for many years. Until one day, Ted met YouTube and, of course, went viral. Within days he was living the celebrity lifestyle. Agents! Morning shows! Ohio sports teams! Kraft! Oh and of course Rehab! The tricky (and oft overlooked) thing about Ted Williams isn’t that he was so much discovered, as he was rediscovered. He already had a career in radio and it derailed. He wasn’t fielding offers from the NFL and MTV fifteen years ago because, though his voice is really good, it’s not exactly rare. No, he is getting all of this attention because he was homeless. Homelessness actually became a good career move. So I’m not sure that’s a cautionary tale either (again, not yet anyway, if he has trouble adjusting to this skyrocketing fame trajectory – and he already has – the “cautionary” part could sadly kick in again.)

All of these stories share this common thread. The supposed “cautionary” part (getting pregnant, using drugs, killing dogs) arguably or explicitly benefitted the person in question. Though all of them aren’t guaranteed to be worse off had these events not occurred, they certainly wouldn’t be doing as well. Minus the fall from grace, Ted Williams would likely be just another voice talent living a modest life. Minus the babies, the Teen Mom girls would just be high school graduates in college or the workforce. And though Vick may not seem to fall into this, it could be debated that he fell upwards when he landed with the Eagles. Atlanta would most likely still be holding on to him without the arrest and he may not have received the coaching or teammates he needed to elevate his game. He certainly wouldn’t have been as big of a story and drawn as much attention if not for “the comeback.” In essence all of these so-called “cautionary tales” are really tales of bad situations where the subject ended up better off from having their fall, rather than learning (and, thereby, teaching others) from the terrible situation they all played a personal part in creating.

Are these tales intriguing?  Absolutely.

Are they enviable? Debatably.

But are they cautionary? No. Sorry.

March 12, 2010

The Unsettling Case of Nick Schuyler

Nick Schuyler’s recently released a book detailing his harrowing experience of being lost at sea with his three good friends, Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith and Will Bleakley. The story made national news as soon as the men were reported missing due to the fact that two of them were professional football players. He has said that the point of the book is not at all about capitalizing or profiting from the tragedy, but to shed light on what really happened and how he was able to survive the ordeal. It was, without a doubt, a terrible and tragic incident and he is very lucky to be alive.

My first thought when Nick was rescued (and admittedly cynical in the worst way) was, “well the unknown kid just hit the jackpot.” But I remember hearing soon after that he had no interest in book deals and promotions. He just wanted to be left alone. I believe he did one interview with a local newspaper (the St. Petersburg Times, perhaps) to set the record straight. Then, a few months later, he appeared on Real Sports to set the record straight (again.)

Then I heard about the book, and thought, “There it is.”

There have been some questions, and justifiably so, about the fact that he is putting out what is likely to be a bestseller. His defense of the book during his current ‘no media stone unturned’ promotional blitz has been along the lines of “there was some misinformation about what really happened and I want to set the record straight.” That may be an admirable stance to take, but there is still so much about the whole ordeal that leaves me feeling a little uneasy about his motives.

  • Why the need for a writing assist? –  Jere Longman helped write the book. He wasn’t there that day and, as far as I can find, had no direct connection to any of the men involved prior to signing on to write the book. So why is his name gracing the cover? Well, of course, publisher William Morrow/HarperCollins wants to move some product. Longman is an established writer with many successful books to his name and presumably a sizeable following. Nick has said that Longman’s involvement was just to help him sort out his thoughts and shape it into a narrative. I don’t quite buy that. Sure, he probably helped in that regard but his job was more so to amp up the prose. To work in some powerful metaphors and make the dialogue pop. And really, if he’s not there to make it a better reading experience, which would necessitate some form of embellishments, then why is he involved at all? If the book is “in Nick’s own words” then Jere is an unnecessary component.  But he is involved so the words and thoughts expressed in print cannot be fully trusted. And the motives behind his involvement are questionable.
  • How can we trust Nick’s version in the first place?It’s a legitimate question, but not one I’ve heard come up yet. Hypothermia, sleep deprivation, no food or water, burning sun, endless hours, death – all of these things can cause the strongest mind to drift from reality. By the accounts of both experts and Nick himself, unavoidable delirium and in some cases outright hallucinations were experienced, so how is Nick’s version even the “truth” to begin with? Can we believe that this is, as he says, “what happened?” This doesn’t have to mean he’s lying (not intentionally, anyway) but it does have to call into question the validity in anything he says. He may be the only one who “really knows what happened” but that doesn’t mean his recollection is accurate.
  • How about giving the family the face-to-face treatment – This maybe the most unsettling aspect of all. Nick’s own family has asserted that he has barely spoken openly with them about what happened. Presumably because it is difficult to say it to them directly. Fair enough, but why then has he been able to speak to the media ad nauseum. It’s bothersome to know that he has discussed what happened for about one hour (minus commercials) longer to Oprah than to Marquis Cooper’s own wife. If, as he claims, it’s hard to do it face-to-face, maybe prepare a private video directed at each family. Maybe even let them prepare some questions that you can answer to allow them some measure of relief in the final hours of their beloved sons and husbands.
  • The only people who need the truth are the families, and they can get it for $29.95 – Just kidding, surely they got free copies. Right? His whole “the record needs to be set straight” agenda is admirable on the surface. There was rampant speculation, accusations and even vitriol directed at the men for being inexperienced boaters and for the assumption that they were heavily intoxicated. It bothered Nick that the event could on any level be portrayed as a comeuppance for some guys who were in over their heads due to ignorance and/or arrogance and that it cost them their lives. This characterization is probably unfair at best and unnecessarily cruel at worst and Nick wanted to expose it as unjust. They made mistakes in the heat of confusion, but it was not, he asserts, due to alcohol or blatant incompetence – just an unfortunate and ultimately tragic string of events that, yes, could have been avoided in retrospect. But ultimately this information needed to be related to those directly involved. Taking rumors and doubts out of the public consciousness (not to mention, the internet) is like trying to take pee out of a pool. If the families were told the truth and were able to find peace with it, no one else’s opinion really mattered.
  • A blog don’t cost a thing – Need to tell the truth? Want to hinder any other books from hitting the marketplace, ones that might add more untruths to the equation? Want to prevent anyone from ‘cashing in’ on the tragedy? Then all you really need is an email and the ability to type “” It’s over. A free online account, directly from the person most qualified to explain what happened that day would have derailed any other publications attempts to make money. Why pay for some third-party retelling when the survivor himself was had already detailed the story for all to see? And, again, for free. Since one of his justifications for signing on to do the book (and for doing it so quickly after the fact), was that a book was inevitable and “if I didn’t do it someone else would.” Here is your chance to destroy that possibility. And also, I’ve heard him remark to his detractors his resignation that “people are going to believe what they want to believe anyway and I can’t change that.” If that’s the case and he’s come to terms with that truth, why write the book at all?
  • If you have to go on TV, then don’t write the book, and vice versaHe went on Real Sports last August for the first televised interview to detail his story and of course “offer what really happened.” Okay, he could have still done Oprah, fine. She has a larger audience and a different demographic. But much like the blog option, a couple of TV stops to “tell what really happened” could have also negated anyone else’s attempt to really cash in. Or at least it could have put the truth out there so he wouldn’t have to worry about misinformation. But the book and the TV blitz? The word is his publisher is making him do all these appearances, but in reality if he had decided against this type of promotional tour then he could have nixed it from the start. In reality, he probably agreed in writing to make appearances as part of the terms to sign the deal, so his down playing it as some necessary evil that he wanted no part of and would rather avoid all together is insulting. Why not let the ghost writer do the tour if it’s so hard for you talk about and you don’t “want to be in the spotlight?” And speaking of not wanting to be in the spotlight, perhaps rename the “Nick Schuyler Foundation” to something a little less eponymous.
  • Where does the money go? – I’ve tried to find information online about how exactly the profits form the book will be disseminated. I’ve seen vague mentions of “profits being split among various charities” but have yet to find anything concrete (if you know, please send me the information.) Now, the real question is “does Nick have a right to profit from it?” The answer is of course, yes. He is writing about his experience and therefore can use that experience in any way. Does that make it unseemly to do so? Perhaps, but I would leave that up to the other families involved. What he doesn’t have the right to do is be sanctimonious or offended when people call him on any profiting from the ordeal. If this is at all about cashing in, he needs to own it. If it’s not, then and only then, can he be righteous in his indignation.
  • This became the Nick Schuyler story by default – There is the sense among many that he’s trading on the fame of Cooper and Smith. After all, this story didn’t gain national attention because it was “four men lost at sea,” no it was “two NFL players are missing along with two other companions.” This is why it was the top story on ESPN Sportscenter. This is why news organizations, with focused coverage in Oakland, Detroit and especially Tampa (where the boat left from and where Cooper and Smith once played for the Buccaneers) followed the story with fevered coverage. Nick, of course, was the survivor, which then turned the story to him. But would it have garnered the same attention without Smith and Cooper? Would there be a book? (Perhaps.) Would he be on the Today Show and Oprah? (Doubtful.) How about Jim Rome and Real Sports? (Not a chance.) Undoubtedly this is one (of many) reason why the Cooper family in particular has a problem with Nick’s actions since their son’s death. Without Cooper and Smith there would be no “Nick Schuyler.”

In fairness, I haven’t seen all or read all of the interviews. Perhaps some or all of these concerns have been adequately addressed. If so, then I would love to hear it.

My point isn’t that Nick Schuyler doesn’t have the “right” to do what he’s doing. He was there, he lived to tell the tale and that’s what he’s doing but there is a shaky line of ethics here, that he may have crossed depending on your point of view. To me it comes down to one of my favorite expressions, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” And to add to that, if you do then you’ll have to deal with the questions that will inevitably follow.

To me, the best way to sum it all up was said by Marquis Cooper’s widow Rebekah. She opined that “if (Marquis) had walked away from a tragic experience like the one that took his life, authoring a book and having it on the shelves within a year and financially exploiting the deaths of others would never have been a consideration.”  She also was incredulous that “Mr. Schuyler has enough recollection and material to write a 256-page book, yet he has never sat down with our family to tell us how Marquis died.” Her anger runs deep for Nick and perhaps it could have been avoided by dealing with her privately face-to-face. Reportedly she just wanted to know what her husband’s final hours were like and if he had anything to pass on to his family. Would it have been so hard for Nick to sit down with her and simply say, “he fought out there, fought hard because he kept saying how much he couldn’t wait to be back with his family again. He loved you all and his thoughts were with you. I’m so sorry he didn’t make it, but he never gave up, he fought to the last beat of his heart.” Even if it weren’t really true, it would be the best thing in the world for her to hear. Much has been made of Nick’s statement that he was able to survive because he couldn’t bear the thought of his mother crying at his funeral. It’s a beautiful poetic statement and, intentionally or not, it manages to elevate him beyond the other three by sheer will and love for his family. He’s saying he refused to die. But what does that say about the others? It implies that they did not have that reserve (they also did not have as much clothing and did not spend as much time on the overturned hull and out of the frigid waters, but I digress.) If you’re going to hang that statement out there like that, true though it may be, at least have the decency to try and paint the others with the same determined brush and be sure to acknowledge that those thoughts along with other acts (some on Nick’s behalf on the part of the others) were just as important in his survival.

One thing is certain, as long as this is the end of it, then perhaps he is being truthful. If he is sincere in “just wanted the truth to be out there” then this will be the end – he wrote the book, did the promotions and had his say. He’ll finish up his promotional tour and try to return to what, of course, will never be a “normal life” (again, I don’t for one minute doubt that the emotional and psychological scars will always run deep for him). And I’ll do my best to believe his intentions are as pure as he says they are as long as I don’t ever hear the following phrase:

‘Movie deal.’

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