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Pop culture sensations

I’m going to talk about Gabby Petito. If this subject triggers you into a frenzy about missing white women and how women of color don’t get this kind of coverage, well, you aren’t telling me anything new. But in a way, you are the target audience because you just might be a dinosaur. Allow me to explain.

I’m not a true crime aficionado. I don’t watch whatever the most popular true crime shows are and don’t even know where to find them on TV. In fact, I don’t watch a lot of TV. I stopped watching it for the most part about 7-8 years ago. Content creators on YouTube and podcasts are getting so good that TV just doesn’t interest me any more unless there’s a good bingeable series. Then I stream. I watch about an hour of cable news a day. The rest of my news I read or listen to. And I’m deliberate about avoiding video news programs on TV because it’s very easy to manipulate perception about current events in a visual format.

So maybe that’s why I had no idea who Casey Anthony was until about 24 hours before her verdict. I only heard barely snippets about Natalie Holloway. Indeed, there’s a whole population of missing white women and children and murders that I am not aware of. Maybe that’s because the times I have been forced to watch Fox News always featured them prominently. You definitely get the feeling from watching Fox that there are pedophiles and homocidal maniacs behind every tree just waiting to snatch your kids or bludgeon you to death.

I’m just too cold and analytical to fall for that stuff. Yes, their cases are tragic. But the risk to ones safety is greatly GREATLY exaggerated. So, I just tune that fearmongering out. There’s enough actual fear inducing material in real life.

I’m also aware that women of color and indigenous women don’t get the same kind of coverage. Rent the movie Wind River if you want to see what that’s all about. It’s heartbreaking. But there’s something disturbing about the reaction to Gabby’s disappearance and coverage. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

All of this is to say that when it comes to this case of Gabby Petito, I have gotten exactly zero information from any news programming. I have no idea how much time CNN has spent on it or CBS or John Walsh or the latest true crime program or Nancy Grace or anything like that.

All of the information, first degree video, accounts, search area data, all of that stuff on Gabby’s disappearance, has come directly from the internet. Her disappearance went viral because 1.) she had social media presence including an Instagram account with 50,000 followers and 2.) she was vlogging about a very popular lifestyle among young women and that is van life. It’s a spin off of cottagecore. It’s all about independence, minimalism, do it yourself and the great outdoors. Gabby was a bit unusual in the genre in that she took her boyfriend with her in her van. Van life for young women is viral to begin with. Everyone is buying an old white van, converting it, and digital nomading it in Wyoming or Colorado or Yosemite. Gabby was just following the crowd.

When she disappeared, it was her followers who spread the word. It is no exaggeration to say that the FBI was greatly helped by the crowdsourcing of the internet. We are still getting reports by people who saw Gabby and Brian on their road trip. Just yesterday, two people said Brian caused a scene at a restaurant in Jackson and Gabby was crying on the sidewalk. That might have been the last time anyone but Brian saw her alive. That kind of information is crucial to estimating the time of death.

The news about Gabby may be on every channel now. I wouldn’t know. But it started on Instagram, Youtube and Twitter. You can watch the Sarasota Sheriff’s helicopter circling over swamps in real time online. You can get throughout the day updates from your favorite pop culture YouTube channels.

This is not a case of missing white woman syndrome or at least it didn’t start out that way. This started as a mystery on the internet and people became intrigued by the footage they shot while on their trip and the incident with the police in Utah and the weird behavior of her boyfriend and his parents. People are just trying to figure it out, put all the pieces together. This time, they seem to be trying to clamp down on conspiracy theories and misreading clues. There is a lot of examination of the evidence by youtubers who know how to use video editing tools, people who share online applications, discussion of body language, the psychology of domestic abuse. It’s not just a narrative dramatized for true crime. It’s actual crime and thousands of amateur detectives sharing bits of the puzzle pieces.

If you only got your information about gabby from TV, it’s probably more the case that a narrative has been shaped in order to wring out every bit of emotion, pathos and concern from you. That might be the thing that people like Joy Reid is responding to. Everyone is beatifying Gabby. She was beautiful, young, kind to animals, wholesome, sweet, had a lot of friends who miss her. Have there been candlelight vigils yet? It’s the standard tragic young life cut short story and it’s yet another white woman.

So the pushback narrative is that nobody cares about women of color or indigenous women and it’s not fair and everyone should feel ashamed of caring so much about this one white woman and that implies those of us who are invested in this case must be latent racists.

You know what, Joy? Please stop trying to tell the rest of us how we think and feel. If this happened to a black woman on a road trip in a white converted Ford van and she had a growing fan base and a weird boyfriend who is behaving bizarrely, there’s a pretty good chance we’d be all over that too. That’s not to say that cable news is not sensationalizing that missing white girl angle for its target audience. Cable news is trying to get ratings.

But there is another audience out there that just likes to solve problems and help. Gabby Petito’s disappearance is an interesting problem to solve and working on it gives us satisfaction.

Nobody I’ve been following is in it for the big bucks or the fame. They’re just trying to figure it out. If it were a woman of color with a set of unique circumstances and internet accessible evidence, they’d be all over that too. Maybe it’s up to Joy to find that person and promote the story. Bashing her audience over the head with accusations of implied racism is really missing the story.

And that story is, TV programming, whether network or cable, is now in our evolutionary past. We are writing our own narratives now.