Media milked Ted Williams' 15 minutes of fame for all their worth
In mid-October, a panhandler was standing at the intersection of Hudson Street and Interstate 71 in Columbus, Ohio, when Doral Chenoweth pulled up to ask about the sign he had around his neck that said he had a “gift of voice” and had “fallen on hard times.” The panhandler gave Chenoweth a sampling of his polished pipes and in return got a dollar.
About two weeks later, Chenoweth –- a videographer for the Columbus Dispatch –- returned to that spot in need of a story and remembered the beggar with the unusual sign. He found him, did a brief interview, tossed him another dollar and drove off.
That was Ted Williams' first brush with the media. His next would not be nearly so mundane.
It took more than two months for Chenoweth to get around to posting his video on the Dispatch’s website and less than two days after that for Williams to go from hopeless to a household name. The 97-second clip tore through the Web like a hurricane when it went online Jan. 3, and by Jan. 5 Williams was on national TV doing a satellite interview with CBS’ “Early Show.”
For the morning shows, Williams was the kind of story they dream about. A man down on his luck seemingly gets it all back overnight. On those shows, Williams was a gracious guest and spoke the language of recovery, telling Lauer he has a “God of my understanding in my life.”
The question, though, is whether Williams actually found redemption or won the media version of the lottery.
When the media wasn’t chasing him, job offers were. That same week, Williams, who had worked in radio prior to succumbing to drug and alcohol addiction, did a voice-over for a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese commercial and the news channel MSNBC, which said, “Williams’ remarkable story of overcoming difficult circumstances and turning his life around embodies the very same American ideals” that the network’s Lean Forward campaign "seeks to highlight.”
Asked what those ideals were, given that Williams' part in his newfound fame was standing on a corner asking for money, an MSNBC representative declined to comment.
Although media outlets' coverage of Williams certainly didn’t completely ignore how he came to end up on the streets, their desire to play up the feel-good elements of his story led them to downplay the less inspiring aspects of his back story, including that he had abandoned his nine children.
On NBC’s “Today,” neither Lauer nor Vieira pressed Williams on why he was still homeless and panhandling if he was being truthful in saying he’d been sober for two years. Vieira even joked that one day perhaps she’d be working for Williams.
It was a similar story on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Williams would talk about his recovery without any details about what -– besides holding a sign on the side of the road –- he’d been doing to seek work. Co-host Robin Roberts gushed to Williams, “We appreciate all that you’ve done.”
It seemed the toughest questions about Williams’ begging were from his own mother, who asked her son on NBC’s “Today” how he could “get so low to do a thing like that.” He responded that his mother “didn’t seem to feel as bad about theft as she did about me holding that sign.”
Williams himself still isn’t quite sure what to make of the media’s fascination with him, but he’s not complaining.
“I have no idea,” he said when asked during a recent public appearance at a local milkshake parlor why he stoked such interest. “I was just a homeless person who had a beautiful voice, I guess”
In interviews, the producers of “Today” and CBS’ “Early Show” defended their decisions to give Williams so much airplay.
“It became the kind of thing that was water cooler talk everywhere,” said Jim Bell, executive producer of “Today,” when asked why the news program took such an interest in Williams. As for whether “Today” glossed over Williams' past to create more of a Horatio Alger-type story, Bell said “the premise that Ted Williams is going to live happily ever after is far from a foregone conclusion.”
“It looked like it was a fairy tale … that was the angle we were most interested in,” acknowledged “Early Show” executive producer David Friedman. He noted that the network did go back and update the story with details of the more sordid elements of Williams' story.
After leaving the comfy confines of morning television, Williams headed west and crashed into the daytime TV and the tabloid world, a much more brutal environment for a media novice.
Milking Williams’ story for all it was worth was Phil McGraw, host of “Dr. Phil,” a daily talk show. McGraw’s specialty –- per his own website –- is to offer a “ 'get real’ approach to help guests solve their problems by stripping away their emotional clutter, and providing them with the tools they need to move confidently ahead in their lives”
On his Jan. 13 show, McGraw asked Williams if he was “going to do what I suggest for you to do” and warned that if not, “you’re going to flame out there, this is going to go badly for you.” The host also arranged an awkward reunion with Williams' family. During that same trip, Williams was detained by the Los Angeles Police Department after a disturbance at his hotel and later on "Dr. Phil" he and his daughter acknowledged having an ugly dispute.
Williams, it appears, got a crash course in “drive-by media,” a phrase coined by Rush Limbaugh that equates media outlets to drive-by shooters because they “spray a hail of bullets into the crowd … cause mass hysteria, confusion, mistakes and misinterpretation … and they ride away.”
“We like the idea that someone who threw it all away is now finding redemption,” said Aaron Brown, a former anchor at CNN who is now a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. “The fact that he did nothing to earn it and probably cannot stand the pressure of it is totally irrelevant to the people telling the story … that is a different story,” Brown added.
Often, the hosts seemed to treat Williams as though he was there to do tricks for them, which he was only too happy to oblige. “Ted, just read something,” “Early Show” co-anchor Chris Wragge demanded on the Jan. 5 edition. On Jan. 7, Williams introduced the guests on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
“Everybody was treating him as a pet or science experiment,” said daytime television personality Wendy Williams, in an interview. One of the few TV personalities who was not gushing over the Ted Williams story and questioned the media’s obsession with him, she told her audience, “I give it a year before he messes this up.”
Now, just a little over a month later, Williams said he is permanently relocating to Los Angeles and -– when not still making appearances –- trying to focus on his sobriety. MSNBC yanked its ad featuring Williams; the Cleveland Cavaliers, which had talked of wanting to hire him, are now taking a wait-and-see attitude; and Kraft has no plans for future spots, but he and manager Al Battle say there are talks of a reality show and other things in the works.
“We’re looking for an invitation to the White House,” Williams cracked, while mixing a milkshake.
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-- Joe Flint
Photo: Ted Williams enjoys some couch time on NBC's "Today" with Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira. Credit: Reuters.