Commodifying Hookers for Radio Consumption?

October 23, 2008

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." (The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990, New York: Knopf) Eight-Forty Eight's story on women who exchange sex for money and/or drugs on the streets of Chicago's West Side drug economy took me nearly two months to produce. Of all the stories I've done so far, this one taxed me the most, emotionally, physically, and cognitively. You'd think it'd be simple: Find some hookers, interview each of them for 10 minutes, come back to the studio, and then start slapping sound together and hope they find coherence around some narrative arc. How could you go wrong? It's a story about hookers,‚  women who, as Cat (a crackhouse brothel matriarch) always reminds me, "have a 24 hour ATM between our legs." It speaks to a lurid and unseemly world, and the story is almost tantalizing on its face, really. And it plays to the average "normal" person's voyeuristic tendencies. Well, it hasn't been easy like this. In fact, it's been far more difficult than I ever anticipated. Why? Because journalism, especially when its practitioners interact with dispossessed populations, is in some ways morally indefensible. So let me begin with a qualified declaration of guilt: This story commits immoral acts. Or does it? Eight years ago I began living among the addicts, hookers, drug dealers, thieves, white collar workers, blue collar workers and others who patronize, frequent, traffic, and otherwise occupy The Brickyard. Having lived there, in a cardboard or plywood shanty, for a total of about two years (once you add together the many different sojourns spread across time), I developed hundreds of meaningful relationships with people who share the problem, the mental illness, of drug addiction. In the past six months, working as a freelance contributor for WBEZ, I have aspired to create a forum in which these dispossessed people can give voice to their lives, humanize themselves in ways often precluded by the very nature of the popular, profit-oriented mainstream press. The Eight Forty-Eight staff has amazed me with generous offerings of support, technical assistance, conceptual feedback, and all-around embrace of the work and the purpose behind it. But there's an internal contradiction I want to reveal right now: Helping to humanize the dehumanized among us-the hookers, addicts, and thieves-necessitates a form of dehumanization. That is, telling these stories, this one in particular, has required me to reduce complex human beings into "characters" who appear in a "story."‚  The act of humanizing requires dehumanizing the dehumanized, but in ways different from how they've been dehumanized to date. Their complicated lives-their hopes, biographies, passions-must get reduced to what we call "actualities," or the edited (sometimes heavily so), seemingly "natural", spoken passages that you hear between the voice over narration segments. Producing these stories hinges on my ability to transform these living, breathing, morally-concerned humans into disembodied, less complicated figures in a tale whose contours I determine. I create audio worlds for them to populate. I decide what kind of citizenship they will have in this audio world. I decide what kind of character they will have. And you trust me to get it right. You trust me to tell an accurate story. In this audio world I am the benevolent dictator. And they, the "subjects" (a term with dual connotation, technical and political) trust me to get it right. But more than that, they expect me to tell you their respective versions of THE TRUTH. Essentially, they figure that because we have this pre-existing bond, this quasi- or genuine friendship, I will present them in the most flattering ways possible. When I tell them "you're going to be in a radio show," they assume that I mean, "I'm going to present you in a story the way you would most like to see yourself." That, of course, doesn't happen. In the end, they may disagree with how I have reduced their lives, their persons, to relatively flimsy representations. They may disapprove of MY story, my account of how I see things. My perspective is informed by their perspectives, but it is not synonymous with them. After all, this is MY story to tell. Near the end of this story's production, a colleague of mine said, "Hey, it's great that your piece will be airing on the first day of pledge drive. That's gonna make some money for the station." I don't think my colleague fully appreciated the irony and contradiction inherent to this statement. Here I am, producing a story about women who "rent" their bodies in exchange for money, who prostitute themselves, who get pimped forcefully and subtly by the men in their lives, and their story, as a commodity, will "make money" for someone else. Throughout the process I have exploited their lives, their relationships, my relationships with them, to the end of producing a story that I hope causes people to think and talk differently about "that hooker" on the corner. I really hope to change the terms of the debate, to force people to realize, or at least consider the notion, that the people in The Brickyard are more similar to us, the so-called "normal people" than they are different. We're all prostitutes. We're all addicts. We're all thieves (e.g., remember those office supplies you took home without approval from the boss?). But we're not all equally situated to prevent these aspects of our lived experience from becoming the "master status" to which the rest of the world holds us accountable. Imagine your most shameful behavior, the most horrible thing you've done in your life. Now imagine that for the rest of your days you will be known, defined as that act, that moment. If this mental exercise works, you'll feel for a moment what it's like to BE a Brickyard resident. When the women in this story, and the women of the streets they represent, speak about themselves and talk about their lives, they pepper their narratives with verbs. They don't say, "I'm a prostitute," and they most definitely refrain from calling themselves "sex workers." If they talk about sex at all, they refer to the activities in which they engage to receive income. And money isn't money, at least not in the conventional sense. It's merely a very briefly possessed token whose redemption will afford them the drugs they need to satisfy, momentarily, their illness, their addiction. As Faye put it, "I can't wait for the next shot (of heroin) because the next shot will keep the next thought from coming. For me, thinking is dying. If I let myself really think about the situation I'm in, I'll probably die from the light of it."‚  So they speak and conceptualize themselves, their Selves, in verbs. They hustle, they work, they trick, they date, or they hook. The nouns associated with these verbs become symbolic prisons, lingusitic carceral cells in which they get reduced to what they are. "Sex is something we do," says Chrissy (my adoptive sister), "not something we are."‚  To embrace the noun (e.g., Whore) is to resign oneself to the degraded and static status of a spoiled identity. So does the production of a story on hookers become a form of second orderpimping? I have reduced these women to characters, manipulated theiractualities into a (hopefully) compelling story, one that you will consume happily, one whose consumption will inspire you to give your attention and your MONEY to WBEZ.‚  I have pimped the women yet again. (Notice that I did NOT say, "I am their pimp"...always avoid the noun). Is this accurate? If so, is it morally indefensible, as Janet Malcolm might suggest? Or is there some greater good, some positive contribution to public discourse that outweighs my exploitation of the lives of disadvantaged people? In the end, have I done more harm than good? And what about you?‚  Every interaction is suffused with moral phenomena, notions of and concerns about right and wrong. How was your experience listening to the story a moral instance?‚  How did it affect your moral sentience?‚  Let me know....