After a day of covering and watching others cover the State Fair Rodeo debacle, we are left pondering whether we have witnessed an internet cautionary tale. If it is not that, then it is close. A story that originated with an internet report has exploded, repeated, with various shades of differences in the telling. As the day draws to a close, we are left with what seems to be one of the hazards of the use of the internet to relay information. There is no doubt it can spread information. But there is danger in accepting that information out-of-hand as true.
We are reminded of the insurance company television commercial.
“Where’d you hear that”
“And you believed it?”
“Yeah. They can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
We’ve spent a lot of time in the Missourinet newsroom looking at the videos of the Saturday night incident at the Missouri State Fair Rodeo. And listening. As we have examined the video and listened to the audio, we have become more questioning of what has been relayed to the public, even in our own early accounts.
Early accounts from the internet said, “A clown came into the arena dressed as President Obama.” An appraisal of a still picture of the “clown” leaves doubt in our mind that that happened, as we will explain later.
We also said some things in our stories similar to statements in several other stories we have seen today—that a rodeo announcer said “tonight’s the night we’re going to smoke Obama.” An internet source that we cited said that “a bull got close enough, and the clown jumped up and ran away with the crowd cheering in delight.” We, like many of our colleagues,were operating on the best information we had at the time. However, a day of interviews, statements, and examinations of posted videos seems to shed a different light on how we reported an ugly situation. There is no doubt it was an ugly situation.
But as lawyers have noted, you can’t un-ring a bell. You cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.
The longest video we have seen runs 2:06. Two bulls are seen throwing their riders in short order. Neither comes close to a figure with the Obama mask. Bull riding contests at rodeos are seldom limited to two bulls so there’s a lot we have not seen, particularly the Obama figure running away. But we have our doubts about that. More on that point later.
At various times, rodeo announcer Mark Ficken has been described as the clown or has been identified directly or indirectly as the person who was spouting the language that pumped up the crowd and also angered a lot of people. Even lawyer Albert Watkins, who contacted media earlier today as Ficken’s representative, seemed confused by the circumstances. “The clown, donning an Obama mask, was wearing a microphone while at the time of his unscripted appearance,” he said in his notice. The video and audio clearly indicate the figure in the Obama mask was not wearing a microphone. But the real clown appears to be, as we note below.
First, let’s consider the figure in the Obama mask. When we talked with Ficken a little after 7 o’clock this morning, before a lawyer started speaking for him, he referred to the figure with the Obama mask as a “dummy.” (Our conversation with him offered a different perspective on the limited but widely-circulated information up to that time.)
A look at the closeup pictures shows a figure that appears to be propped up by a broom (if it’s not, that broom is in a very uncomfortable place). There is no logical reason for a broom in a rodeo arena. If the figure were, indeed, human, then the figure is carrying the broom in an odd way.
Next: The figure in the mask never moves during the event, not even when a real clown goes over and adjusts the clothing. When a horse and rider go by, it does not turn its head.
The sleeves of the shirt are stuffed into pants pockets. The legs appear to have little or no flesh on them. The entire figure, in fact, appears in the not-very-clear pictures to lack human proportions.
Although we get only fleeting glimpses of the figure during the videos we have seen, the figure has not moved. It seems to us that the dummy is not likely to have run from the arena with a bull in close pursuit.
Dummies are often used in rodeo rings, particularly during the bull riding events.
Early in one of the videos, Ficken introduces the people in the ring. He introduces only one person as a clown, (“the funny man, the jokester”) the person who is heard a short time later calling Ficken’s attention to a “famous” guest in the ring, “Obama.” It is at that point, before the real clown is seen manipulating the lips on the mask (during which time the figure does not move), or making all of the comments about how the bull is going to “get” Obama, that Ficken makes his remark that Obama better watch out for the bull. He is not heard participating in the clown’s routine after that.
Three entities are involved in this incident. An announcer. A clown. A figure that appears to be a dummy in an Obama mask. The announcer is not the clown. The clown is not the dummy. The dummy does not have a wireless microphone. The clown does have one. The clown is the one making the controversial comments.
This event happened away from the eyes of regular television or newspaper coverage and was first published on a Facebook page, then picked up through and passed around through more social media, ultimately making its way into the conventional media, including the Missourinet.
Throughout the day we have seen references in regular media and social media to Ficken being the clown or Ficken making the statements that angered many people and rallied others. It appears to our eyes and ears that neither is the case. Watkins refers to it as “internet piling on.”
So after a day of reporting, reiterating, and reacting, we wonder if the internet might have distributed a lot of information that too many people have taken as truth and too many people keep repeating–on the internet.
This story is likely to take some time to play out. But what the internet continues to circulate and that some of us in the mainstream media pass along raises some questions about some of the interpretations of the material we have seen and heard and taken a closer look at. .
“The Truth is Out There,” was a motto of a television show years ago. The search for that truth sometimes involves stumbling down a brambled path with uncertain and sometimes misleading markings.
And that seems to be a pretty good summation as the sun goes down on this day.