If I had to thank or blame someone for my becoming a media critic, I suppose it would have to be Mr. Higgins. That, anyway, was the imaginative pseudonym employed by a gentleman who called Peter Jennings during a certain live ABC special report five years ago Thursday. Mr. Higgins purported to have knowledge about a certain man inside a certain automobile, knowledge that Jennings and you and I lacked, that we were all achingly watching a video feed for, that Jennings and his producers would, understandably, have loved to be the first ones to air.
O.J. Simpson, Mr. Higgins reported, was slumped down in his Bronco in the driveway of his home; we couldn’t see him, from our helicopter-cam vantage point, but Mr. Higgins said he could. Was he still alive? Did he really have a gun? Was he pointing it at anyone? “I see O.J.,” Mr. Higgins told Jennings. “He looks scared.” Then he announced, “Baba Booey to y’all!” and cut out.
“Baba Booey,” we know now, is a Howard Stern catch phrase, and the call was a hoax. And with it, that anonymous pinhead became one of the great faceless figures of my internal historical chronology: contemporary media’s equivalent of the itchy trigger finger at the battle of Lexington or the unknown Chinese civilian who stared down the tanks at Tiananmen Square. Peter Jennings was not the first news anchor to be Baba-Booeyed. But in that moment, when one Stern soldier pantsed the ABC anchor on national television, in the middle of the defining media episode of the decade, the balance of power in America changed.
It was a dumb, unoriginal and arguably racist prank (the caller was using what the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz charitably described as “an obviously fake ghetto accent”). It was significant, in fact, precisely because it was so stupid, so risible from the first syllable. Because it was so obvious. Somebody should have known better, I’m sure you were thinking, if you watched it. Except somebody didn’t.
The call summed up, for better and worse, the media environment that would come after it and crystallized much of what had come before. If it was the moment that I became a media critic, I don’t mean that in any momentous, epiphanic sense. It was also was the moment that caller became a media critic. It was the moment you did. “We are at moments like that,” Jennings would later good-humoredly say, “reduced to roughly the same level as that of the audience.” But the media, this time around, did not get back up.
“We are at moments like that reduced to roughly the same level as that of the audience.” — Peter Jennings
|snig·gle (v) — To fish for eels by thrusting a baited hook into their hiding places.|