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The "Michelle Shocked Thing": How SF Weekly Got Swept Up Into a Media Maelstrom 

Wednesday, Jun 26 2013
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I landed in Burbank and walked off the plane into the hot sun. There was a voicemail on my phone from a 323 number I didn't recognize. I'd hoped it was Shocked. But when I called back, it was Trilling. Shocked wasn't coming, he said; instead, he was going to meet me, and we were going to have a "chat."

We met in the sweltering parking lot of a Fry's Electronics near the Burbank airport. Trilling looks kind of like a mad scientist, with longish curly hair, little round glasses, and an intense expression. He drove me through Burbank to a Cuban restaurant. When we sat down in the air-conditioning, he pushed aside the little table placard, and tried, once again, to get me to change my mind.

"You're in an awkward position here," he said, reminding me that press interviews have been conducted since the beginning of time without tape recorders. "You're really okay with coming down here and not getting the story?"

"I am." I already knew what her stock responses about the Yoshi's comments would be. What I wanted was to go deeper than Tweets and prepared statements.

I reminded Trilling that Shocked had given numerous recorded interviews to other media besides Piers Morgan, and that she doesn't exactly speak in the most concise, clear manner. Even if I took excellent notes, it would still be very easy to take her out of context, or misinterpret a key piece of one of her long, circuitous tirades. That how this whole thing started, back at Yoshi's. Short notes wouldn't much help the kind of deeper examination I wanted to do anyway. Trilling then said that she had wanted to record the interview — but only if she retained the sole copy of it.

After 20 minutes, we both got tired of talking in circles. We finished the meal and he drove me back to the airport. Michelle stayed at her apartment in downtown L.A., and I got no interview. Soon Shocked was bragging about the saga on Twitter, calling the failed meeting "a metaphor for dry-humping." She was proud not to have talked. She regarded me as the enemy from the start, and in her mind, I guess she won.


After our interview attempt failed, things soured between her and Vogt as well. Eventually he pulled the plug on the free concert and apologized.

Later that week, Shocked released most of her email correspondence with Vogt and me to a circle of friends, who then passed them to other media. Some of those media outlets wrote stories pointing to a dissonance between Vogt's emails and his public statements, mostly about whether the concert and ad was his idea or hers. As far as I know, the ad was the idea of a sales representative at our sister paper, the Examiner, who first pitched it to her. Vogt is an excitable guy who likes the spotlight, and he clearly recognized an opportunity when it came along.

Despite Vogt's emailed promises to Shocked about an SF Weekly cover story, the interview was the idea of the editors. It was decided on our side (and independent of Vogt) whether and how it should be conducted. I knew going into this that Shocked was erratic and capable of doing anything, including publicizing all of our background negotiations. But as with one small piece of any story, those emails don't tell the whole thing. They're only a little better than Tweets — slightly longer statements for the media maw to chew up and regurgitate, sometimes adding a little context and understanding, often not.

It's worth keeping this all in mind when you think about what Shocked said at Yoshi's on the night of March 17 — if you've ever stopped to think about it all. You can believe that Shocked, who in another era publicly admitted to sleeping with women, has become a true hater of homosexuals in her conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. That she sincerely believes that "God hates faggots," that she's terrified of gay rights or enraged by them, and believes that gays are going to hell.

Or you can believe some version of the woman's own convoluted explanation for the whole thing, which, as offered to Piers Morgan and others, goes something like this: That her comments were meant to personify the cruel, fundamentalist, truly homophobic perspective of many fundamentalist Christians, but came out horribly wrong. That in saying "their" vantage point was hers, she meant only Christianity, and not homophobia. That she sympathizes with frightened Christians, but doesn't totally agree with them. That in the encore she meant to portray a flawed, awful version of "reality" (as opposed to her "truth") but did a spectacularly terrible job, confusing almost everyone who heard and/or read her comments. And that her basic inability to perceive how her words and actions would be taken by others caused her not to realize right away the huge mistake she'd made.

Or you can believe that all of it continues to be a waste of time. It does feel empty in a certain way: no concert, no interview, only a controversy, like many other recurrent media-borne controversies, that is always with us now, that flares up when certain conditions are met — the herpes of the Information Age.

Without having interviewed Michelle Shocked, I can't say for sure which of these scenarios I believe — or whether there's some middle ground between them where the real truth lies. I certainly have no reason to apologize for her. But after dealing with someone so battered by the deep churn of opinion and information on the Internet — and after being swept away by it myself — I'm even more wary of attempts to simplify any complex story, including hers. Watching these controversies unfold, we tend to think we're standing outside of the storm, able to see and define and comment on it. But as journalists, publishers, musicians, and social media users, we are the turbulence. We are the story we're trying to tell. And sometimes those stories just don't end with one Tweetable truth.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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