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Dancing to the tune of Hell on Earth

ERIC DEGGANS
Published October 12, 2003

Imagine a media frenzy in which news organizations from across the planet devote coverage to a horrific event proposed for St. Petersburg - kicking off weeks of stories, speculation and analysis in venues diverse as the New York Times, Fox News Channel, local TV newscasts and Good Morning Scotland.

Now imagine that, after all that reportage, journalists can't even tell you whether the event in question actually happened, or was ever a real possibility.

Welcome to Hell on Earth.

That's the name of the local band that vowed to feature a suicide as part of an Oct. 4 performance. It's also a reflection of the dilemma that the band's shocking claim created for reporters and editors, who may have found themselves helping promote a hoax while trying not to miss a real story.

"I think there's a strong possibility that it's not true," said Teresa Mallea, news manager for WTTA-Ch. 38's nightly newscast, the WB 38 News at Ten - which began covering the story Sept. 17 through an exclusive interview with Hell on Earth's controversial leader, Billy Tourtelot. "It definitely wasn't our intent to give the guy free publicity. (But) I think sometimes we in the media do that, whether it's our intent or not."

Carrie Johnson, a reporter who covered the event extensively for the St. Petersburg Times, was more succinct. "I think maybe we got played . . . but I don't see how else we could have covered it. We reacted to what officials were doing. . . . It's basically the only thing we could do."

But the question remains, how could a premise that on its face seems so outlandish - a rock band presenting a concert in which the showcase event would be an onstage suicide - get so much coverage when journalists couldn't verify its validity?

My answer: Tourtelot (and whoever may have helped him) framed the issue perfectly to ensure news outlets couldn't resist covering the issue - even as some reporters came to suspect that the entire event was a hoax. Helped along by media outlets energized by the attention and controversy, they pushed all the right buttons to prompt coverage in radio, TV and print outlets across the nation and overseas.

And it could happen again.

"How does a thirtysomething guy get 58 media outlets to dance to the tune of Hell on Earth?" said attorney Kevin Hayslett, citing the number of media outlets that called him for interviews after he was hired to represent Tourtelot on Oct. 3, the day before the purported suicide concert. "To say it spread like wildfire would be an understatement."

Tourtelot did not respond to requests for an interview with the St. Petersburg Times made through Hayslett (the musician's low profile and selective interviews also proved a key factor in stoking media interest).

The issue first emerged Sept. 15, as the band began sending out e-mail press releases on the concert and featuring details on its Web site. Sparked by discussions overheard on area talk radio shows, the Associated Press released a story Sept. 16, outlining the band's plans and local officials' concerns, bringing the issue to a national stage.

The basic facts, according to the wire service: Hell on Earth had rented the State Theatre in St. Petersburg for a show, saying it would feature an unidentified, terminally ill member of a right-to-die group committing suicide onstage to "raise awareness for dying with dignity."

According to the Associated Press story, area police had gotten calls and were investigating. The club, which would eventually cancel the concert, hadn't yet done so. An established right-to-die group expressed concern.

But the planned suicide could only be confirmed by the band, which AP couldn't reach. And the band already had a reputation for issuing bizarre press releases, presenting onstage stunts such as grinding rats in a blender to hype its shows.

So why would the Associated Press reward these guys with a story?

Kevin Walsh, Florida bureau chief for the wire service, cited several important qualities that made the story tough to ignore: a huge buzz in the community, hot-button issues (assisted suicide, shock rock) and concerns expressed by local officials.

Of course, it was also a hot scoop about a story mostly known locally. And there was always the outside chance it could be true.

"Throughout our reporting, we made it clear this could be a publicity stunt," said Walsh, who declined to speculate on whether the AP was suckered. "The question you ask is did you do your job in good faith? Based on our coverage, I don't think it was ever an issue about handing this band publicity."

A quick Web search shows the Hell on Earth story was eventually featured on sites maintained by CBS News, ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, the Augusta Chronicle, the Anchorage Daily News, the Beatrice (Neb.) Daily Sun, Rolling Stone magazine, VH1 and many, many more outlets.

"Assisted suicide is a major issue . . . it's a legitimate story," said Bob Steele, an instructor on journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. "What is problematic is when you have individuals who are turning the issues . . . into a circus atmosphere for what would be their own warped purposes. Everything I saw about this story . . . told me that's what was happening. . . . (Which means) I'm going to be inclined to downplay the story; to the point of not running it, if necessary."

Local reaction also spurred coverage: Once the club canceled the concert and the band moved to hold its event online, the city council moved to pass an ordinance banning public suicide for commercial or entertainment purposes. A judge banned the group's plans to broadcast the event online and notables, including state Attorney General Charlie Crist and Gov. Jeb Bush, condemned the plan.

The media's focus on official sources prompted more coverage. But since these officials knew little, the ultimate question - Is this a hoax? - remained unanswered.

Councilman Bill Foster appeared everywhere from Good Morning America to Good Morning Scotland denouncing Hell on Earth. Cynics pointed out the councilman was running for re-election Nov. 4, but Foster said he was defending St. Petersburg's reputation to the world.

Still, given the possibility that the band was seeking publicity, weren't such extensive media appearances playing right into their hands?

"I don't think saying no to a reporter who sticks a microphone in my face . . . stops them from doing a story," Foster said. "I just couldn't sit by without trying to be the anti-venom."

And, of course, there was WXTB-97.9 FM shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Bubba featured the bandleader on his morning show three times - including an Oct. 3 group interview in which he gathered several journalists in his studio while on air, arranging a telephone call with Tourtelot and someone claiming to be the person who would commit suicide, said producer Brent Hatley. With the conversation directed by Bubba, the reporters - including journalists from Bay News 9, WTSP-Ch. 10, WFTS-Ch. 28, WTVT-Ch. 13 and WTTA, according to Hatley - wound up as props for the radio show, trading a bit of their independence for access.

Bubba declined to comment, but Hatley said the DJ tried to speak with the person planning suicide off air and now suspects he's been hoaxed as well. But if Clem had truly wanted to stay on the sidelines and save a troubled soul, why didn't he refuse to provide the attention Tourtelot was so clearly seeking - attention that could have pressured a vulnerable person into completing the act?

"That's a very valid question," Hatley said. "I just think sometimes if you give them the attention they want, you can solve it."

Fred Fedler, a journalism professor at the University of Central Florida, wrote the book on publicity-seeking stunts: a 1989 tome called Media Hoaxes. He said the history of such stunts reaches back hundreds of years, to the days when arriving circuses would claim one of their animals had escaped so news reports would signal to the community they were back in town.

Fedler suspected the Hell on Earth story from the start: It was a wild claim with no credible sources to confirm it and lots of controversial overtones. "For many Americans, musicians of this type are unpopular . . . it confirms everything they've always thought about modern rock bands," Fedler said. "People denounce them, which creates . . . a story journalists feel compelled to cover. Journalists are a lot easier to fool than they think."

In the end, the band's Web site failed Oct. 4; the Associated Press quoted a spokesman for the company hosting the site who said it was the work of hackers, but even that was tough to verify. An Indiana-based Webcaster who briefly announced plans to release video provided by Tourtelot on DVD also was hacked and now suspects a setup. And even Tourtelot has said he doesn't know if the suicide took place.

Worst of all, no one can say whether someone else who comes along and pushes the same buttons won't get just as much attention.

"I guess the best thing you can do is tell the viewer it could be a hoax and present your story and leave it up to them," said Emily Barsh, executive producer for Catherine Crier Live, a CourtTV show which featured the issue Sept. 30. "You do all your diligence and you hope you've done enough."

Was there ever a suicide? St. Petersburg police said Friday there have been no suspicious deaths that might be connected to the concert. However, the band has announced a show tonight in Tampa, inviting a host of notables including Foster, Jeb Bush and Bubba the Love Sponge.

To reach Eric Deggans, call 727 893-8521, e-mail http://www.sptimes.com

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