“It’s extremely popular,” said the store clerk whom I’d encountered by chance while visiting Oconee County week before last. “Some people call it ‘the family album.’” She was referring to, of all things, a newspaper. Given the state of newspapers these days, her analysis of the new local tabloid was intriguing.
So was the content, which was 100% mug shots from fresh jail inmates in five surrounding counties, along with basic text info that included the names and charges that got them booked.
I wanted to look down my nose at Bad and Busted! as a one-note rag that exploited those dumb or unfortunate enough to get themselves arrested. I didn’t, of course, given that “exploitation” is a very loaded term when used by a man who works for a for-profit news organization.
I could complain about context, and the fact that Bad and Busted gives equal treatment to alleged killers and alleged shoplifters. But context is something any news organization grapples with. On a day without murders, TV types might play up a road rage incident that would surely be overlooked on a busier news day.
I could complain about the name of the newspaper, which seems to presume certain things about those depicted therein. Within the newspaper, the words “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty” appears in fine print irregularly. Though we producers of crime stories couch our copy with qualifying words like “allegedly,” explicit innocent until proven guilty disclaimers rarely appear. “Bad and Busted,” as the name of a newspaper, is no worse than the theme song to “Cops.”
And I could gripe about the sketchy anonymity of the publisher, who agreed to meet with me if I agreed to withhold his name. I reached him through a phone number published in Bad and Busted. A native of the Athens area, he was a buttoned-down, educated and fit middle-aged guy who described himself as an entrepreneur. He looked like a real estate developer, whatever one of those looks like.
I asked him if it was hypocritical to remain anonymous while publishing the mug shots of his neighbors. He answered that should he ever be arrested, his photo would also appear in Bad and Busted. It was a good answer, whatever you may think of its veracity. There was no way to really know, although the Oconee County sheriff told me the publisher has no criminal record.
Yet most commercial media have identifiable faces behind their material. When I put a mug shot (or anything else) on TV, folks prone to complain know how to find and browbeat and even threaten me if so inclined. Tough guy columnists like Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin took on high and low-grade crooks and politicians without flinching or hiding, and I’m pretty sure they’d find this Bad and Busted guy to be a bit limp in his anonymity. (Feel free to submit your anonymous comments below.)
But I’m not going to look down my nose at Bad and Busted. I saw a couple viewing (“reading” would be too strong a word) it while parked in their pickup truck, and they seemed to be getting $1.50 worth of enjoyment from it. Like me, they marveled that a night club, a bail bondsman, a furniture store and an ice cream parlor had bought advertising in it.
Like other newspapers, however, Bad and Busted is in mortal peril. Many sheriff web sites publish mug shots online. Some TV stations have begun posting “neighborhood” mug shot galleries online. If local bloggers in rural counties aren’t already posting local mug shots, they will soon enough.
So I would advise the anonymous entrepreneur behind Bad and Busted to enjoy his success while he can, and devise a plan B.