Snapshot of America: Ted Williams

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about Ted Williams. His story has been in an intense spotlight for the last week all over the Internet and in traditional media.

Ted’s story, if you don’t know, goes like this: Ted is out of work and homeless, panhandling in Columbus, Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch tells his story and posts a video of him on YouTube revealing an astonishing talent: Ted has the perfect, golden “announcer” voice.

Within hours, Ted’s got a ton of job offers (and a haircut), and is on all the major morning talk shows.

It’s a pretty captivating story. But beyond that, I’ve been thinking about how perfectly this story is a “snapshot” of who we are and how we report on people in the media these days.

Here’s why I think this story is really resonating with people.:

Everyone loves a second chance. We have a lot of people in this country right now who have lost a great deal – a job, their home, all of their retirement savings. A lot of those folks dream about having a second chance – pressing the “reset” button and getting a big, fat do-over.

Ted just did, and that’s an intoxicating idea. After months and years of the news being filled with stories of terrorism, politicians battering each other and unemployment, this is a welcome antidote. Triumph over adversity is always a trending topic. (See: Captain Sullenberger, Susan Boyle, et al.)

People have to jump through hoops to get a job. It’s a tough market out there, folks. And the old toss-the-resume-in-the-pile process died a violent death a few years ago. People have to jump through hoops of fire AND do cartwheels to get noticed.

When I was laid off a few years ago by That Website I Was a Writer For (yes, the one who Laid Me Off Right Before Christmas), I knew I was going to have to step out of my comfort zone and ring the bell for attention. I was writing for a career Web site, folks. I’d just had an intense education about what works and what didn’t in job searching, and simply clicking the “submit” button on a resume wasn’t going to get me far.

As a writer, I used the tools I had: I became a source for other media outlets doing stories about layoffs. I talked to ABC News about feeling disconnected from my former coworkers. (Dudes, it totally wasn’t you, but….they were asking me for a comment! My story! In print!) I also talked to CNN Money about losing my unemployment benefits.

This is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that it’s going to take to get noticed in this market. The Dispatch helped Ted do the same, and lo and behold, it worked for him.

We love to tear people down. It’s been only a few days since Ted’s inspirational story, but the most predictable thing about any inspirational story is the backlash.

People have already started to tear down Williams, primarily picking him apart over his past drug and alcohol battles that led to his homelessness. Most negative comments all fall along one of two parallel lines: (a) Who the hell is this guy that he deserves all this when so many others are in pain, and (b) Why doesn’t anything fantastic like this ever happen to me?

The media’s packaging of a human interest story into a commodity is hardly a new idea or even a new complaint – it was 25 years ago that the Don Henley song Dirty Laundry featured the refrain, “Kick ’em when they’re up / Kick ’em when they’re down.” It’s just a bit stunning to see how accelerated the building up (and tearing down) process has become.

FOOTNOTE: From a media/social media standpoint, I’m wondering when Christian churches will embrace this story and use it in sermons and narratives. Redemption and second chances…hmm, where have I heard those themes before?


  1. You’re exactly right: too often the greeting and response to these people is just to kick them, both when they’re up and when they’re down.

    Have you seen the interview this morning with Ted and his mother on the Today Show? If not, you should from their website. She was in essence, whether she realized it or not, kicking him. She was using shaming techniques and embarrassing him. She was embarrassed by his story and and even said so. And her saying, “Don’t disappoint me.” Are you kidding me? What mother says that? How about “Don’t disappoint yourself”?

    Wow, Rachael, thanks for the heads up. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Rachel, I noticed the same thing. She was talking about how embarrassed she was by the fact that he was holding a sign and panhandling… that she had family in that town.

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