Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Most Quotable Man In The World

The 'man on the street' interview is one of the biggest crapshoots in the news industry. It's also pretty easy to do. Instead of finding someone who's done something newsworthy, or someone who's an expert on whatever's newsworthy, you find some random guy, or several some random guys, and see if maybe they say anything smart. And if they can't, well, gasp, the ignorance of the American people on important issues of the day!

Or perhaps you want to know which of two celebrities looks better in a given piece of clothing and judgment must be passed on these two Earthlings who dared to wear similar things, dammit.

But typically, you take for granted that, if nothing else, even if they just filter out anyone that doesn't agree with a predetermined storyline, you can at least assume that these are a bunch of different people, that it's any random guy off the street.


Not quite.

Meet Greg Packer, a highway construction worker from Huntington, New York. In fact, meet him a lot. Meet him way too much. Packer is a random man on the street. However, he's far less random than anyone else. Packer is a man on the street who has a really sad hobby: be first in line for big events, things likely to get covered by New York media. While in line, he tries to get the reporter's attention. Once attention has been given, Packer then says whatever he thinks the reporter wants to hear in nice, media-friendly soundbite form. Is he contradicting his earlier soundbites? All the time, but who cares? He's just some random guy on the street, after all.

Packer has used this hobby of his to be first in line for such things as greeting Bush 43 upon his inauguration, purchasing an iPhone, purchasing an iPad, purchasing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the opening of the viewing platform at Ground Zero, as well as all manner of parades and sporting events and Brandy concerts.

Who exposed Packer? You're never going to believe this, I certainly didn't, but Ann Coulter of all people. Seriously. Ann Coulter. Credit where it's due. In the course of slamming a Hillary Clinton memoir, Living History, Coulter busted Packer.

Another average individual eager to get Hillary's book was Greg Packer, who was the centerpiece of The New York Times' "man on the street" interview about Hillary-mania. After being first in line for an autographed book at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble, Packer gushed to the Times: "I'm a big fan of Hillary and Bill's. I want to change her mind about running for president. I want to be part of her campaign."

It was easy for the Times to spell Packer's name right because he is apparently the entire media's designated "man on the street" for all articles ever written. He has appeared in news stories more than 100 times as a random member of the public. Packer was quoted on his reaction to military strikes against Iraq; he was quoted at the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Veterans Day Parade. He was quoted at not one -- but two -- New Year's Eve celebrations at Times Square. He was quoted at the opening of a new "Star Wars" movie, at the opening of an H&M clothing store on Fifth Avenue and at the opening of the viewing stand at Ground Zero. He has been quoted at Yankees games, Mets games, Jets games -- even getting tickets for the Brooklyn Cyclones. He was quoted at a Clinton fund-raiser at Alec Baldwin's house in the Hamptons and the pope's visit to Giants stadium.

Coulter clearly figured the New York Times knew full well about Packer- after all, why in blazes would someone do this kind of thing if they weren't working in concert with the media somehow? As it turns out, they didn't know about Packer. But they did now, to the point of the Times quickly running a piece specifically about Packer. As he told the Times, "Sometimes I need to stick my face in a camera. I just need to show people I'm alive."

Okay, so now I'm quoting him too.

Meanwhile, after Coulter's column ran, the AP quickly sent out a memo to its staff, noting, "The world is full of all kinds of interesting people. One of them is Greg Packer of Huntington, N.Y., who apparently lives to get his name on the AP wire and in other media. It works: A Nexis search turned up 100 mentions in various publications... Mr. Packer is clearly eager to be quoted. Let's be eager, too — to find other people to quote."

At this, Packer gained the kind of reputation the media gives to the naked guy running across the field at a sporting event: turn the camera away and stop encouraging him. For the most part, he stopped getting quoted, at least by the major outlets. Not that it's entirely stopped Packer from slipping through, as was the case at a Dave Matthews tribute concert in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. He is still quoted on occasion, though now articles featuring him are at least as likely as not to make specific note of his hobby.

Take this Gizmodo writeup when he was found in the iPad line, with the headline "Oh For God's Sake, Not Him Again" and an article that reads simply "Seriously, Greg Packer, you are the worst. Get a job, you walking embarrassment." Business Insider opted for the headline, "The Same Stupid Guy Who's First In Line For Everything Is The First Guy In Line For The iPad".

And then there was the case where he slipped through without slipping through, at a Columbus Day parade. Nicholas Confessore was suspicious, not quite placing his face, but got the soundbites... and then made a routine ask of name and age. Packer didn't even get his full name out before Confessore was able to finish the name for him. Then he slammed his notebook shut, went to find someone else to quote... and then recounted the entire exchange with Packer for the article.

For more on Packer, well, he should be easy to find tonight. I'd bet cash money he's going to be at Times Square for another New Year's celebration, hoping to get on camera. And the throngs of media there will be doing everything possible to make sure he doesn't.

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