Scolding the stripper

28 Mar

Reliable Narratives, Mimi Swartz (Air Shaft) , 2012. Acrylic and glass microspheres on canvas

Now that it’s gone viral, CultureMap editor Clifford Pugh weighs in on the Houston Chronicle stripper-society reporter scandal with a stern defense of the newsworthiness of the revelation that Sarah Tressler, my successor on the social beat, is a stripper with a blog:

Everyone is entitled to a privacy, but when you write about your life for all to see, you shouldn’t be surprised when it comes back to haunt you. (It also makes many wonder, hasn’t the Chronicle ever heard of Google?)

Call me old-fashioned, but having worked in this business for 30 years (most of it at the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle before joining CultureMap), I’ve always found journalism a noble calling. Sure, most reporters don’t get paid well, but they get enormous opportunities to gain access to a world that most people will never see.

In exchange, they are held to a higher standard, which includes not doing anything to affect your credibility as a journalist and being open with an employer about anything in your past that might cause readers to view you in a different way.

Okay, I’ll bite: Clifford, you’re old-fashioned. More importantly, you’re deluding yourself if you think that the fact that the last two non-Lindsey Love members of the Chronicle society team have been sex workers is what should make people question the “credibility” of its coverage — or CultureMap’s — or that that’s where the real whoring action is between media outlets and the society figures on whom they “report.”

But Pugh’s right that Tressler, who had photos of herself on her blog and apparently didn’t even take them down after getting on staff at the paper, shouldn’t be surprised at the media orgy around her moonlighting, especially given what she’d written about Jeremy Piven’s cunnilingus technique — a decidedly angry-stripper, as opposed to happy-escort, move.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s not surprised at all. Tressler’s a smart woman who I’m pretty sure sees the Chronicle gig for what it is, and she may well have intended to be outed. Even if she didn’t, the way the story’s playing — which, despite Pugh’s huffing and puffing, has mostly been rightly sympathetic to Tressler and hostile to the lazy hack who “broke” the story — presents her with a golden opportunity regardless of what the Chronicle does. In which case, “shut up on the web” would be precisely the wrong life lesson to draw from this. A better one: Grow up, everybody. Talk about the sanctity of journalism is cheap coming from an outlet that rarely commits it.

7 Responses to “Scolding the stripper”

  1. Robert Boyd March 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    I don’t know why this is being considered a scandal. I think it’s newsworthy in the sense that when two things that seem very unlike go together–you know, like a cat that adopts some baby ducks (instead of eating them). You see stories like this frequently. “Billy Bob shovels manure for a living, but would you be surprised to learn he also conducts a symphony in his spare time? Story at 11!” Even I did a story like this (an artist/stripper and how she combined the two vocations). I guess the scandal is that she’s a stripper, but if that’s a scandal in modern-day Houston, there are 100s of scandalous women driving around our town.

  2. Anise Barker April 1, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    funny how the Houston Press would report on it when 1/4 of their content supports prostitution

  3. billolive April 22, 2012 at 12:41 am #

    Aside from straightforward embarrassment to the Chron, my guess is that the only thing that could have made this an issue is that the “Ladies That Lunch” might have been a little threatened? I mean she IS beautiful, aggressive, smart and talented. She would have made one hell of a shark in those shark infested waters. I really think she could have been an incredible asset, were she managed properly.

    Management. Now that is a problem that never seems to go away over there.

    In these situations it is common for the community involved to be completely aware of this sort of thing before everyone else, so I am fairly sure that this was not news to the people she was covering. Devon should be able to confirm this sort of situation, as his lifestyle was known well enough by the people he was writing about. Other “adventurous” types through the Chron’s history here can also attest to this. While the hypocrisy of the HP is pretty disgusting on this one it is still a very profitable story, and sadly in this country also relevant. Both Devon and Sarah felt OK with this being publicly traded information, making it fair game. It is a sad reflection on American Society more than anything else. As much as we talk about freedom here it is just a sad delusion. Just ask Charlie Sheen. He was only defending his right to be whatever he wanted to be.

    To be fair, I really don’t think the Chron would have indulged this opportunity, nor would they in the future if the shoe was on the other foot. I believe their tendency to publicly ignore the HP (at least in publishing) is due to the fact that it would just drive more traffic to the HP product. I am curious as to what the reader stats did during all that for each paper. I somehow doubt that the chron lost many readers, but may have gained a few.

    I would like to see a more “introspective” piece done on this though. I mean who hasn’t gone through a stretch of really bad dating experiences? You usually end up coming to the conclusion that the only common denominator in the equation is yourself. The Chron just needs to ask itself “What the fuck is wrong with me?” or “Why does this keep happening to me?”. Eventually they will realize that maybe they actually were doing the right thing in the first place, but didn’t have the balls to power through. Now there is something you can never blame the Chron for. They decidedly do not have a good pair of balls.

    • Devon Britt-Darby April 22, 2012 at 3:32 am #

      Bill, I think many of the ladies who lunch were definitely threatened by Sarah, for reasons summarized in “Madame Shelby’s” April Fool’s Joke, which — possibly inadvertently, but I wonder — was a classic case of true words spoken in jest. And you’re absolutely right that she could have been an incredible asset — even after Richard Connelly’s “expose.”

      And while you’re right that the Chron should ask itself why this keeps happening to it, there were a few differences between Sarah’s situation and mine:

      1) Sarah was much bolder, leaving her blog up — complete with pics of herself — and occasionally updating it after replacing me on society coverage. My old blog had been offline for seven years — the same amount of time I’d been “retired” from escorting. And during my first round of escorting I can count on my hand the number of Houstonian clients I saw (I lived in San Francisco then, and while Houston’s not a bad market if you live here, it was lousy from the standpoint of a visiting escort, at least the ones I compared notes with). So I was a lot less likely than Sarah to run into someone who recognized me, even considering the number of queens who work those galas and luncheons. (That said, while I was on the road I met a former Houstonian who had read the original Devon’s Diary and my Chron writing but had never connected the two.)

      2) It would be news to me if my past career as an escort had been widely known on either of my beats, as I was quite closeted about it until marrying a woman made an honest gay man of me. To this day no one has told me that he knew about my escorting career before I came out about it, with two exceptions: A guy who tapped me on the shoulder on the dance floor at South Beach one night and told me he’d enjoyed the diary, and another “fan” who made a point of sending me a creepy email every time he saw me out somewhere (I never replied). And the only Houstonian who’s ever told me he saw what little porn I did was actually someone I had briefly dated who called me out of the blue at work one day to tell me he’d seen my highest profile video, that it was on some website. All long before I worked for the Chron.

      3) However, by the time Connelly got on the case, it was well known because I had deliberately brought the information to the art/society communities’ attention in dramatic fashion. So while you can argue that Sarah was fair game because she left her blog up, I was much fairer game. Of course, in both Sarah’s case and mine, Connelly wasn’t interested in doing real reporting, just lazy hit-and-run jobs. He accused me of being on meth in his headline and implied it in the post, then refused to change the hed after I called him on it, instead writing an “update” with me denial at the bottom for no other reason than to try to give me a Google problem. And his use of anonymous sources at the Chronicle to gin up the phony story about her coworkers being “furious” with her and flaunting “stripper money” is beyond shady. I worked with Sarah, who was already doing other freelance or contract work with us before I left, and she was always totally down to earth and didn’t flaunt her money or bring in designer bags, etc., as he alleged.

      4) I deliberately put Chron in a position in which not firing me would represent a cultural shift it was simply unwilling — or, thanks to Hearst, unable — to make.

      As for your point about freedom, I have to say my experience gives me hope. The fact that so many people from the art community lobbied my new publisher to hire me makes me wonder if, at least in Houston, sex work isn’t where homosexuality was a few decades ago in that even people who say they “don’t agree with it” will recognize when you’re doing a good job — in my case, writing — and say it’s his business, let him do his job, etc. Which was very much the sentiment many commenters on the stories about Sarah expressed. It helps that we’re not schoolteachers, of course. But I’m not sure things would have gone this well for either of us 10, 20 years ago.

  4. billolive April 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    Those people are social information professionals, it is part of the trade. I had a few people talking to me about your story when I was at parties you were writing about. Maybe not widely known, but your story was making the rounds. Believe me when I say I admire everything about who you are and what you’ve done. I am a HUGE fan of people doing whatever the fuck they want to do, but the whispers were there. I think that you were easily accepted, mainly as the “ladies” are the gatekeepers mostly anyways. Sarah would have had to tread the waters quite a bit differently to get through to them.

    The stuff that gets reported in the paper is nothing more than a public relations glad hand for advertising revenues anyways. If you made friends with one or two of the more gabby socialites you might have heard about stuff that goes on quite regularly. More than a few of them are swingers and it just gets more interesting from there. Money helps a lot in the “exploration” area. I figured it was none of my business and kept it to myself, as that community lives on “he said she said” crap. Needless to say your and Sarah’s moral compasses were quite likely an asset in that you are both interesting people. Being interesting in that group is a currency unto itself.

    On the subject of Connelly, I stopped reading his stuff years ago. He has throughout the years demonstrated the willingness to stoop below National Enquirer levels on many occasions. Many of his articles can only logically be attributed to creating news of a decidedly yellow nature (how funny is that?). I really don’t have anything else to say about the man. I do remember him being a better writer once. Probably a management thing.

    Fucking management……

    To the point of Shelby’s truly brilliant April Fools joke. It is actually a very current statement about people who are now working for the Chron. I just love her writing when it comes to these things. I am not going to quote from her article but believe me, it is very current.

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