By now you’ve probably read or heard about the man who offered to trade his baby for two forty-ounce bottles of beer at a Chicopee, Mass., gas station Monday night. A Google News search as late as Thursday afternoon turned up 424 stories about it; people on Twitter are still talking about it.
Turns out the beer part isn’t true. The man offered to trade his baby for crack cocaine.
So why didn’t the baby-for-beer story die? Because beer is trivial, beer is ordinary, and beer — as any who has watched “The Simpsons” knows — is funny. Crack cocaine is deadly, crack cocaine is strange, and crack cocaine is depressing.
The baby-for-beer story shot around the Internet because — and this isn’t nice to say but it’s true — people found it amusing. They found it ha-ha funny.
WGGB-TV, Channel 40 in Springfield, broke the story on Monday night. It’s updated story on Tuesday morning began with this first paragraph:
A man who may have been homeless but with a previous address in Northampton has been brought to a Springfield hospital after allegedly trying to trade a baby girl for alcohol Monday.
Masslive.com, the website of the Springfield Republican, posted the story at 9:30 Tuesday morning:
Chicopee police are charging the father of a 3-month old baby girl with apparently trying to give the child away to a man he met at a Burnett Road truck stop in exchange for some beer.
The story was updated 20 minutes later and paraphrased Chicopee Police Chief John Ferraro Jr. saying forty “is slang for beer sold in a 40-ounce bottle.”
Boston.com had the beer-for-baby story early Tuesday morning, too.
Chicopee police say a man faces a child endangerment charge after allegedly offering to swap his 3-month-old daughter for a pair of 40-ounce beers.
Then, at a few minutes past 11 in the morning, after Globe reporter Shana Wickett interviewed Chicopee Deputy Police Chief William Jebb, Boston.com posted a story stating the man “wanted crack cocaine.”
Police originally had said Brace had allegedly attempted to exchange the baby for two 40-ounce beers, but Jebb said further investigation revealed otherwise.
The Chicopee police were backing off the beer-for-baby story.
At almost the same time, Masslive.com posted an updated story with the headline “Chicopee police not sure whether Matthew Brace was trying to sell baby for beer or cocaine.” The story reported the Chicopee Police Chief John Ferraro Jr. told the paper in a new interview that forty is “slang for both beer sold in a 40-ounce bottle and crack cocaine. Investigators are not sure whether Brace meant beer or crack, he said.”
The reporters and editors were doing their job: Updating the story as they received new information from their source, the Chicopee Police Department.
But the baby-for-beer story lived on long into the day at AOL News, a website called True Crime, the Conservative Fun House blog and many, many others. Even on Thursday morning, two days after the baby-for-beer story had been refuted, the Fox affiliate WTXF-TV in Philadelphia posted a story to its website with the headline “Cops: Dad Sells Baby For Two Beers.”
Emotional distance allows people to find crime stories funny. A bakery is robbed at gunpoint and we joke the “thief got away with a lot of dough.” It’s not funny — especially not the gun — to the baker, the baker's family, and the baker's neighbors and customers.
Emotional distance is a built-in feature of the Internet. It's easy to find the baby-for-beer story funny, slap a wry headline on it, and post it to a website when you're sitting alone somewhere in front of a computer screen. Once you've posted it, you move on to the next amusing story. Unless you're close to the story somehow, you see no reason to keep track of the story and update it as new information becomes available.
When it turns out the updated story is much more grim and much less amusing than the original story, even at a great emotional distance, there's no penalty if you just keep posting and tweeting the original story. It's a funnier story, after all.
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