Sep 24, 2021 • 14M

Airing Dirty Laundrie

The all but untold story of Gabby and Brian.

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In the ongoing drama surrounding the murder of Gabrielle Petito, Bob realized that the media are telling us everything under the sun, except for what matters most.

TEDDY ROOSEVELT: Surely there never was a fight better worth making than the one which we are in.

GARFIELD: Welcome to Bully Pulpit. That was Teddy Roosevelt. I’m Bob Garfield with Episode 10: Airing Dirty Laundrie. 

GABRIELLE PETITO: Hello, hello, and good morning. It is really nice and sunny today. It’s only ten o’clock in the morning, but it rained all afternoon yesterday…oh, my God!

GARFIELD: That’s from a YouTube post a few weeks ago by wannabe travel vlogger Gabrielle Petito, documenting her cross-country van journey with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie. We see them hiking, taking in sunsets, eating camp-style, hugging and kissing and frolicking, doing cartwheels on Santa Monica beach — two attractive young people living the dream.

That the dreamy footage obscured a gathering nightmare, of course, is by now, hardly news to you.

FOX NEWS REPORTER: Yeah, good morning Todd and Gillian. Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito were on a cross-country trip they were documenting for their YouTube series, but on September 1st, Brian returned home alone and has been hiding out at his parents’ house, right behind me.Yesterday, North Port police named him a person of interest in this case.

GARFIELD: Now, people go missing all the time in this country. One this month was Gregory Martin, a 70-year-old Buford, Georgia man, afflicted with dementia, who strayed away from his optometrist’s office. You did not see anything about him on the news before he turned up safe and sound. You probably haven’t heard of Quawan Charles, who was 15 when he went missing last year from his rural Louisiana home. If you were to Google “missing teenagers 2020,” you wouldn’t find his picture. A lot of white schoolgirls, not a lot of black male schoolboys. His disappearance did not captivate the nation, or even the local police.

LOCAL TV REPORTER: The family called the Baldwin Police Department and St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s office to report him missing. Although the family asked that an amber alert be issued, officers declined to do so. The family claims the police downplayed their concerns, including speculating Charles may simply be attending a football game and not answering his phone. Charles’ body was found days later, on November 3rd, in a wooded area about thirty minutes from his hometown. 

GARFIELD: And incredibly, in 2019, more than 5,590 Native American women were reported missing. You cannot name a single one of them. But when I say Natalee Holloway, or Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy — all of whom were TV news fodder for weeks or months at a time over the past couple of decades — you can most likely tell their heartbreaking stories, most likely in intimate detail. This is called “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” a term coined twenty years ago by the late journalist Gwen Ifill, and lately invoked by the New York Times and others in a “here-we-go-again” sort of way. This was Good Morning America: 

GOOD MORNING AMERICA REPORTER: Gabby Petito is one of so many reported missing each year. At the end of 2020, the FBI had over 89,000 active missing persons cases. 45% of those cases: people of color. Petito’s story has renewed debate about which cases get attention and the media’s seeming infatuation with missing white women. 

GARFIELD: If anything about that surprises you — I mean, anything — I don’t even know what to say. Lookit: by American TV-news standards, the fact that Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson were brunette was practically affirmative action. So, of coursethe fate of skinny, blonde Gabby Petito, unlike Quawon Charles, has gripped the country as an irresistible true-crime mystery played out in real time. Clue by clue. Revelation by revelation. Twist by twist. Newsbreak by newsbreak — tragedy as infotainment, costumed (with all the obligatory sobriety and furrowed anchor brows) as journalism.

LOCAL TV REPORTER: That’s right Keith, good evening to you. North Port police admitted this search warrant last week. The detective writes that Gabby Petito’s phone had been shut off for at least fifteen days. The investigator also says...

TRAVEL BLOGGER 1: This is most definitely Gabby Petito’s Ford transit van. TRAVEL BLOGGER 2: And I slowed it down, so you can possibly see it a little bit better.

ABC NEWS REPORTER: In the last 24 hours, we’ve gotten more information on the final days leading up to Gabby’s disappearance. Police just released audio of a 911 call out of Utah, where the caller reported seeing a domestic fight between Gabby and Brian on August 12th...

CLARK COUNTY 911 CALL: “We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl.”
“He was slapping her?”
“Yes. And then we stopped, they ran up and down the sidewalk, he proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”

ABC NEWS REPORTER: Police in Utah pulled the couple over last month, after responding to calls of a domestic incident while they were road tripping across the country. Officers said Petito was crying...

POLICE BODY CAM: “What’s your guys’ names?”
“I’m Brian.” 
“Gabby, Brian. Ok. What’s going on? Why are you crying?” 
“I’m not crying. We’ve just been fighting this morning.”

FBI PRESSER: Human remains were discovered consistent with the description of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito.

CNN REPORTER: The news coming as the search is intensifying for Gabby Petito’s fiance, Brian Laundrie, whose parents told police he disappeared a week ago today.

LOCAL TV REPORTER: Yesterday, they, along with the FBI and several other agencies, spent the weekend scouring through the Carlton Reserve at the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park. They have not found anything yet. The search ended just after six pm last night. North Port police have yet to tell us if they plan to resume that search there today, but I can tell you it is a very large, dense place with lots of shrubs, so it will take some time to get through.

LOCAL TV REPORTER: Detective work, DNA and digital foots prints. The FBI is fanning out and zeroing in. From a North Port family home to Wyoming.

GARFIELD: Gabby’s death is obviously an unspeakable tragedy for her, for her loved ones, and for the loved ones of Brian Laundrie. For almost everyone else on the planet, it’s merely pulp non-fiction — undoubtedly destined to be formally Hollywoodized in a four-part streaming series. Which, wholly apart from the implicit racism, is tragic itself. There are deep problems in this world, politically and environmentally, and the media and audience both have invested their scarce time resources in a morbid drama that offers virtually no significance, no insight, no meaning to anyone but the principals. There is one flicker of possibility, about which more in a moment, but I need to remind you what all-Gabby-all-the-time has squeezed out of the news.

VALERIE MASON: With further warming in the coming years, we expect to see new extremes that are unprecedented in magnitude, frequency, timing, or in regions that have never encountered those types of extremes.

GARFIELD: That was climate scientist Valerie Mason-Delmotte, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a couple of weeks ago, joining the UN General Assembly in declaring Code Red for Humanity.

ABC NEWS REPORTER: The report’s authors are essentially sending the world’s leaders a final wake-up call: Curb emissions and dramatically reduce consumption, or face a world that is fundamentally different.

GARFIELD: Yeah, that lasted one news cycle. One. The end of life on Earth as we know it. One news cycle.

Oh, we’re awash in coverage of national politics and the latest on Trump’s every utterance, including talking in his sleep, but the death spiral of the media business has meant vastly shrunken newsrooms, vanishing local coverage, empty statehouse bureaus — and the biggest stories in the history of the planet treated like wheat germ occasionally to be sprinkled on the Trump-ruptions.

CNN REPORTER: Trump sent a letter riddled with lies to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, asking him to decertify the results in Georgia, citing all sorts of debunked claims. 

GARFIELD: Celebrity crap.

REPORTER: The Crown’s Emmy nominated actress, Emma Corrin, made a bizarre fashion statement in a strapless frock and bonnet, quite a different look from her Princess Diana role.

GARFIELD: And anti-vaccination assholes disrupting school board meetings.

ANTI-VAXXERS: Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

GARFIELD: To which we can now add the story of Gabby Petito, who went on a travel adventure seeking fame, and achieved it, posthumously, like some sort of sick cosmic joke.

But, as I said, a glimmer. A glimmer of something of value to be drawn from the morbid fascination with this mystery — namely, that it is not especially mysterious. Because as we comb through the endless clues and tidbits gathered by investigators, the press and random online civilians, we discover lurking within this saga a lesson.

You’ll recall the traffic stop, by Utah park police, who had seen the couple’s van speeding erratically. The stop lasted 1 hour and 17 minutes, and the bodycam footage displays remarkably engaged and conscientious cops trying to get to the bottom of the couple’s argument, in which Brian got scratched on the face and arms and Gabby had her face squeezed like a dog whose owner is trying to shut it up. What the police discovered, from both subjects, was that the two frequently triggered one another, leading to violent arguments that sometimes got physical. Brian said Gabby was very anxious and emotional and, you know, the girl crazy. And Gabby said, it’s true. This led to a piece of advice from one officer to a crying Gabrielle. The relationship, he said, was toxic, and dangerous.

POLICE OFFICER: It may be bad for your soul, just saying. I’m not telling you what to do with your life, but if you know you have anxiety, look at the situations you can get in, you know what I mean? Now, we’re not here to be mean to you or anything but you know, there’s a first time and then it usually...

GARFIELD: And then, usually it gets worse. Because the pathology of domestic violence is a pathology of repeated episodes spiraling ever downward. If Brian was mishandling her in a speeding vehicle on unfamiliar mountain roads, the worst was surely yet to come. This is the lesson — the universal lesson — to be drawn from this horrifying saga. There are lovers’ spats and there is battering and the difference, the fatal difference, is often on display. Every parent and every sibling and every friend of every woman — not to mention the cops who get called to the scene of a domestic — should be vigilant for these signs and be prepared to intervene before it is too late.

But did that single salient issue dominate the news coverage? No. We have 24/7 on the search for Brian Laundrie. But to be reminded of the real stakes here, I had to happen upon a Facebook post, from an author named Julie Perkins Cantrell, who in a now viral message codified the thirty lessons of the Gabby Petito tragedy, culminating in this: “When we see someone at her emotional end during a domestic dispute, we shouldn’t assume that she’s crazy. We shouldn’t buy into the false narrative given by the abuser. We shouldn’t believe the cover-up story given by the target, who has been conditioned to carry all the blame and shame. And we shouldn’t assume they’re going to be okay.”

All of America now knows Brian Laundrie is a suspect-- the only suspect -- in Gabby’s murder. What we haven’t been informed of by the media — but what we should internalize — is another Code Red for Humanity: the murderous ending of the online Van Life Journey was all too foreseeable before the couple even backed out of their Florida driveway.

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Bully Pulpit is produced by Mike Vuolo and Matthew Schwartz. Our theme was composed by Julie Miller and the team at Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, Michigan. Bully Pulpit is a production of Booksmart Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.