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On Sunday, June 8, a luncheon I was attending was broken up by the screeching voice of a woman who had just burst into the room.
“Did you hear what happened?” she blurted. “He’s been paroled!”
“Who’s been paroled?” asked the man sitting next to me.
“Charles Manson!” the woman blathered. They said it might be more than a year before he’s actually free. But it’s for sure. He’s getting out. He’s getting out!”
I could feel my stomach begin to churn. Even though it’d been approximately 45 years since the night of the Manson murders – the night when actress Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski) and six of her friends were slaughtered at Tate’s posh home on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, California – I felt no sense of time having passed.
Today, the name Charles Manson – the orchestrator of the mass murder that brought the era of peace and love to a screaming halt – is just as powerful as it was a half-a-century ago, when Manson ordered members of his family to “go out and shed some blood.”
That they did, resulting in one of the most famous mass murders in history.
The table conversation immediately turned to personal recollections of the massacre that took place on a night in 1969 at a walled-in house on Cielo Drive. The banter lasted the rest of that long Sunday afternoon.
However, before the day had ended, the TV anchors were announcing that the announcement of Manson’s parole was nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by a “satirical” website known as Empire News.
Following are some snippets from Empire News’ juicy Web piece, which stated that Manson was going to be released from prison because of “overcrowding in the prison system.”
One of the most famous killers in the American prison system will soon be walking free. On Tuesday. Charles Manson, who is now 79 years old, was granted parole by the California Board of Parole and authorized by California Governor Jerry Brown.
According to California Board of Parole Hearings Commissioner John Peck, prison overcrowding forced the prison board to re-evaluate prisoners that are elderly or those with serious illnesses. In February, a panel of federal judges ordered California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) two more years to reduce chronic prison overcrowding that has cost the state billions of dollars.
The ruling, issued by three judges overseeing the state’s efforts to ease the overcrowding, gives California until February 2016 to achieve their goals. But, the judges said, the state has to make elderly inmates and those with serious illnesses eligible for parole immediately.
Manson, who was denied parole in April of 2012 and wasn’t scheduled for another parole hearing until 2027, was re-evaluated due to his age and health – and the Parole Board recommended his parole.
“He is 79 years old and in poor health,” said California State Commissioner Peck. “We know it’s not going to be a popular decision but, considering our other options, he’s the least threat.”
Protesters have already planned to picket the lawn outside of the prison in Corcoran, but what is more surprising is the number of supporters that have come out to express joy over the news.
“It’s a great [expletive] day in America!” said Joe Goldsmith, who camped out in front of the prison Wednesday morning, decked out in Manson gear and sporting tattoos which covered his face.
“Manson is my idol”
While parole was granted, the actual release date has not yet been set.
Manson was convicted of seven murders in 1969 in Los Angeles. The killings included five people at actress Sharon Tate’s home. The dead also included Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, a wealthy supermarket owner and his wife, Rosemary, who had absolutely no relationship whatsoever with Tate and her friends. The LaBiancas were butchered by Manson and members of his family the night following the Tate murders. The coroners determined that Mrs. LaBianca had been stabbed some 49 times – after she was already dead.
Hoax-debunking website Snopes.com says, “By the following day, links and excerpts referencing this article were being circulated via social media, with many of those who encountered the item mistaking it for a genuine news article. However, the article was just a bit of satire from Empire News, a website that publishes fictional stories such as ‘Cure for Cancer Discovered’ and ‘College Student Excused from Classes After Dog Eats Grandmother.'”
By the following day, even though it was clear that the article was clearly a hoax, the word that Manson was about to be freed resulted in a multitude of tabloid blurbs and news snippets which continued to be spread via social media – with many of those who encountered the item mistaking it for a genuine news article.
Empire News tried to explain the article in a disclaimer stating that it is a “satirical and entertainment website.”
Although critics of tabloid media say that the tabloids have lost all their power, the Manson hoax proves just how wrong that notion is. While newspapers, websites and blogs are trying to satisfy their readers appetites for titillation by spreading stories on behind-the-scenes sexual acts engaged in by celebrities and politicians, the media explosion caused by the Manson hoax is evidence of how quickly people are ready and willing to leap into the fray that accompanies the retelling of a story of a nice juicy murder.
You think the name Manson doesn’t sell papers?
Back in 1985, when I was just beginning a career as an investigative journalist – I had decided to try something a little different – an expose of the tabloid industry. To write the piece, I got a job working as a stringer at all three major tabloids – The National Enquirer, The Globe and The Star. I also landed jobs as a producer for all of the major tabloid TV shows – “Hard Copy,” “Inside Edition” and “A Current Affair.”
I worked under a pseudonym. My intention was to write an expose of the tabloids – in the process revealing how they broke the law every day while digging up dirt which was sold to the public as legitimate news.
Ultimately, I abandoned the project. But before I’d done so I had seen – up close and personal – the massive power wielded by the tabloids.
Before I go any further, I must make a confession. Though my intention was to expose the tabloids’ dirty laundry, the truth is that I was just as fascinated as the tabloid junkies gobbling up the dirt that the tabs served up to people standing in the supermarket line.
I wasn’t yet working as a reporter when the Manson trial was going on, but I must have read Vincent Bugliiosi’s “Helter Skelter” at least 20 times, as well as Ed Gein’s best-selling book, “The Family.”
As luck would have it, my home was only a couple of miles from the Spahn Ranch, the home of Manson and his followers. Over a period lasting more than a year, I made numerous trips to the ranch. I wanted to smell it, to taste it.
Years after the Manson and his bunch were sitting in jail, I recall peering over the wall surrounding the Tate house on Cielo Drive. Eventually, I could no longer hide the truth from myself. I was no different than the others who gobbled up the tabloids on a daily basis. Sure, I was working on a story.
But I was also a tabloid addict.
Let me make it clear: I was never a Manson fan. If they would have sentenced him to death, I would have applauded the decision.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I too was hoping it was the truth (though deep down, I knew that it wasn’t) when the screaming woman burst into the room with the “news” that Manson was about to be paroled. No, I can’t deny that there was a part of me hoped it was true.
Of that admission, I am truly ashamed.