We live in a contentious time, and, no, I’m not talking about the present-day election cycle. We daily encounter a world where the outrageous garners our attention, where “news” stories are presented to us in an inflammatory fashion, where the purveyors of this new-age “news” seek to stir our emotions rather than to inform us or make us think: A new age of the aggrieved and the angry.
The internet is perfectly suited to this sort of “news” dissemination. Feedback is instantaneous, conclusions are jumped to, judgments are made in seconds, and there is no time for reflection. And lost in all this is that many times there are real human beings whose lives have been altered by the events “reported.” We objectify them and oftentimes self-righteously condemn them.
The purveyors of this sort of news hold a great deal of power in their keyboard paws because they can shape the message, and they do so knowingly. Outrage and disdain drives page views and gets the story copied and pasted. It is known in certain circles as click bait, and any topic that can provoke that outrage and self-righteous indignation is fair game… including the life of a 46-year-old woman and motorcyclist. Consider the following headline:
Stacy Custalow killed when weaving through traffic on I-95 on crotch rocket at high rate of speed
—The Chesapeake Today, May 7, 2016
The headline itself has pronounced judgment, the lede art (see above), later run in the body copy as well, only confirms what the headline reports. Without informing us otherwise we are left to conclude that Stacy Custalow, who any average reader would assume was pictured aboard that Aprilia RSV4 RF, routinely looked like she was cutting a hot lap on a public road and it led to her premature death.
There is a problem, of course, actually more than a few. The Aprilia pictured is indeed a rider trying to cut a hot lap, but it is not Stacy Custalow, and that is not a public roadway. That is HSBK Racing’s Claudio Corti pursuing MotoAmerica Superstock 1000 series glory on a track in closed-course competition. HSBK Racing is an Aprilia-supported team based out of Houston, Texas. Stacy, insofar as she was based out of anywhere, was from Richmond, Virginia, and they have no relation to one another whatsoever. But no matter, if you want to stir indignation and appeal to today’s average 15-second attention span, one “crotch rocket” photo is as good as the next, particularly one of a race bike that will never see a public road and really is built to go WFO. Sell the sizzle and the facts be damned.
So I would like to take a moment to introduce you to the real Stacy Custalow. I don’t know if a picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s a good place to start in refuting The Chesapeake Today’s alarmist claptrap. (In fact, TCT appears to be a tabloid rag rather than a reputable newspaper. Its logo states “News & Commentary on The Criminal Class,” and judging by some of the other headlines seen on its website, it’s reasonable to assume it skews a lot closer to commentary than actual news reporting. Still, Kallfelz’s point remains valid. —Ed.)
So there we are, on one hand we have fiction as crafted by The Chesapeake Today with an inflammatory headline, and a misleading photo of a professional roadrace team on a track, and on the other we have an actual picture of Ms. Custalow looking like a poster child for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation dressed head to toe in the proper protective gear. The reality seems to belie an image of some speed-addled squid with a death wish, but the reality in this particular situation does not cause indignation; the reality causes reflection, and we are left with a woman who died in a streetbike crash. But that’s tragic, and tragic is some pretty weak click bait, and weak click bait doesn’t sell ads.
So how was the story received? That’s fairly easy to ascertain:
“That slowed her down,” said one. “Yeah, hard to feel sorry for anyone who does that,” said another.
There are a couple examples of the feedback the “crotch rocket” story generated. Lose the facts, condemn the dead who cannot defend themselves, appeal to a stereotype, and it’s a wrap.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are still real reporters and journalists out there. Consider 12 On Your Side, an NBC affiliate station out of Richmond reporting on the crash:
Friends say motorcyclists [sic] killed on I-95 was experienced rider
—Headline, NBC12 News, Richmond.
Colleen Quigley, an NBC12 reporter, didn’t leap to any sort of judgment to promote an agenda or generate outrage; she reported a story. Her lede was as follows: “Friends are mourning the loss of a Chesterfield woman killed Saturday in a motorcycle crash on I-95 in Richmond. They said Stacy Custalow was not only a veteran rider, but also an advocate for safety.”
Quigley gathered the information and presented it, and you, the reader, were left to draw your own conclusion. No misleading photographs, no inflammatory headlines, no exploiting a dead motorcyclist for click bait:
“…46-year-old Custalow died Saturday after her bike struck an SUV then hit a guardrail on I-95. State police says Custalow was riding fast and weaving in and out of traffic. However, (John) Weaver says that doesn’t sounds like Custalow, who he says, was a huge safety advocate.
Just hours before her death, Weaver says Custalow had been a road captain at a charity ride, making sure other riders were following the rules of the roadways.
‘Stacy, by far, was one of the most experience [sic] riders that I had ever ridden with,’ said Weaver. ‘She was really big on not getting out and racing or weaving in and out of traffic or just being dangerous.’”
So why is this important aside from the memory of Stacy Custalow? It is important because the simple fact of the matter is there just aren’t that many of us, and by us I mean motorcyclists. And articles like the one in The Chesapeake Today shape public perception and opinion, a public that in large part knows little or nothing about motorcycles or the people who ride them. Public perception and opinion is reflected in the laws we are subject to, and the way drivers share the road with us.
For all the public service announcements promoting motorcycle safety, the wearing of proper protective gear, the use of legal exhaust systems; for all the toy runs, charity poker runs, rider-funded MSF courses and everything else responsible riders do to promote our image in the public eye and remain safe; one tabloid-style publication with little effort and less thought can generate disdain with hackneyed headlines employing words like “crotch rocket” in concert with a completely unrelated photo of a race bike pulling a wheelie on a closed circuit track, and all for page views. And all at the expense of a dead rider.
This is no longer if it bleeds it leads. Now it’s, if it incites it leads. Accuracy gives way to an agenda and ad sales. It’s irresponsible and disrespectful to the memory of Ms. Custalow, and it is damaging to anyone that rides a bike on the street. The impression it leaves in your garden-variety car-bound commuter is, “They get what they deserve.” And that is a dangerous impression to leave.
I never met Stacy Custalow, but she deserved better. She was not a stereotype; she was a human being, and basic decency demands better. RIP, our fellow rider, and Godspeed.
Ride safe, leave yourself an out if you can, and look where you want to go.
About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.