Mixed Feelings about My MSNBC Moment

Tuesday May 19, 2009

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It’s fair to say that I’m a member of the press. But every time I’ve been a subject of the press, it’s been an uncomfortable and weirdly dissociative experience. I think this is largely because I’ve never felt like any press I’ve done has matched my image of myself, or at least the image I’d like to project. In part, this is the result of my habit of working for ill-fated companies. I once did a very weird TV segment at 30 Rock for an NBC affiliate about Epitonic.com, which by then was a shell of a website that I was maintaining in my spare time. I also did a similarly weird one about RES Media Group, even though it had effectively ceased to exist a few months earlier, because we were still hoping to pull off an eleventh-hour rescue. Soon after, I did another one about a new venture that had the plug pulled on it only six weeks later. My lifestyle moments have been even worse. I was in a New York magazine “real people” fashion spread accompanied by a pathetic little bio that was mostly about the air mattress I was using for a bed (I’d recently broken up with my live-in girlfriend); more recently, I took part in a New York Times bike story in which I just sounded like an asshole.

I think that, for me, the decision to consent to an interview request is usually motivated by a mixture of narcissism, a genuine desire to be helpful, and an impulse to build brands—both my own and those of companies I’ve worked for. I agreed to be interviewed for this MSNBC.com story that was everywhere early last week primarily because of that desire to be helpful. At first I hesitated, but I thought the article’s topic—about how concerns about crazy fees are leading patients to refuse emergency-room treatment—was important, and I wanted to be of service. When it came out, however—with me as the lede and the kicker—I immediately had second thoughts about whether this was really a topic I should have associated myself with. Within hours, a vanity search of my name was mostly turning up versions of the article and commentary on it. Looking at myself through the eyes of Google, I wasn’t the Jesse Ashlock I think I am, I was some dude who got hit by a car while riding his bike and turned down medical service because he was worried it would be too expensive. On MSNBC.com, my story was sandwiched between “Face Transplant Patient: ‘I’m Not a Monster’” and “Trump to Miss California: ‘You’re Not Fired.’” As I browsed through the hundreds of Newsvine comments on the story—some of which described me as a moron or questioned my lifestyle choices, though the vast majority were sympathetic—I wondered what business I had being the face, even for a brief moment, of this extremely charged subject of access to affordable health care. For one thing, it’s something I am decidedly not an expert on, and I hate being associated with anything I don’t feel well-versed in, regardless of the circumstances. And for another, when I started reading other people’s completely insane stories about situations and expenses that were so much more extreme than mine, my own experience began to feel trivial by comparison. Not that any of this stopped me from agreeing to do an “update” for an AM radio talk show the day after the story came out. And of course I did know that all of this would soon pass—as indeed, for the most part, it already has.

But the episode got me started thinking about this much-discussed notion that we’ve gotten overly comfortable with putting our personal information out into the online universe, which of course Google is plotting to use to take over the world. I know that the idea of broadcasting myself via various social networks, Flickr, Twitter, this website, etc, has never given me much pause because of a sense, however illusory, that I control that information. Even if it is in fact ultimately going to help some giant corporation turn me into a pawn or worse, it’s my choice. I’m constructing my own media, shaping the image I want to project to the world. I’m doing it, it’s not happening to me. By contrast, the sensation of serving as a tool to someone else’s ends, however righteous, makes me feel out of control. I’m sure there are a lot of different lessons you can draw from this, but for me, the most important is this one: Always treat your sources with as much sensitivity and respect as you possibly can. They’re putting themselves on the line for you.

Having said that, I should add that I have no complaints about the way I was treated by the MSNBC.com reporter. If anything, I’m grateful to be reminded of how it feels to be on the other side of the story.