Although Michael Burdick's $10,000 safaris were fake, the publicity generated by the 'Hunting for Bambi' stories wasn't, and the controversy clearly boosted sales of the company's video.
Bambi Hunting. It sounds like the main attraction at some alternative Disneyworld or the latest video game designed to shock and titillate. In reality, it's a combination: in the desolate sand expanses of Nevada, just outside Las Vegas, male hunters reportedly pay upwards of $10,000 for the privilege of stalking women -- naked, save only their tennis shoes -- with paintball guns.
If the girls (called "Bambis") manage to elude the hunters' bullets, they are awarded $2500. If caught, their compensation dwindles to $1000. Victorious hunters then have the option of "mounting" their prey, a double entendre for the more learned marksmen. The hunters' entrance fee pays for poster-sized photographs of the women they've conquered, suitable for hanging over the mantle. According to some accounts, the "Bambis" double as prostitutes who are available after the hunt.
It gets worse. On the game's official website, www.huntingforbambi.com, Michael Burdick, CEO of Real Men Outdoor Productions, Inc., and the mastermind behind these X-rated safaris, provides a list of prominent Bambis he'd like hunted. The site challenges visitors to "submit other worthy candidates for our review." These are, for the most part, outspoken, moneyed, and powerful in their professional spheres: Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Walters, and Martha Stewart. In other words, the targets include not only women's bodies, but also the female power, success, and stature that these wishful-thinking Bambis represent.
When the story broke on major media outlets in mid-July, public response was at once varied and deafening. Women's organizations called "Hunting for Bambi" yet another example of the dangerous social surroundings for women in the United States. National paintball associations warned of the potentially disastrous consequences of aiming paintballs -- which exit guns at approximately 200 mph -- at naked flesh. Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, immediately called for an investigation, less out of concern for the morality of the venture than on the grounds that "these paintballs can hurt people and take out someone's eye" ("Mayor Blasts Local Bambi Hunt Game," KLAS-TV.com, 21 July 2003).
But for all the huffing and puffing from outraged pundits, another group emerged to pledge their support for Bambi hunting. Men from all across the county, and reportedly from as far away as Germany, inquired about organizing a hunt. Unsurprisingly -- considering the sums of money at stake -- interest in the venture was not gender-specific. Burdick claims to have received scores of emails from eager would-be participants who wanted to know if he was hiring Bambis. Afraid that the hunts were getting a bad rap, women who had already received their antlers began to defend the game publicly: "We're not getting hurt that bad," one participant told Fox News. "The [paintballs] don't hurt as bad as everyone says they do. It's about as bad as getting slugged in the arm" ("Vegas 'Game' Has Men Hunting Nude Women," FoxNews.com, 16 July 2003).
And for those few days in July, Burdick was the news stations' It Guy, fielding interviews from CNN, Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, and ABC's Diane Sawyer. KLAS-TV, Las Vegas' CBS affiliate, broke the story and dedicated a four-part exposé to the "sport." But these news organizations were suspiciously silent when, late during the week of 28 July, the "Hunting for Bambi" expeditions were revealed as a hoax designed to generate publicity for Michael Burdick's spoof video of the same name.
The controversy surrounding "Hunting for Bambi" is indicative of several contemporary trends: the ongoing coupling of sex with violence in American consumer culture, an economic climate that would drive some women to seek this kind of lucrative and highly degrading work, and the seeming decline of white, heterosexual male prestige (Burdick reported that the game is best suited for "the individual who's used to saying, 'I can't go out with the boys tonight' or the wimp of America. It's a chance for him to come out and vent his aggression and really take charge and have some fun" ["Bizarre Game Targets Women," KLAS-TV.com, 21 July 2003].)
No surprise, the majority of news reports generated in the early days of the "Bambi" hoopla focused on one or more of these key issues. However, in the relative media silence that followed Burdick's disclosure of fraud, a significant component of the story has been left unaddressed: how the love 'em and leave 'em news coverage of the "Hunting for Bambi" investigation has come to typify contemporary journalistic practices.
Ideally, the role of journalism in a democracy is to act as a "Fourth Estate," monitoring the behaviors of elected officials and seeking to report and interpret issues relevant to their constituency/readership. Over the last decade, lax restrictions on media ownership have allowed the same parent company to have controlling interests in a variety of media outlets, resulting in the synergistic phenomenon known as "Big Media." Consider Paramount Pictures and publishing house Simon & Schuster. Or, multinational conglomerate Viacom, best known for its association with MTV, but also controlling 38 other television stations (not counting the 200 CBS affiliates) and, through Infinity Broadcasting, 180 radio stations.
Such mergers make it difficult for alternative viewpoints to come to light. They also make it easy to manipulate the system. So, "Hunting for Bambi"'s media coverage -- all similarly sensational and "outraged" -- functioned as little more than a press release for Real Men Outdoor Productions and their products. Which is, presumably, what CEO Michael Burdick hoped would happen.
Certainly, media hoaxes are not uncommon. Prankster Joey Skaggs has been pulling them for almost a decade as a means of social commentary. As both he and the "Hunting for Bambi" crew prove, all that hoaxers require is some official-looking letterhead, access to the Internet, and/or some folks willing to pose for the cameras. In a media environment increasingly driven by ratings and profit, such deceptions are almost inevitable. The more scandalous a story, the more likely it is to draw viewers (and thus, advertising dollars). Increasing pressure to be first on the scene discourages fact-checking and background investigations. Because production teams assume consumers have short attention spans, they don't follow up on stories, or, in the case of the "Bambis," report the retraction. In a corporate climate antagonistic to the basic tenets of responsible journalism, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the evening news from a commercial.
Although his $10,000 safaris were fake, the publicity generated by the "Hunting for Bambi" stories wasn't, and the controversy clearly boosted sales of the company's video. The hunts were, in fact, newsworthy, because the very possibility of their existence raises the issue of an increasingly violent consumer culture. But news organizations failed to get the real story: why was it so easy for Michael Burdick to reach a captive audience for the offensive merchandise of Real Men Outdoor Productions, Inc.? And why were the media so quick to jump on the story, pillory it, and then refuse to acknowledge their own participation in producing and promoting the hoax? Now that would be a story worthy of the nightly news.