Everyman on the Street

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[Conor Friedersdorf]

Awhile back I penned a profile of Greg Packer that I think captures something about the modern media, though I can't say quite what.

Mr. Packer, America's most oft-quoted man on the street, arrived outside a New York City Barnes and Noble at 3 a.m. on the day I met him, squatted on the sidewalk and grinned. The Long Island resident, 43, was first in line for a 12:30 p.m. book signing by NFL fullback-turned-sportscaster Tiki Barber.

"He couldn't believe that I was first in line," Packer said gleefully. "I told him, 'Business as usual.' I've met him a few times, mainly at signings. Everybody understands that's what I do, including Tiki himself."

The story of what Greg Packer does (which I once posted to another blog but otherwise haven't published) began sometime in 1995, when he suddenly began to fancy being quoted in newspapers. His pastime went largely unnoticed until

June 12, 2003, when polemicist Ann Coulter remarked on his success, citing his most recent quote in a New York Times story.

"It was easy for the Times to spell Packer's name right because he is apparently the entire media's designated 'man on the street' for all articles ever written," she wrote in her column. "He has appeared in news stories more than 100 times as a random member of the public... Are all reporters writing their stories from Jayson Blair's house?"

In fact, Mr. Packer had attended parades, New Years Eve celebrations, sporting events, grand openings, a tribute ceremony at Ground Zero - his musings on these matters appeared in New York City newspapers and others throughout the United States and the world, though he seldom leaves the northeast (which says as much about the media's New York centric lens as it does about one prolific man on the street).

The Associated Press, noticing Mr. Packer's ubiquity in their copy, issued a June 13, 2003 memo, alerting its entire staff that the world is full of interesting people, and that "One of them is Greg Packer of Huntington, N.Y., who apparently lives to get his name on the AP wire and in other media."

Editor Kristin Gazlay detailed dozens of examples.

"Mr. Packer is clearly eager to be quoted," she concluded. "Let's be eager, too -- to find other people to quote."

Thus Greg Packer went from man-on-the-street to news-maker, garnering profiles in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and NPR, among other outlets. Reporters discovered that he made his living as a highway worker (he is now retired), that he is unmarried, and that his method (as explained by Editor& Publisher) is to identify reporters covering an event, to motion them to come over or to wait for them to approach.

These banal details, reported in every Greg Packer profile, help explain why so many journalists have made follow-up efforts: we cannot quite believe that manipulating the entire media requires so little sophistication. I sought Mr. Packer sure of finding something the others reporters had missed: a peculiar method he uses to pick journalists from a crowd; an insightful analysis of the diction and syntax most likely to see print; a precise statement of what it is that my colleagues seek from men on the street, which I have never understood.

In all this Greg Packer disappoints us.

A reporter can be identified by the notebook he holds or the press pass draped around his neck, he tells me. On being quoted, he counsels that "you've just got to be yourself and try to be honest as possible."

I press him, asking whether he consults the AP Daybook, a daily calendar of newsworthy events published by the Associated Press. It should be for Mr. Packer what the White House calendar is for Jon Stewart, but he'd never heard of it.

"I would love to subscribe," he said tepidly, "but I don't know if it's open to me or not."

"What's the purpose of a quote?" I asked, again hoping to draw out a surprising insight.

"The purpose of a quote is just to say what you feel and get your point across," he said.

"And the point for the newspaper?"

"The point for journalism is, I would have to say, I need their help to get my point across," he said.

It is that attitude that separates Greg Packer from other men on the street, articulated more fully when I asked him why he likes being quoted. "It's a lot better than picking up a phone to talk to family, friends and others you meet along the way," he said. "You know, it's just showing everybody you're out there, you're doing your thing, you're living your life, and people can say, I saw you here, I saw you there, I saw you everywhere."

These are sentiments at once inexplicable and endearing. Upon seeing his name in print, Packer says, "I laugh so hard I can't believe I'm there. It's a good feeling. I would compare it to, you know, something that you remember for the rest of your life, something you never forget, that you live and die with."

It is no wonder that ever since the Associated Press blacklisted him a small cadre of Greg Packer aficionados has rallied to his cause. Slate blogger Mickey Kaus captures the mood most effectively in a recent item titled, "We Are All Greg Packer," filed after an AP story quoted him at a Dave Matthews concert for Virginia Tech.

Calling Packer's reemergence in print "a moving story of the resilience of the human spirit" Kaus wrote that AP "picked on the wrong Everyman! Greg Packer will not be not quoted."

Everyman is an apt characterization, for it explains better than any Greg Packer technique the ubiquity of the man's quotations: A wannabe man on the street more polished would repulse reporters, for we are wary of sharply dressed media hounds and smooth talking pr men, characters we're forced to quote all too often. (Much as most reporters, like most people, loath the necessity of approaching strangers on the street, the task is made more bearable by the notion that authentic people will make it into our story.)

Our "authentic" man on the street is in a sense our elitist notion of Everyman: he dresses sloppily, wearing rumpled tee-shirts and baggy, formless shorts as Mr. Packer does; he holds a bunched up newspaper, and speaks nothing like a spokesperson or a pithy sound-byte man, but punctuates his sentences with the ums and uhs of the American vernacular, imperfections reporters excise from Greg Packer quotes as a courtesy to our source and our readers.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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