“An American-Made Disaster?” The Issues with Interviewing Benny Villanova

Sometimes as reporters, we think that we’ve struck gold. We find a subject who ebbs against the tide and is someone who we never imagined we would encounter.

Sometimes these subjects turn out to be successful interviews that become well-received pieces, and others are destined for imminent failure. Then, there are some who fall somewhere in between-subjects who some people might see as worthy of having their story told, and subjects who some will think should never have been approached in the first place.

Benny Villanova is one of these “in between” subjects. MediaStorm, an award-winning film production and design studio, chose to profile Villanova and show the struggles that this man has faced, and possibly the struggles that those close to him face as well as a result of knowing him. In a 25 minute video, Villanova is depicted both as a hero and villain of sorts, a martyr and a tyrant.

Benny Villanova

Benny Villanova

In the video, Villanova is the chief source of information for how viewers discover his life story. There are a few other minor sources who are interviewed, but none provide answers that get to the heart of who this man is.

Villanova’s life can best be described as a roller coaster with large drops and small-inclining hills. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to the U.S. at a young age after his mother was able to secure a firm financial footing and provide a better life for her children. In 1968, Villanova was drafted for the Vietnam War and from there his troubled beginnings would only be exacerbated.

He would eventually become a trash-collector for two decades in-order to pay the bills for his family, with reports on his part of domestic abuse, drug, and alcohol offenses in the mean time. He eventually alienated himself from his entire family. His wife, who still lives in the same New York City house as he does, has stopped communicating with Villanova and has repeatedly threatened him with divorce papers.

A couple of years ago, Villanova was told that he had cancer but is now in remission, and today is a “certified” garbologist.  He essentially collects and attempts to sell items that other people throw away. He sets up shop in his own garage and tries to draw in passerby by invading their personal space or being loud enough to make avoiding him impossible. Young ladies who walk by this daily garbage sale are usually cat-called, making Villanova’s past of domestic abuse charges more plausible.

He is playful with his grandson who he watches from time-to-time, but uses profanity around him and continues to smoke pot and often drink excessively.

There are as many good reasons as there are bad for why Villanova’s life should be shown to the world. Let’s start with the bad.

Because he is generally under the influence of some kind of drug, be it pot or alcohol, readers and viewers are cautioned to take what he says and believe it to be true. Not to mention that this is usually considered unethical, under the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics. Combine this with the fact that Villanova’s immediately family is non-existent throughout the video and a recipe for deceit is created.

Sure, Villanova does not deny that he was arrested for domestic abuse, or that he may not have been the best father or wife. He even candidly drinks and smokes and curses in front of his grandson, clearly showing that he lives his life as an open book and has nothing to hide.

But while he may have nothing to hide, his family definitely does if they refused to be interviewed for this video. With their voices missing, they are not giving themselves the opportunity to respond to Villanova’s claims.  His wife cannot explain what kind of husband he is, and his children cannot explain what kind of parenting they received from him.

The good reasons for showing Benny to the world? There are thousands, maybe even millions of Bennys out there with similar stories of hardship and occasional triumph. Perhaps those masses could be inspired or comforted in some way from Villanova’s story. Maybe this could continue the dialogue about domestic abuse, alcoholism, or the economy in some positive way.

While there are good aspects to introducing Villanova to Internet users everywhere, I personally would not have made this video without interviewing his family. This decision is situation-based for me, since sometimes it is feasible to interview a subject and have them as the only voice in your profile.

But with Villanova, his behavior and use of drugs and his possible suffering from PTSD, I would not have published the video unless I had other reliable sources close to him who were in the right frame of mind to be interviewed. Not only would this be the ethical thing to do, it would also help better capture who Villanova really is besides the portrait that he paints of himself, by himself.

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2 thoughts on ““An American-Made Disaster?” The Issues with Interviewing Benny Villanova

  1. Pingback: Benny Villanova: An Ethical Nightmare | A Writer's Reflections

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