By buying a plush toy with a heart on it, Tampa mom Nicole O'Kelly unwittingly alerted predators that her little girl "is ready to be traded for sex."
Or so reports (if that's the word) the station WFLA. Using a garbled mishmash of horror and hysteria, correspondent Melanie Michael told viewers that the toy, a pink stuffed truck recently purchased at a Monster Jam event, "held a sick secret; a disgusting calling card for creeps. The heart on the toy was a symbol for pedophiles."
The heart within a heart, the reporter continued, is "a symbol used online by pedophiles."
While presenting no evidence whatsoever that the toy was made to be, or perceived as, some kind of secret signaling device, the reporter interviewed the toy-buying mom, who seemed as distraught as if her child had narrowly escaped the clutches of a kidnapper. "This is pink!" said the mom. "This is for little girls, especially at a predominantly male event."
Does the mom think the "male event" deliberately stocked up on pink toys that so that unwitting parents would buy them? And then predators would see the symbol, and go, "Look! A heart on a toy. This mom must be willing to sell her child into sex slavery!"
WFLA—and several other news outlets that carried the story—didn't seem to care that this is hallucinatory. It continued with a clip from a local detective:
"It's the most vile thing you could ever imagine," said Pasco Detective Anthony Bassone.
Bassone said the hearts are used for girls while a separate symbol with triangles targets boys.
I went digging to see if there was anything, anywhere, that suggested even a scintilla of truth to this assertion, and all I could find was an unbylined 2007 Slate article that referenced one single Wiki-leaked FBI memo from the "Cyber Division's Innocent Images National Initiative." It asserted that pedophiles wear jewelry signifying their pre-pubescent predilections with triangles and hearts.
Even if that were true—so what? The heart on the pink toy looks a lot like this heart, which happens to be on Good Humor bars, which also happens to look a lot like this heart, which seems to suggest my fancy coffeehouse is a secret pedophile ring.
But back to the reporting, and Det. Bassone:
Bassone has been with the agency for more than 16 years. He has one tough job every day. And, what he encounters, he can't forget. He has to see the worst of the worst as he picks out pedophiles online and busts them, along with two other detectives in the cyber crimes unit at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
These investigators have to deal with the most horrendous, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking material. Sadly, they see children tortured and raped on a daily basis.
None of which has anything to do with a toy that has a heart on it. But it does have everything to do with putting a story on the air that suggests pedophiles are everywhere, trading toddlers like baseball cards, when not hard at work designing devious plush toys.
The poor toy company, Feld, Inc., was also contacted, and it told the station:
"We're shocked. We had no idea. We reacted immediately. We wanted to do the right thing as quickly as possible. Clearly we're in the business with providing high quality family entertainment. This was really obscure. Until yesterday, I had no idea there was an underlying meaning of these symbols and the deplorable behavior. We just don't know if a crime was committed here.
Can we assume that selling a toy with a heart on it is not a crime?
And can we assume that detectives who spend 16 years sleuthing for online creeps can get a little odd themselves, believing that even mass-manufactured toys are tools of the pedophile industrial complex?
And can we assume that when viewers are bombarded with a story this desperate to fan the flames of pedophile panic, we get a population ever more obsessed with sex offenders, ever more demanding of police protection, and ever more convinced that kids are in constant danger, even from a plush toy?
Here's the report. You tell me.