It’s been one long nightmare for Sean Dix. In June 1996, after CNN ran a mocking story about his new dental floss device, Dix complained bitterly, but they refused to run a retraction. Over the next few years, he sent over 6000 faxes to CNN headquarters in Atlanta, including its legal department, sports and entertainment desks, and Ted Turner’s executive suite. By last April 18, Dix could not take it anymore.
“It is at this point that I have come to the end of my attempts to deal with you in a rational manner,” Dix faxed CNN that day. “Andrew Jackson once killed a man that insulted him, in cold blood. . . . It is with full knowledge of the law that I’m now telling you that if you do not attempt to make restitution I will attempt to kill Ted Turner, and if he is unreachable in his ivory tower, then I only need kill one CNN employee and it will be on your hands.”
Turner was apparently not amused. The CNN and Time Warner honcho had just separated from Jane Fonda and was dating Bo Derek that month. On April 19, at CNN’s behest, Dix was arrested and locked up in the Atlanta city jail, where he has remained ever since. On December 8, an Atlanta jury found Dix guilty of transmitting a threatening communication in interstate commerce, a federal crime that carries a possible sentence of up to 22 months.
The case gives new meaning to the term powerful media. While Turner played no public role in the drama, he is obviously watching it closely. Turner is a diagnosed manic-depressive whose mood swings were so violent that a former girlfriend called him scary; he has taken Lithium on and off since 1985. So he is is no stranger to the benefits of therapy. But as many are prone to do when confronted with inappropriate behavior, Turner chose to put the heat on Dix rather than steer him into treatment.
It’s not as if Turner hadn’t given Dix notice of his intention to turn him in. Even before April 18, prosecutors say, CNN enlisted an NYPD detective who went to Dix’s residence in New York, and told him to “knock this off,” because “if you keep it up, you’ll get yourself in trouble.” Dix’s response was, according to prosecutors, “Bring it on! That’s what I want.” Soon after, he wrote the fateful words, “Kill Ted Turner.”
A CNN spokesperson declined to comment on the still-pending case, as did Dix’s defense attorney, Michael Kessler. But as the four-day trial drew to an end last week, prosecutors discussed evidence presented in the case and exulted in the guilty verdict.
Dix does not exactly have a criminal past. He used to work as a diamond cutter. The work made his skin tender, and it was painful to wrap floss around his fingers. So he cooked up the idea of attaching floss to small rings, for which he received a patent. After that, he began to pursue the American Dream. He quit his job and set up shop in his mother’s apartment in New York.
Forbes noted his invention in 1995, and by May 1996, he was selling Floss Rings to drugstore chains like CVS and Eckerd. According to a family friend, Dix turned down an offer from Johnson & Johnson to buy the patent because he wanted to retain a portion of the royalties.
Enter Jeanne Moos, a CNN reporter who specializes in the funny and offbeat. She contacted Dix for an interview. But when the resulting story aired in June 1996, it wasn’t the endorsement Dix expected. Instead, Moos interviewed two dentists, who found the Floss Rings process “awkward” and predicted, “This is not going to sweep the nation.” The piece ran for days.
Then the bottom dropped out. According to the April 18 fax, Dix contacted the two dentists, who said they had “panned the product based on CNN’s prompting.” “The resulting fallout was the complete resignation of my national sales force,” Dix claims, “and several months later the loss of distribution at CVS.” He also claims the piece caused a “loss of confidence” in potential investors. Dix compiled his “proof” of inaccuracies. But he could not find a lawyer to sue the network, says the family friend.
In October 1999, Dix told CNN he was going to commit an act of civil disobedience and then showed up at the CNN building in Manhattan, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors say he was arrested after trying to break in; Dix claims he was “thrown through a set of doors and then falsely arrested.” At any rate, the case was dismissed, apparently because the company that owned the building declined to press charges.
Consider Dix’s rationale for the protest and for the final fax. He thought that if he could get CNN to press charges for something—anything!—he would be guaranteed a public hearing of his claims. But last week, as the trial unfolded, there were no reporters in attendance. So much for the publicity value of death threats.
Dr. Park Dietz is a psychiatrist based in Newport Beach, California, who counsels companies on violence prevention. According to Dietz, thousands of cases arise every year in which people harass companies with “inappropriate communications,” though few result in indictments. He says Dix’s claim is not unusual (people often believe that a company has harmed them or ripped them off), but 6000 faxes is extreme (the number of “inappropriate” contacts usually falls between 50 and 300).
Dietz declined to comment on Dix’s mental state. But he says the harassers can exhibit a range of mental disorders, from someone who “merely exaggerates” his suffering to someone “whose claim has no basis in fact.” For example, there are “a fair number of people who claim that chip makers have implanted chips in their brains.”
Dietz says it’s a mistake for a company to press minor charges like stalking or trespass, because those prosecutions rarely succeed. “All that happens is that the subject resents the company all the more and escalates the behavior.” But once the harasser commits a felony, it’s a good idea to prosecute because by sending him to jail or treatment, you can probably stop the unwanted behavior. Nevertheless, he says, “The law offers only blunt instruments for dealing with these situations.”
Dietz says all media companies attract this kind of behavior, especially television, which creates “immediacy and the illusion of intimacy. The more electronic the medium, the more people think they are being persecuted by it.” Perhaps the most famous case of delusions of media persecution was William Tager, who assaulted Dan Rather in 1986 and killed an NBC technician outside the studios of the Today show in 1994. Dietz says Tager believed that “various media were watching him through his television” and putting cameras “in his bedroom and bathroom and car.”
Sean Dix may be deluded about the power of CNN. His product might have flopped anyway. But it’s hard to see the wisdom of putting him in jail. On the other hand, who in his right mind would threaten to kill Ted Turner? In this day of competing media watchdogs, Dix might have gotten more relief by taking his case to the press.