Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Enough Already

Is it just me, or is everyone else getting burned out by the non-stop coverage of Natalee Holloway, the Alabama teenager who's been missing in Aruba for the past three weeks?

A couple of caveats up front. I'm the father of three grown daughters and a son; as a parent, I can only imagine what the Holloway and Twitty families are going through right now, and I pray that I'm never in that position. A few years ago, one of my daughters was incommunicado for a few months, after a brief falling out with her mother and I. But, unlike Natalee's parents, we never had any reasons to doubt our daughter's safety during that period. Frantically searching for a child--and wondering whether they are dead or alive--is something no parent should ever face. The Holloways and the Twittys deserve our prayers and support during this difficult time.

Having said that, I cannot understand the fascination with this story. Thousands of Americans go missing every year; many are never found and they rarely receive this level of coverage. We can also speculate over whether this disappearence would receive the same level if it happened to a Hispanic kid in El Paso, a black teenager from Detroit, or the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner. In his landmark book Bias, former CBS News correpondent Bernie Goldberg quoted from a producer's manual for 48 Hours, a show he once reported for. As I recall, the manual encouraged producers to screen on-camera sources in advance, and whenever possible, use "attractive" people in interview segments. The Holloway and Twitty families, affuluent, telegenic suburbanites, certainly meet that criteria.

And, it doesn't hurt that Natalee disappeared in Aruba. If you're a network or cable news reporter or producer, where would you rather cover a story--on a beautiful Carribean island, or Podunk, Nebraska. By one estimate, both Fox News Channel and CNN have at least camera crews on Aruba, along with producers, engineers and support personnel. And I'm sure that the FNC assignment desk in New York and its CNN counterpart in Atlanta have no shortage of volunteers to join the team in Aruba.

Better yet, it's a relatively easy story to cover. Video tours of the hotel, beach, and lighthouse where Natalee was last seen; interviews with local journalists and lawyers (for Aruban perspective), and quotes from anonmyous sources on the latest interrogations of the suspects, interspersed with footage of stunning tropical vistas.

The media circus reached its zenith last night, with pilgrimage of Natalee's mother to the home of suspect Joren van der Sloot, with Greta van Susteran and a FNC crew in tow. I can appreciate Mrs. Twitty's desperate quest for information about her daughter, but the entire episode came off as a slickly-contrived media event, and not a search for answers. Had I been Mrs. Twitty, I would have left Greta at the gate, along with the rest of the Fox crew. Instead, Greta was invited inside, and became a part of the story, rather than a journalistic observer. Call me old-fashioned, but I remember the days when covering the news was a non-participatory event. And, if Greta and FNC hadn't secured this "dubious" exclusive, rest assured that Diane Sawyer, 'perky" Katie Couric (fresh from her interview with the runaway bride) or someone from CNN would have been tagging along.

I have no problem with the media covering this story--in its proper context. It would also be nice if the press would cover some of the under-reported aspects of this case, namely the shocking absence of supervision of Miss Holloway's high school group in Aruba (only seven chaperones for 120 teenagers; no curfew for the group, no bed checks and safety "discussions" only after known drug dealers approached the youngsters). To my knowledge, Bill O'Reilly of FNC is the only major journalist to explore these issues--they certainly warrant further inquiry.

For the record, I think Natalee's parents made a poor decision--allowing their 18-year-old daughter to participate in a trip with inadquate supervision, to a destination (Aruba) that offered too many temptations for high school senior. Against that backdrop, Natalee Holloway made poor decisions that may have resulted in her death. And, BTW, that does not absolve the actions of the suspects, or botched investigation being run by Aruban authorities. I believe Joran van der Sloot and his buddies are guilty as hell, and it's a shame they can't be interrogated by FBI agents, or experienced NYPD homicide detectives. Those pros would have extracted a confession days ago from van der Sloot and his buddies days ago, and (at this point) Natalee Holloway would have been returned to her parents. Instead, this young woman's relatives are being tortured by an incompetent (or corrupt) police department, which may be subject to the manipulations of van der Sloot's father, an Aruban "judge" in training.

Meanwhile, the search--and the accompanying media circus--continue. I'm praying for Miss Holloway and her family, but I won't be watching the televised spectacle from Aruba.

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