Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Apparently, the Natalee story is still hot

I posted a couple of mild criticisms of the press's obsession with Natalee on on the blogcritics*
site. Boy, oh boy, did I get comments. These can be classified into two groups: those who think anyone criticizing the press is being hateful about a young girl, and those who think the press is way out of line. Here's one of the latter:

Aruba, Summer 2005. A nation held hostage. By CNN and Fox.

I couldn’t find Natalee anywhere I looked. In fairness, I only looked in the bar, but she wasn’t there. She isn't at the pool, either. She is, however, on every American news channel the satellites could beam down to Earth. The stations trumpet every increase in reward money, as though terrorists are holding Natalee until the reward reaches just the right amount. (“When it gets to two million, Ahmed, sell!”)

You can't avoid talk about her, of course. It’s just that - it's only the Americans talking. The Arubans aren't avoiding the issue. I asked a few women working at the resort what they thought. Nearly all shook their heads as if to say “my three daughters are stuck in a Colombian whorehouse back home and I’m earning a dollar an hour to buy their freedom. You think I give a shit?”

The Arubans are sensitive to the story. They are sorry for the family. They are embarassed by the negative attention the Aruba police has been getting. And they can’t for the life of them understand why their island is being portrayed as if Dr. Moreau were in charge.

A FORWARD-THINKING BACKWARDS PAPER

There is a cute local newspaper in Aruba called “Aruba Today.”
[]

“Aruba Today” ...[is] given out for free at the hotel - on the days it arrives, anyway. It is every inch a teeny tourist rag; it is full of articles like “Harry and Jessica Wed on Eagle Beach” and “Marriott introduces new sous chef.” You could publish a better-looking paper with a 1990-vintage Mac Classic and Aldus PageMaker. The newspaper is barely a newspaper.

One other thing that separates it from our media? “Aruba Today” is showing perspective and restraint on the Natalee Holloway story.

BLOWING A STORY INTO PROPORTION

My first reaction after reading a couple of days worth of Aruba news was that the island was trying to cover up the obviously important Natalee story. I mean - don’t they see the posters? Don’t they see the tons of American journalists outside the Aruban Parliament Building? (It’s next to the mall and the Renaissance Hotel with the roof pool and private island. No self-respecting journalist could possibly miss it.)

But no. This was more insidious. The Aruban journalists (and I am not sure if using the plural of that word is, in fact, accurate) are daring to cover the Natalee story exactly as it should be covered: a tragic but minor event in an otherwise remarkably safe, polite, affordable nation of happy people and Dutch cigarettes.

[]
One day, “Aruba Today” dared to lead with the London bombings investigation over the Natalee story.

Savages.
CUTE WHITE GIRLS: A SWEEPS DREAM STORY

God, Nancy Grace really can’t shut up about Natalee. Nancy Grace can’t shut up normally, but on this story she REALLY can’t shut up. She is the answer to the question “What does terminal verbal diarrhea sound like?” And of course, everyone’s favorite career Dad-In-Mourning, John Walsh, is trying to add something “new” to the two-month-and-holy-shit-they’re-still-counting days of coverage.

And we get lots of “new details” here. “CNN Larry King Live” just informed me that there are “still many more questions than answers.” One reporter told me she saw a helicopter go “up and down several times.” Really? A helicopter went up and down?

I was told the “massive search” of the island “goes on around the clock” with “helicopters lighting the way.” I’m glad they told me, too. I haven’t seen any of that. I did see a cop car, but it turned out to be the one behind me as I was making an illegal left while trying to hide my Balashi beer.

One night on the tube, Dr. Henry Lee, he of OJ trial fame, said “they are running out of leads.” I don’t know if he was talking about the investigation -- or the news.

I can’t blame the Holloway and Twitty families, some of whom remain here. If it were my daughter, I would turn the island upside down. .... I would scream and shout every night the television news people would train a camera on me. I would try to keep the story in the limelight as long as possible, if it meant an entire island’s police force would spend an extra minute looking for my kid. I would increase the reward by a hundred grand every day it would buy me another second of TV time. I would. I would. I would.

But if I were a news director, I wouldn’t listen.

If Natalee is dead it is a terrible loss for her family. Terrible. I can’t imagine life going on after the death of a child. But Natalee’s death is not a tragic loss for our country. It is not worth damaging the Aruban economy over. It is not worth some bumpkin Alabama politician’s grandstanding bullshit that everyone in his state should boycott Aruba until “they do something about Natalee.”
... Natalee is getting international - international! - coverage for one reason: she’s a Cute White Girl. American news loves a cute, virginal blonde in distress....

Nancy Kerrigan was a CWG who only had to be hit on the knee to merit round-the-clock coverage. Denise Brown Simpson? Well, a formerly cute WG, anyway. Take a twofer like Laci Peterson and you’ve got a jackpot; first she was a Missing CWG, then she was a Dead CWG. The tragedy of Missing-And-Presumed-Dead-Only-To-Be-Found-With-Religious-Wackos CWG Elizabeth Smart is that the hype of her disappearance and miraculous recovery is giving false hope to a lot of people.

CONTEXT? WHAT CONTEXT?

On November 1, 1994, I was at a crash scene in Cozumel, Mexico. A helicopter carrying American tourists from a nearby ruins site suddenly went into the drink. 12 people, all Americans, died. []

It wasn’t the only time a tourist chopper took a sudden dive. A few months later, ABC News ran a story on helicopter crashes in Hawaii, Mexico and other tourist locations. People were going on honeymoons and dying because of bad maintenance records, ill-trained pilots and dirty motor oil. And these trips were still being booked.

In Cozumel that day we had an actual tragedy, and it exposed an actual danger facing actual people. Helicopter crashes were killing Americans just out for a good view. This had to be told. CNN had the item on the news late that night. It was a copy story. The dead made a critical error: they weren’t six CWGs.

Journalists, good ones anyway, are supposed to do more than report facts. (And thank me for not putting “facts” in quotes. The Natalee story seems full of “facts.”) We are supposed to put stories into proper context. We are supposed to use stories of individuals to tell a larger tale. We are supposed to examine a story, hold a critical light to it, and see how much coverage it merits, if any at all.

So far, only “Aruba Today” seems to understand that.

by Steve Safran


*In case anyone is interested, I posted the first comment August 2--69 comments so far; the second got 42. Every day, more e-mail! It drew more comments than Diet Coke with Splenda!

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