Holloway media frenzy shows how news is skewed by race

August 29, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - It's too bad so many news professionals lack the discerning judgment of Bob Costas.

An occasional substitute for Larry King, Mr. Costas declined to host a recent hour-long Larry King Live largely dedicated to the missing-persons case of Natalee Holloway, whose May disappearance from the Caribbean island of Aruba has become the latest grist for news organizations obsessed with missing white women.

"I don't really believe there was a single American sitting around saying, `I'd really like to see Bob Costas' take on this,'" he told The New York Times.

But his eminent good sense was not contagious. The complexities of war, terrorism, peaking petroleum reserves and a global economy notwithstanding, CNN believed it was time for another interview with Ms. Holloway's mother, her uncle and her family's attorney. So the show went on with a different fill-in host.

And CNN's viewers were subjected to yet another report on a case with no new developments, few ramifications for anyone beyond Ms. Holloway's loved ones and friends and, indeed, no real mystery. By now, we can all guess what happened: Calamity befell Ms. Holloway after she left a bar with a young man she barely knew.

While that is tragic, it is not, unfortunately, particularly unusual. Parents worry about their young adult children just because they are so often naive, believing themselves invulnerable.

Black and Latina women disappear, too. So do men - black, white and brown. In fact, according to FBI spokesman Paul Bresson, the agency has more active missing-persons cases involving adult men - 26,107 as of Aug. 1 - than adult women, with 22,717 active cases.

Some news organizations, however, have decided that their audience cares most about the tragedies that afflict only a small sliver of those victims - the ones who are female, young, pretty and white, the Chandra Levys, Laci Petersons, Lori Hackings and Jennifer Wilbankses.

And given the fine science of marketing research, the news organizations are no doubt right. Devoting countless hours of her Fox News show On the Record to Ms. Holloway's disappearance seems to have given Greta Van Susteren a huge ratings boost. Headline News' Nancy Grace has also elevated Ms. Holloway's case to the drama of the century - at least until another pretty young white woman disappears.

(The recent coverage of the case of a missing, pregnant Philadelphia Latina, LaToyia Figueroa, doesn't change the profile. Her case got traction with news organizations only after critics needled them to give her July disappearance some attention. Her former boyfriend was recently arrested and charged with her murder and the murder of their unborn child.)

Despite America's self-image as a nation that embraces diversity, offering not only equal opportunity but also broad cultural assimilation, racism - or race consciousness - remains a stubbornly intractable problem. Of course, much has changed in this country over the past 50 years. To misquote former-NBA-star-turned-great-philosopher Charles Barkley, you know something is different when the best golfer (Tiger Woods) is black and the best rapper (Eminem) is white.

Yet Drew Westen, an Emory University psychology professor, has said we may still lack the ability to empathize with those we view as different from ourselves. And it may go back to our primitive beginnings, to an instinct for immediately identifying the "other" as dangerous. That sense of "otherness" does not reside in whites alone. Blacks, too, are perfectly capable of suspicion, hostility and just plain bigotry toward others of different races and ethnic groups. Race consciousness is, it seems, an all-American attribute.

Perhaps that primitive instinct to demonize those outside the tribe was quite useful to humankind thousands of years ago. But it hardly seems helpful in an age of decoded DNA, global markets and 24-hour cable news channels.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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