Damsels in Distress

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS….In the Washington Post today, Eugene Robinson is the latest to note the media’s ongoing obsession with damsels in distress. The latest DiD, of course, is Natalee Holloway, object of an ongoing search in Aruba:

Holloway assumed the mantle from her predecessor, the Runaway Bride….Before the Runaway Bride, there were too many damsels to provide a full list, but surely you remember the damsel elite: Laci Peterson. Elizabeth Smart. Lori Hacking. Chandra Levy. JonBenet Ramsey. We even found, or created, a damsel amid the chaos of war in Iraq: Jessica Lynch.

….But of course the damsels have much in common besides being female….A damsel must be white. This requirement is nonnegotiable….She must be attractive ? also nonnegotiable.

Actually, Robinson forgot the DiD who came in between the Runaway Bridge and Holloway: Schapelle Corby, the attractive, white, Australian beautician who was recently sent to jail for allegedly smuggling marijuana into Indonesia. I’m going to take a wild guess and estimate that dozens of foreigners have been sent to jail for smuggling drugs into Indonesia in the past year alone, but Corby is the only one to get splashed all over CNN’s front page. Can you guess why?

(Answer: According to a cable news employee who was willing to state the obvious on an anonymous basis, “We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It’s about beating the competition and ad dollars.”)

The tabloidization of everything is, frankly, a little more important than whether or not Elisabeth Bumiller is tough enough on the Bush White House. But there’s more to it than just that. Obsessive coverage of DiDs is just one of several phenomena that continues to convince Americans ? especially suburban, white Americans ? that the world is a far more dangerous place than it really is. The rate of kidnappings and missing children has actually plummeted in recent years, but a constant drumbeat of TV coverage focused on DiDs and kids presents a compelling visual narrative that’s the exact opposite of reality.

Of course, there are still a few media outlets that have obstinately refused to join the tabloid trend, but they too are under pressure to change. In fact, I have a question for LA Times critic-in-chief Mickey Kaus: I noticed this morning that the Times splashed today’s freeway closure all over their front page (perhaps because this one was closer to downtown?) but limited their coverage of Holloway to a 3-inch “In Brief” blurb on A4. Does this count as improvement or continuing cluelessness? What’s the box score?

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