It's to Laugh (or Cry) About

Tragedy or Farce? Either Works for TV

By Howard Kurtz


The runaway bride has turned into a runaway television embarrassment.

A missing woman turns up safe after apparently getting cold feet about her wedding, and producers, rather than feeling embarrassed over their earlier excess, turn it into the latest national obsession.

When Jennifer Wilbanks first vanished, the heavy cable coverage -- given the medium's fatal weakness for missing-woman stories -- might have been understandable. But once we learned she had invented the tale of abduction after ducking out just days before her lavish wedding, why did the network morning shows join their cable cousins in going wild over the yarn, trotting out every available relative, friend, bridesmaid and even another woman who had bailed on her own wedding?

The formula is classic: First the media pump up the story (bride-to-be missing!) with all kinds of sinister overtones (Maybe she's been kidnapped! Maybe she's dead! Call our Laci Peterson experts!). Then they revel in the surprise ending when it turns out that she really just ran away . Next, they bring on all kinds of experts, profilers, psychologists and other talking heads to yammer about why a woman would do such a thing, with anchors asking guests what could have been going through Wilbanks's mind while airing footage of her being led away with a blanket over her head.

Television has developed an insatiable hunger for a soap opera saga with twists and turns that can be endlessly trumpeted in order to hook viewers. The rest of the media, including The Washington Post, often feel they have to play along, because the story is creating "buzz" and no one wants to seem culturally clueless.

The O.J. Simpson trial kicked off this new era a decade ago, and the sensational stories that followed, from JonBenet Ramsey to Monica Lewinsky to Elian Gonzalez (and all his dysfunctional relatives), fit the mold of news-as-argument: Everyone had to take a position on who was right and who was beneath contempt. From the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart to whether Chandra Levy was having an affair with a congressman to whether Scott Peterson murdered his wife, television has tirelessly flogged tragedies that once would have been purely local crime stories.

The nature of news is changing as we (news chiefs, editors and reporters) try to figure out what you (readers and viewers) want, why news consumption is shrinking (especially among younger folks) and what we can do to lure you back into the tent. While a newspaper's front page can feature six or seven stories, television's front page is every second, and the competition for eyeballs is fierce. This, in turn, has produced a chain reaction.

Every TV executive has a wall of monitors to track what the competition is doing. If one cable network cuts to the latest crime scene, with live pictures delivered by satellite, the pressure is intense to throw up a "breaking news" logo and do the same, and the broadcast networks and print outlets follow suit. The problem with this speeded-up news cycle is that it leaves little time for digging and double-checking, and all too much time for blather and guesswork. And if someone's life is hanging in the balance -- bingo! That's the jackpot.

Politics has its share of uncertainty -- Will Senate Republicans launch the nuclear option against filibusters? -- but let's face it, that hardly gets the blood flowing like a this-could-happen-to-you crime against an innocent family member or charges of a dastardly act by some high and mighty celebrity. Stories packed with emotion and pathos and possibly sex, once the creamy filling of the news buffet, are increasingly becoming the main course.

In the past few months -- with the presidential campaign over, the violence in Iraq numbingly familiar and the Social Security debate stalled -- TV executives have increasingly embraced tabloid tales about the famous and those who can instantly be made famous. They believe that public interest in politics and policy is tepid at best, except in wartime, and are constantly hunting for a more compelling narrative to heat things up.

Let's go to the videotape.

Ashley Smith became television's heroine du jour when she was taken hostage by a man accused of killing four people in an Atlanta courtroom, and then talked him into giving himself up (though her halo was later tarnished when we learned she had been through alcohol rehab and had given up custody of her 5-year-old daughter). Martha Stewart was turned into the comeback sensation of the year when she was released from prison, so hotly pursued that a producer for MSNBC's Dan Abrams followed her car and was doing a breathless report when he lost his cell connection. Michael Jackson's trial on child molestation charges has been a monumental media circus, eclipsing last year's proceedings against Kobe Bryant on since-dropped allegations of sexual assault, interrupted only by Robert Blake's acquittal on charges of murdering his wife.

But at least the Gloved One, the Lakers scorer and the onetime "Baretta" star are celebrities, so there's an understandable interest in their trials and tribulations. That was hardly the case with Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose fate became the focus of an hour-by-hour death watch because of a family battle over whether to remove her feeding tube. Does anyone seriously believe Congress would have passed a law affecting only Schiavo had television not assaulted us with the endless loop of her in a hospital bed?

Schiavo's passing merged seamlessly into the next death watch as Pope John Paul II entered the hospital, triggering coverage so intense that a Fox News anchor, reacting to a producer's error, pronounced the pontiff dead more than 24 hours early. The passing of the pope, which touched millions around the world, was a huge story, but as the days wore on with little new to report, the constant stream of religious leaders and theologians became part of a round-the-clock canonization that had even some Catholics questioning whether enough was enough.

The naming of a new pope (after the cable anchors disagreed on whether the smoke from the Vatican was indeed white) seemed to signal a return to media normalcy. But eight days later came reports that Georgia police were looking for a 32-year-old woman who had disappeared days before she was to walk down the aisle before 600 guests and 14 bridesmaids. Although no one knew what had happened, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all pounced. It was book first, ask questions later.

Fox's Bill O'Reilly: "Woman goes out for a jog and boom, she's gone. Do you think there's an epidemic going on here?" And: "This young woman -- it's almost like Laci Peterson. She just disappears from a place that's Mainstream, USA."

Nancy Grace of CNN's Headline News, interviewing Wilbanks's dad: "Mr. Wilbanks, this sounds completely unlike Jennifer to just disappear. I just don't believe it's a case of cold feet."

Fox's Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera agreed after an interview with the fiance's father that "foul play" was involved. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was one of the few anchors to wonder, based on photos of Wilbanks "with her eyes sort of bugging out," whether she had fled.

When Wilbanks, with her long hair chopped off, surfaced in New Mexico, reporter Nicole Brady of NBC's Albuquerque affiliate told "Saturday Today" on April 30: "Authorities believe . . . that her abductors may have cut it to disguise her." Later in the program came word that Wilbanks had concocted the tale of being seized by a Hispanic man. Now that the media had their Julia Roberts (star of the movie "Runaway Bride"), the story really took off. "We can't stop talking about it," "Sunday Today" co-host Campbell Brown told viewers.

"Today," "Good Morning America" and the "Early Show" all led with the bride story on Monday and Tuesday. When the fiance, John Mason, told Fox's Hannity that he still wanted to marry Wilbanks, he opened the floodgates. "The fiance speaks," Matt Lauer said on "Today," and "is raising some eyebrows." Now every guest had to take a side: Should Mason take her back? Should Wilbanks be prosecuted for her false 911 call? Did she really think she could get away with telling police she had been raped? The subject was chewed over by O'Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn, Abrams, Olbermann, "Crossfire" and just about anyone with a microphone.

"Isn't Mason going to be a wimpy, henpecked little weasel for the rest of his life if he marries this wack job?" Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon said on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption."

Columbia Journalism Review listed some of the people interviewed by CNN in the first few days: A pastor from Wilbanks's church. Wilbanks's fiance. A friend of Wilbanks's fiance. A mental health expert discussing how the family can "heal." A clinical psychologist speculating on why Wilbanks took off. And so on.

The overheated environment even seemed to affect the usually restrained Associated Press, which moved a story on its wires quoting a Georgia prosecutor as saying that Wilbanks had been engaged before, then sent out a "kill" notice retracting it.

Lost in the cacophony has been any examination of how the media's over-coverage drove this story. Television has developed an addiction to these melodramas about missing women and girls -- are there never any missing boys? -- and the ones who draw coverage are invariably young, white and middle class, the better to strike a chord with the demographic coveted by advertisers.

It isn't as though the journalists been through this before. A year ago, cable and the morning shows went bonkers over reports that Wisconsin college student Audrey Seiler had been kidnapped, until police confirmed he had made it up. But TV seems to win either way, whether the story plays out as tragedy or farce, since either plot can be used to hold an audience.

The Wilbanks tale produced a modest ratings bump -- 160,000 additional viewers combined for the three cable news channels over the previous week -- but news executives may be missing the degree to which such wall-to-wall extravaganzas are alienating many others. In an online chat that I hosted last week, one Washington reader called the coverage "disgusting," saying: "Is it just me, or is the tabloid-like cable news media getting worse?" A Charlotte reader called it "shameful." A Kansas City reader wondered why the networks didn't quit after the hoax was exposed: "I would have been embarrassed to keep following a non-story."

There's nothing wrong with human interest stories, which have been written about since the days of Gutenberg. People love to debate why other people do strange or horrifying things, as they have over the back fence for centuries. And in an age of terrorism, it makes sense for journalists to balance the onslaught of depressing news with more sensational fare. But from Kobe to Jacko to Martha to Terri to Jennifer, balance is often obliterated as the networks smother their latest obsession, apparently fearful that changing subjects will cause viewers to click away. It's a talk-radio version of news, a few facts surrounded by commentary, speculation, argument, angst and a platform for anyone with a tangential connection to the controversy.

The star remains silent for now, except for an apology read by her pastor. How long before Wilbanks, who led the authorities to spend at least $60,000 in searching for her, is amiably chatting with Katie and Diane and Larry and touting her forthcoming book?

By then, of course, Jennifer may be old news for a business always searching for the next tantalizing mystery. This just in: Did Paula Abdul really sleep with that "American Idol" guy? Will she leave the show? Now there's a story with obsession written all over it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company