Cable Can't Get Beyond the Pale
The pathological cable news obsession with young, attractive white women who unfortunately vanish continues unabated. Yes, the nation is still transfixed by Damsels in Distress -- only now it's gotten worse: The media are suddenly obsessed with their own obsession.
Won't somebody please just make it stop?
How silly of me; of course no one is going to make it stop. Certainly not Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, who's spent so much time in Aruba looking for blond, missing Natalee Holloway that she probably qualifies for a Dutch passport. Leaving no stone or sand dollar unturned, Van Susteren has ridden this sad little story to her best Nielsen ratings ever. Hey, who cares about Iraq? They're draining the pond! They're digging in the landfill!
At least Van Susteren is upfront about why she sticks with the story. "I'm always happy when the viewers are happy," Van Susteren told the Associated Press. "I obviously don't program for the people in the newsroom or my friends or the people I went to law school with. I program for the viewers."
On the other hand, fellow passengers on the Damsels bandwagon -- CNN, MSNBC, and, to a lesser extent, the broadcast networks and the major newspapers -- are so eager to display their high-minded earnestness that they've been running stories about "the phenomenon" of missing-white-woman coverage. They act as if said coverage were a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a tornado, rather than a series of deliberate decisions made by executive producers and editors in chief.
Meanwhile, the case of Latoyia Figueroa, a pregnant 24-year-old woman of color missing in Philadelphia, is being used as a kind of make-up call. You know what a make-up call is: When a referee in the NBA calls a foul on one team and then the replay shows it wasn't really a foul at all, he quickly calls a cheap foul on the other team as a way to even the score.
In this case, the replay showed that the number of missing women of color who had received the full 24-7 Damsels treatment was precisely zero. So, nagged by a persistent blogger, the cable networks grudgingly devoted a couple of days to Figueroa. Then they dashed back to Aruba and breathlessly reported the latest "developments" in the Holloway case.
Never mind that there haven't been any real developments. The same guy's been in jail for weeks, and the crack Aruban authorities still can't even say that a crime has been committed, much less by whom. People aren't watching this story to follow an unfolding mystery, because it refuses to unfold. There must be another reason why producers and viewers love it so.
Does the whole Damsels thing result from a lack of diversity in television newsrooms? Maybe in part, but I don't think that can be the only answer. Television newsrooms are generally more diverse than newspaper staffs, so if lack of diversity were the only reason, you'd expect newspapers to be leading the Damsels charge. But newspapers aren't opening ad hoc bureaus in Aruba; cable networks are.
That leaves one other possibility: Cable television executives, producers and anchors have decided that viewers will stay glued to the set to hear endlessly about young, photogenic, missing women -- but only if they're white.
This country has made undeniable progress against racism in my lifetime, but the Damsels coverage suggests to me that on some visceral level people of color are still seen as The Other. It suggests that for some reason, many Americans can become emotionally involved with the travails of a distraught family that happens to be white, but not a family of color.
That's despite the fact that in the two most populous states in the nation, California and Texas, minorities now form the majority; the same will soon be true of the third and fourth most populous, New York and Florida. The nation as a whole is one-third minority. At this point, no one can think of black, brown and yellow people as rare or exotic. So why do we seem to be missing from the majority's national self-image?
I've heard the blanket coverage of the Holloway story defended on the grounds that the scenario -- a beautiful young daughter vanishes on a class trip to the Caribbean -- is "every parent's nightmare." But then is Latoyia Figueroa's disappearance nothing more than "every black and/or Latino parent's nightmare"? Would it be different if she were rich?
Or is her ethno-specific name the stumbling block? Could she be a proper Damsel if her name were not Latoyia but Jennifer? Or Jessica? Or Laci?