Are The “Kidnap Victim Of The Week” Stories Racist?

To be honest with you, I pay very little attention to what I like to think of as the “kidnap victim of the week” stories on the cable news networks. “The Runaway Bride?” Couldn’t care less. Scott & Laci Peterson? Not interested.

That being said, it has not escaped my notice that the Cable News Networks tend to latch on to attractive white people for these “kidnap victim of the week” stories that are run over and over to kill time on networks.

Former press secretary to former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, Douglas MacKinnon has noted the same phenomenon, although he’s a good deal more exercised about it than I am:

“Note to the news media–with an emphasis on the cable networks: Enough is enough.

Your continual focus on, and reporting of, missing, young, attractive white women not only demeans your profession but is a televised slap in the face to minority mothers and parents the nation over who search for their own missing children with little or no assistance or notice from anyone.

The latest missing woman to dominate the airtime of the cable networks was Jennifer Wilbanks, from Duluth, Ga. Like Dru Sjodin, Chandra Levy and Elizabeth Smart all before her, Wilbanks is young, white and attractive. Wilbanks, as it turned out, ran away of her own volition from her impending marriage. As a Maryland police official told me after Wilbanks turned up in New Mexico, “the media’s non-stop focus on the possible abduction of Wilbanks forced the local officials and police departments to spend thousands of dollars they would not otherwise have spent.”

Define racism. One could certainly make the argument that the cable networks that continually focus on these missing white women, to the virtual exclusion of minority women, are practicing a form of racism. The racism in this case, however, while predicated on color, does not concern itself with the color of one’s skin. Rather, it is based on the color of money, ratings points and competition. Would an African-American woman who went missing days before her wedding receive the same (or any) coverage as that of Wilbanks? Not likely.

…I have a number of friends at the cable networks (or at least I did), and I have spoken to some about this very subject. While all professed disgust with the underreporting of missing minority women and young adults, most were very uneasy with the thought of shining a spotlight on their own management to ascertain an answer. “Besides,” one of them told me, “you’ve already figured it out. We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It’s about beating the competition and ad dollars.”

Like it or not, there’s nothing racist about what the news networks are doing. They run these stories to fill time on the air and because they get good ratings. If they have a mostly white audience that’s interested in Jennifer Wilbanks or Elizabeth Smart, why not cater to their viewers? It’s no different than Black Entertainment Television focusing on stories about young, attractive black women that their audience wants to know more about. They stay in business by giving their audience what they want and that’s OK.

Moreover, it’s also important to keep in mind that despite what MacKinnon implies, this practice isn’t some sort of slap aimed at minorities. The fact is that there are a lot of white people the networks aren’t interested in either. For example, if you’re a 60 year old white woman who works as a Wal-Mart greeter, Fox probably doesn’t care if you go missing. If you’re a 25 year old white girl who’s a 4 on a 10 scale, CNN probably isn’t going to make you into their “big story of the day” either. And let’s face it, if you’re a 14 year-old-white kid who looks and sounds like an escapee from the Jerry Springer show, MSNBC isn’t going to bring on “experts” to figure out if you were kidnapped or just headed out to smoke crack with your 17 year-old boyfriend who got out of juvie two days ago. Race isn’t really the decisive factor when you get right down to it.

So condemn the cable news networks for relentlessly pushing these lame missing person stories hour after hour if you like, but don’t condemn them for covering stories they believe their audience will be interested in…

Hat tip to Memeorandum for the story.

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