A misguided focus

"I'M EMBARRASSED that there's so much air time absorbed by the latest missing-girl story," Michelle Malkin recently lamented to American Enterprise Online. So, it has finally come to this. Malkin, who defends Japanese internment camps, is the voice of reason. We really are screwed.

The most famous missing woman of the summer is Natalee Holloway, an 18-year old from Alabama who disappeared in Aruba on May 30. After two months of combing the island for clues, investigators still don't know if she was murdered, abducted or simply ran away.

But the absence of evidence hasn't stopped the American media from reporting "updates" on this story every day since her disappearance. Fox News reporter Greta Van Susteren literally moved her show to the island to conduct an independent investigation, and Holloway suddenly became symbolic of the "missing white woman" dramas that consume our airwaves in the place of real news.

Perhaps even more disconcerting than the media's obsessive coverage is that viewers have apparently embraced this story with rare investigative zeal. The level of viewer engagement in this story is astonishing, especially considering that almost nothing of substance has happened for weeks.

Van Susteren, who has spent her summer on this story, has enjoyed her highest ratings for the year. She receives thousands of e-mails each day, and this summer, the vast majority are about Holloway. In these e-mails, viewers offer intricate theories, ask questions and congratulate Van Susteren for sticking with the story. Some viewers submit long, intricate abduction scenarios, while others offer simple suggestions of who Greta might talk to or where she might find the body.

"Greta," writes a viewer from Florida, "Have the investigators checked to see if any new construction at the racquet club was due to have the foundation poured about the time Natalee disappeared?" One viewer wrote a personal letter to the Dutch ambassador, while another offered to put up $100,000 in reward money for the recovery of Holloway's body. A common theme of these letters is that the Aruban authorities have failed, and it is up to the media and to the public to find answers for Holloway's family. Imagine if these people devoted the same energy to political problems of our time.

Critics have argued that Holloway's story would never make the national news if she had not been a young white woman, a pattern that unfortunately seems true. A few weeks before Holloway's fateful vacation, a Hispanic American teenager, 13-year old Reyna Gabriela Alvarado-Carerra, disappeared in Norcross, Georgia. The national media could not care less.

Last week, bloggers shamed several outlets into reporting the disappearance of LaToyia Figueroa, a black pregnant mother who has been missing since July 18, but Van Susteren is unlikely to set up camp in Figueroa's hometown for the next two months. But instead of demanding that the media expand their missing woman coverage to include all races, perhaps we should remind our nation's media that we are at war.

Just ask Major Bob Bateman, currently serving in Iraq, who expressed his disappointment in a letter to Poynter Online: "Just heard about this whole Natalee Holloway thing... There is a Supreme Court seat in play, a U.N. nomination in stasis, death in the Sudan, death in London and a few things occurring in Afghanistan and here [in Iraq], and our national news stations choose to run stories on the death of a privileged 18-year-old?"

Bateman suggests that if the media are short on stories, they ought to send a few more reporters to Iraq, where men and women of all ages are dying each day. Their sacrifices are largely ignored in a nation that claims to fervently support the troops. Holloway's mother speaks to a national audience every night, yet the families of dead American soldiers almost never have the chance to speak on television.

There is something almost hopeful in the dedication that Van Susteren's viewers have shown in following the story of Holloway's disappearance. Ordinary Americans saw one family's tragedy up close, and they felt compelled to analyze the situation, to write letters and to offer their personal consolation to her parents. The public may seem uninformed and apathetic at times, but Americans respond to the images that they see on television. It is time to stop talking about Aruba and focus on stories where mass awareness is needed more than ever, stories where media exposure and public pressure could save lives.

Cari Lynn Hennessy is a Cavalier Daily columnist. She can be reached at chennessy@cavalierdaily.com.

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