The saturation media coverage of Georgia’s “runaway bride” case shows that TV “has developed an insatiable hunger for a soap opera saga with twists and turns that can be endlessly trumpeted in order to hook viewers,” says Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz. The rest of the media 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; the sensational stories that followed, from JonBenet Ramsey to Monica Lewinsky to Elian Gonzalez 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 flogged tragedies that once would have been purely local crime stories.
In the melodramas about missing women and girls –are there never any missing boys? Kurtz asks, the ones who draw coverage are invariably young, white and middle class, the better to strike a chord with the demographic coveted by advertisers. Kurtz wonders whether news executives are missing the degree to which wall-to-wall extravaganzas are alienating others as they pick up ratings points. 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.”