Elizabeth Smart bombed.

Media criticism.
March 18 2003 6:47 PM

Smart Bombed

How much coverage of Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping is too much?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Today's indictment of Brian Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee will surely put the Elizabeth Smart story back on Page One—at least until the Iraq war starts. The indictment brings two counts each of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated burglary against Mitchell and Barzee.

Those criminal charges were expected. But the subject that's kept the press salivating since Smart's March 12 rescue has been sexual abuse. Last Friday, March 14, Bill O'Reilly reported that FBI sources said Smart "had been forced into a polygamist relationship with Brian Mitchell." In his next breath, O'Reilly emerged as Smart's protector, asking his guest, "Now, the question is: To protect the little girl, to protect the 15-year-old girl, what should authorities do as far as testimony, making things like this public?" Um, maybe urge people not to watch The O'Reilly Factor?

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Nearly every publication that touched the story became tainted by it. On March 15, the Los Angeles Times simultaneously stoked readers' appetite for more detailed information on the sexual angle while making the cops look like stonewallers: "Salt Lake City police would not say whether Elizabeth, 15, was sexually abused." The Associated Press availed itself of the oblique approach, too, writing, "Investigators are reviewing a 27-page manifesto written by Mitchell that promotes polygamy as a blessing from God. Questions about whether Elizabeth was sexually abused have become a focus."

Because today's indictment also accuses Mitchell and Barzee of aggravated sexual assault, we can only expect more prurient coverage from the press, with questions asked (and not answered by uncooperative investigators!) about what sort of sex they had, where and when it happened, and how often.

It shouldn't be that way. Elizabeth Smart legally deserves anonymity twice over because she's 1) a minor; and 2) a purported victim of a sexual crime. Had the circumstances of the alleged crimes committed against her been different, we wouldn't know her name and she'd have a better chance of returning to a normal life after the prosecution of Mitchell and Barzee. Every suggestive and semi-salacious news story streaming out of Salt Lake City works against that.

Who to blame? Editors who have commissioned blanket coverage, making a local story a national obsession. TV news, too. It prays for stories like these to feed its 24-hour news maw. Smart's parents deserve a dozen sharp raps on the head, as well. What were they thinking when they allowed a relative in the press to take candid photos of her for distribution? Didn't they know the photos would give the story additional "entertainment appeal" and keep their daughter in the spotlight for another couple of weeks? (Note to Ed Smart: Now that your daughter is home, quit with the public lobbying for the Amber Alert law.)

But special blame goes out to the great masses of readers and viewers, whose appetite for this kind of high and salacious drama can't be sated by soap operas, the Lifetime Channel, and made-for-TV movies.

If the argument above sounds ridiculously high-minded, let me confess that events like these make me glad I'm not a daily newspaper editor or a TV news producer. As a news story, the Smart affair has almost everything an editor can dream of: Kidnapping. "Brainwashing." Polygamy. Religious fanaticism. Reunion. And after the Smart kidnapping and the family's appeal for help, only the hard-hearted could look away.

Still, I'd like to think that if I were directing Smart coverage I'd have the moral sense to follow the pack at an extreme distance, gloss over the sex angle, and bury the latest dispatches in the back pages. Who'll give me an "Amen" on that?

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