Missing White Women: They Matter

This is something that has bothered me for a while: What is up with the dismissive, slightly mocking attitude towards Missing White Women? As a group, they couldn't be more sympathetic: Almost always abducted, sexually assaulted, or brutally murdered. Way too many of them are not found. Individually, their stories are terrible, and terribly familiar: Ran out to get something at the store; walking home from school or work; suddenly helpless at the hands of a bad, bad choice of boyfriend. How exactly did these women become a punch line, joked about on cable news shows with a roll of the eyes and a snort of derision?

I know the answer — it's because they get a so-called disproportionate amount of coverage. I say "so-called" because, well, "disproportionate" depends on what else is being covered that day, and what is being bumped so that breaking news might continue to break and break and break, every fifteen or so minutes with a slightly changed chyron. There is no question that missing girls get way more attention on a case-by-case basis than any number of soldiers in Iraq, but alas, that is the norm, a terrible equation sardonically commented on by Joseph Stalin years ago ("One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic"). Please, hold your fire — I can feel your outrage already, but don't kill the messenger, it's just a fact.

Blame the cable nets for jumping on the story to fill airtime if you want — go ahead, Greta Van Susteren made a career out of Natalee Holloway, and by all means, mock Katie Couric for that awful interview with the Runaway Bride. And JonBenet — who remembers the frenzy last August after John Mark Karr was apprehended? We all know it by now, the nets go overboard, not just on missing girls but on Anna Nicole and Paris Hilton and Michael Jackson and incipient terror plots and Bronco chases and whatever happens to be — or seem — the newsiest right now. They're 24-hour news nets for God's sake, it's what they do. But, there is a difference between mocking their ratings-hungry news judgment and the victims they parade before the camera. Rightly or wrongly — but I tend to think rightly — people are shocked and horrified to hear that a girl is missing, and while there is a question as to her fate, they will care about what happens to her.

One hopes. It seems to be getting a little more challenging to care as much, when as a group they are so easily dismissed — and when as a group their stories are so damn familiar, not only on the local newscasts but across the dial on prime time on CSI and Law & Order and other shows that are constantly upping the how-do-we-kill-the-beautiful-female-victim-ante, and in torture-porn flicks like Captivity and Hostel and, ugh, Hostel II. Seriously, the very fact that there is a Hostel II suggests that we are dangerously inured to grisly images of death and violence; certainly the fact that America's Next Top Model saw fit to orchstrate a "Death Becomes Her" photoshoot depicting violently murdered girls suggests that we're maybe a little more cavalier about such things than we ought to be. Or maybe we're just more freaked out and afraid — I know I am, which is why whenever I hear about another missing girl I get a cold chill, and pray like hell that they're just playing hooky or maybe lost their cellphone. I can remember the relief I felt after Jennifer Wilbanks was found alive; and the horror and sadness I felt when Kelsey Smith was not.

I am not saying the media coverage is perfect — far from it. And I agree with John Ridley that the concomitant lack of attention shown to missing women of color is a disgusting omission (MSNBC bumping a segment on missing 22-year-old Florida girl Stepha Henry to cover Paris Hilton? For shame). That is all true, and the same can be said for coverage of Iraq and all the other absolutely, 100% important stories that merit our action and attention. But to dismiss these missing girls as unimportant wastes of time and ink and airwaves? A callous and terrible mistake. I said it yesterday about Paris but it 's way more important here: These missing girls are news, and their stories are important, and whatever can be done to help find them, well, damned if I would complain that a network was doing it. Don't go confusing the idiocy of the messenger with the importance of the message — because the last thing a victim of any color or sex needs is the blame.

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