The Lure and Peril of ‘Missing White Girl’ Syndrome
As I write this, a news bulletin from CNN alerts me that there may be a break in the Caylee Anthony case. Divers in Orlando, announces the anchor, have found a plastic bag at the bottom of a river. The bag is said to be weighted down with bricks and to contain children's toys and possibly bones. A subsequent report, just minutes later, says that the find turns out to have no evidentiary value.
Someone has called this "missing white girl" syndrome, and it continues to be one of the most pernicious expressions of our contemporary media culture. The latest celebrity victim is an adorable little girl named Caylee Anthony, a child who has been missing for months from the care of an unstable mother, who remains in jail on charges related to her daughter's disappearance. In spite of days and days of fruitless searching -- and hundreds of hours of cable television coverage -- Caylee is presumed by many to be dead.
Caylee Anthony is the latest in a long list of celebrity victims, or should I say, victims who become celebrities. You know their names by now: Polly Klaas, JonBenet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, and now Caylee Anthony. These victims, who were either kidnapped or murdered or both, have several things in common:
- They are white.
- They are female.
- They are young.
- They are either cute or attractive.
- They are middle class or upper-middle class.
- They are the center of a mystery: either "where is she" or "who killed her."
- They have advocates who are capable of keeping their names in the news.
- They have a photo or video record of their lives that can be used, over and over again, by television producers.
Only one of them, Elizabeth Smart, was found alive.
So what, you may ask. These girls or women are interesting characters. So what if I am drawn to care about what happened to them?
My answer comes in the form of additional questions: What about the black children or brown children who are missing or dead? What about the poor children? What about the boys? What about the men of any color?
Beneath the endless cable promotions and unquenchable public curiosity is a dark hole. If you shine a light into that hole you will find three familiar demons: racism, sexism, and a virulent class bias. I am not arguing overt discrimination here. Instead, I believe that those who produce this coverage have succumbed to a collective failure of vision.
That failure happens to be an old, sad story in journalism, and you might have thought we would have evolved beyond it by now. Back in the day, especially in big-city newsrooms, there were too many murders to cover. So white reporters and editors drew a distinction between a "good" murder and a "bad" one. A good murder involved a debutante, a cheerleader, a young, beautiful heiress. A bad murder, the one you didn't have to cover, involved street thugs, or gang members or drug dealers.
The missing white girl syndrome allows television producers to manipulate some of the most ancient and insidious stereotypes in our culture: the damsel in distress, the lost child, the kidnapped princess. Here's how it works, especially as stage-managed by the likes of CNN's Nancy Grace. First you identify an appropriate victim. Then you alert us time and time again of her and our collective vulnerability. The exposure turns the victim into a celebrity, a household name. You create an irresistible story engine, a question that viewers need to have answered: Is this girl dead or alive? What happened to her? Where is she? Who did this to her? Why isn't law enforcement more effective in finding the victim or prosecuting the criminal? Finally, to justify continuing coverage, you treat even the tiniest new development in the case as "breaking news" or an "exclusive report."
In doing all of this, you create an illusion that what is interesting is also important. As the father of three white daughters, I would never dismiss the pain that comes to loved ones from the horrible tragedy of a kidnapped or murdered child. But who could argue that the issues behind the loss of any of these children warrant the amount of soap-opera style coverage they receive?
Please try and think of exceptions to this coverage if you can. Perhaps you recall the recent case of murder involving relatives of actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, who lost her mother, brother, and nephew. Jennifer Hudson gained her fame through "American Idol" and her Oscar-winning performance in "Dreamgirls," and it was her celebrity that drove the news coverage, not the plight of her missing 7-year-old nephew.
Do you remember his name? It was Julian King. If he had been a pretty white girl, it would probably be on the tip of your tongue.