ABC News lays big focus on women-in-peril stories

Is ABC News trying to corner the market on women-in-peril stories?

I ask only because it is looking that way, given the network’s recent saturation coverage of Jaycee Dugard and the Casey Anthony trial, along with one of its newest hires: rescued kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.

Even ABC News admits Smart has few qualifications for a ''contributor'' job, beyond her amazing poise and articulate advocacy after her horrific, nine-month kidnapping back in 2002 by onetime street preacher Brian David Mitchell.

Then 14, Smart was held captive and raped daily. Earlier this year she faced her attacker in court as he was sentenced to two life sentences. And she has spoken out on legislation to help missing children.

Still, does that qualify Smart, now 23, to be a paid staffer at ABC News? And what is the impact when a network hires someone so closely identified with a type of crime that — while attention-getting and sensational — doesn't really happen all that often?

"That one threw me; I've never seen that before," said Deborah Potter, a former correspondent for CBS and CNN who is the executive director of Newslab, a broadcast journalism training and research center. "(Smart) is a contributor on a topic that you would imagine wouldn't be in the news all that often. Are they going to cover these stories more because they have her?"

ABC's emphasis on such stories already may be at hand. Criticized for paying $200,000 years ago for exclusive video and pictures from Casey Anthony, the network also threw serious resources at covering the aftermath of her acquittal — sending Nightline anchor Terry Moran to Orlando for the first TV interview with a juror on the case while heavily featuring Barbara Walters' interview with her attorney, Jose Baez.

On July 10, top anchor Diane Sawyer drew nearly 15 million viewers to her exclusive talk with Dugard, a woman who was kidnapped at age 11 and held captive for 18 years, giving birth to two children fathered by her kidnapper. The network rebroadcast the story July 9 and sent reporter Chris Cuomo to badger police who originally failed to find her.

Small wonder then, that Broadcasting and Cable noted ABC spent a whopping 22.9 minutes covering the Casey Anthony trial during its evening newscasts last week, compared to 8.4 minutes on NBC and 5.4 minutes on CBS.

In today's landscape of morning newscasts and true-crime network TV newsmagazines, women-in-peril stories have turned crime news into melodramatic, real-life soap operas, said Andrew Tyndall, a New York media analyst.

"It's converting the previous demographic for soap operas into news (viewers)," he said. "Almost always, the central character is a woman and just like the soap operas, it doesn't matter if the lead character is a good guy or a villain. That's why you can talk about Elizabeth Smart and Casey Anthony in the same breath."

These soap operas also give viewers a skewed sense of crime. Critics have complained that the national media's focus on pretty, young white middle-class female victims can lead the audience to care more about crime that affects certain kinds of people.

And less about others.

Now ABC's arrangement with Smart raises the same question: Has the network embodied the focus on endangered white women with one hire?

Not so, said ABC spokeswoman Julie Townsend. "It's fair to say we've always covered missing person stories, particularly on programs like Good Morning America," she added, noting that ABC's discussions with the telegenic Smart began months ago. "The timing of all these things (news of Smart's hiring, the Dugard story and the Anthony coverage) is truly a coincidence."

The Feed

'Page One' packs a wallop

One thing I'd never seen in many years of writing about TV and pop culture was a compelling portrayal of the often-tedious, sometimes-exhilarating work that goes into writing a really impactful newspaper story. Until I watched the amazing new documentary film Page One: Inside the New York Times.

If you're reading these words, I'm assuming you care about newspapers, at least a little bit. And if you love them like those of us who make them daily, you will marvel at how much director Andrew Rossi captured by following the New York Times' media desk through a tumultuous year of change.

While the reporters chase stories on Wiki­Leaks, the iPad, the crumbling of Chicago Tribune owner Tribune Co. and the purchase of a controlling interest in NBC by Comcast, they live through cost-cutting and downsizing in their own shop, along with widespread speculation the company itself might go out of business in short order. Several reporters get attention, but the light falls most often on media columnist David Carr, an eccentric, insightful, egotistical, pithy and sometime profane former crack addict turned widely regarded journalist.

In one moment, he's challenging the muckety-muck at a hip New York magazine, asking bluntly, "What the f--- are you doing working with CNN?" The next, he's slapping down the guy verbally for suggesting he captured more explicit action in his trips to Africa than Carr's own employer. He is, in fact, a compelling embodiment of the New York Times' arrogance, competence and tolerance for capable oddballs all rolled into one.

"For those of us who work in media, life is a drumbeat of goodbye speeches with sheet cake and cheap, sparkling wine," he says in one voice-over, his ragged voice and knowing turns of phrase providing much of the film's flavor.

There are problems: The film flits across topics and there is a still-surprising lack of gender and racial diversity among the flood of staffers and talking heads featured (except in one place: All the people shown leaving the paper during downsizing are middle-aged women).

Still, the film will debut at the Tampa Theatre later this month (watch movie listings for exact times), and you should see it when it does.

There may be no better parable for the beautiful mess that is the modern newspaper's struggle to stay relevant and profitable on film today.

ABC News lays big focus on women-in-peril stories 07/17/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 17, 2011 10:05pm]

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