When is Elizabeth Smart no longer news?
SALT LAKE CITY — A couple of miles from my home in Salt Lake City there lives one of the best-known teenagers in America - Elizabeth Smart.
Today the dead-end street on which she lives is quiet and mellow, the leaves on the trees turning russet with the first hint of Western fall.From a balcony on her family's house, a large American flag drifts lazily in the breeze, and sunshine-dappled pumpkins announce the coming of Halloween fun.
After Elizabeth was kidnapped from her home last year in the middle of the night, this street was clogged with police cars. Detectives knocked on neighbors' doors seeking clues. The FBI interviewed family members. Hundreds of volunteers arrived to search the surrounding hills for the missing teenager. Reporters and cameramen camped out as the story of her kidnapping dominated the headlines and television screens.
As the months dragged on and the story began to fade, the tormented, prayerful, but media-savvy Smart family kept the story stoked up, in the hope that Elizabeth might yet be found alive. Thousands of pictures of Elizabeth were posted in windows and on notice boards and at truck stops across the nation.
When Elizabeth was miraculously found and returned to her home after nine months of unmentionable abuse, her parents, Ed and Lois Smart, pleaded with the media they had earlier wooed to back off and respect Elizabeth's privacy. And so, till now, it has been.
As Elizabeth has emerged from the seclusion of her family, been seen shopping or being driven around Salt Lake City, and has given public harp recitals, and has gone back to school at East High, her privacy has been respected and she has not been dogged by reporters and photographers.
But coincidental with the publication of a book by Ed and Lois detailing their ordeal, a new media blitz has been unleashed in which Elizabeth speaks on national television. The media faucet that Ed and Lois wanted turned off after Elizabeth's return home has now been turned on again. Last week NBC trumpeted a Katie Couric "exclusive" with Elizabeth, but ABC trumped the "exclusive" by running advance excerpts from an Oprah Winfrey interview that aired this week.
Meanwhile, CBS, which paid Ed and Lois for the rights to make a movie of the story, scheduled to air next month, rushed out a quickie special. This apparently upset Doubleday, the publisher of the newly released Smart book, which felt that its publicity campaign had been preempted.
What this unseemly caterwauling is all about is ratings and money. It has nothing to do with news or journalism, for there is no new development. No trial has been set of Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting Elizabeth. They are in jail pending a decision whether they are mentally competent to stand trial. There is no issue of public interest currently at stake.
The only new factor is the publication of Elizabeth's parents' book, which the television shows are obviously promoting, even as they promote themselves.
It is, as one sage observer of the situation says, a matter of "mutual exploitation."
Letter-writers to Salt Lake City newspapers have reacted diversely. One, for instance, thanks the Smarts for sharing their story and says, "This happy ending is refreshing, uplifting and delightful." Another, more critical, says the Smarts shunned publicity when they wanted Elizabeth to get back to leading a normal life but "now money is becoming a big motive" for what they are doing.
Even if the Smarts are permitting - perhaps even encouraging - this new attention to their daughter, all this also raises questions about the intrusiveness and good taste of the media, specifically television. In an interview with Larry King this weekend, Barbara Bush pondered the kind of news media coverage generally provided to young children. She deplored, for instance, the kind of sexual detail currently being reported in the case of a celebrity basketball player (obviously Kobe Bryant) accused of rape.
In her special, Ms. Couric suggested that some viewers would be "skeptical and cynical, with good reason" about the NBC interview with Elizabeth, but that NBC had tried to approach it in a "sensitive, nonexploitative way."
On film and in television, much of the entertainment industry has pushed the boundaries of good taste to the outer limits. It would be regrettable indeed if television's journalists pandered to the prurient under the guise of covering the news.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.