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In Aruba, resentment over a storm of US media

As the Natalee Holloway search approaches six weeks, islanders wish the press would just go away.

By Todd Wilkinson / July 8, 2005



At The Pelican souvenir shop in downtown Oranjestad, American tourists browse through rows of T-shirts, stacks of colorful beach towels, and exotic knickknacks to remember their visit to this normally tranquil desert island in the south Caribbean.

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But as the foreigners loll, store clerks, all of them middle-aged mothers, have their ears tuned to a transistor radio, listening while the local talk-show host discusses the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway more than five weeks ago.

Chat with any Aruban these days and you are likely to find unanimous sympathy expressed for Ms. Holloway's family and the agony of their desperate search for answers.

Holloway, 18, went missing in late May during a graduation getaway to Aruba with 124 senior classmates from Birmingham, Ala. The sun-soaked vacation spot, with its low crime-rate and "One Happy Island" slogan on auto license plates, had seemed an ideal destination for the Alabama students and their chaperons.

That's still true. But a US media storm, generated primarily by cable news outlets Fox and CNN, has descended here, clouding the reputation of this former Dutch colony, many residents and longtime visitors say.

Media critics say that what's missing is perspective. Beyond appreciation for the time it takes for an investigation to proceed, particularly under the nuances of Dutch law, statistics confirm Aruba is far safer than almost all other Caribbean islands.

"Cable TV is treating this as the crime of the century, or at the least, the obsession of the moment," says Howard Kurtz, media critic for The Washington Post in an interview. "There's undoubtedly been more coverage of Aruba over this disappearance than in the last two decades," says Mr. Kurtz. "Television has become addicted to melodramas about missing white middle-class women. But even by Laci Peterson standards, the Holloway coverage is being way overdone."

When asked, dozens of residents across the island reported more resentment over the heightened media focus on their otherwise peaceful island of 100,000 inhabitants rather than unease over the possibility of a murderer on the loose.

Bob Buker, a retired public school worker from Westport, Mass., who owns a time share in a condominium, is hardly shaken by the Holloway case.

"The way certain elements of the media have covered this story has really put a damper on the island," Mr. Buker says. "My heart goes out to her family, but people disappear every day back in the US. I think the suggestion that there's danger here has really been overblown."

Between recent comments made by Holloway's mother, Beth Holloway Twitty, and television anchors who have portrayed investigators as the equivalent of bumbling Keystone Kops, many Arubans say they've had enough.

On Wednesday, a crowd of 200 staged a public protest in the capital city against Holloway Twitty's yet unproved criminal allegations against two suspects who have been released from custody.

Juan Chabaya Lampe, a much beloved Aruban musician, painter, and writer who penned the country's national anthem half a century ago, says the amount of attention and human resources being poured into the search is breathtaking.

"This is the first time such a thing has happened in Aruba," says Mr. Lampe. "Reporters are giving Aruba a bad name. The people who are watching television in the US don't know if they should be afraid to walk our streets."

Meanwhile, FBI agents have been dispatched, as have cadaver dog teams from Texas, and a psychic; this week, US Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama sent a letter asking for the US Navy to lend a hand.

"Every morning I wake up and hope the [media] circus will go away," says Ricardo Croes, with the Aruba Tourism Authority. "I pray that Natalee will be found alive and well, that American journalists will go home, and that we can get back to what we were doing before this all happened."

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