Sunday, September 30, 2007

Toddler Rape Tape: What if Madison were black?

UPDATE on "Little girl is found, safe"

Before she was old enough for kindergarten, Madison was raped. Her rapist videotaped everything. And when police got the tape, they asked America to help them identify the 3-year-old girl and her sleazy rapist. Millions tuned in,read the stories and clicked on blogs. Thanks in part to media outlets showing her sweet little face -- and her rapist's -- she was identified and her likely assailant is being hunted at this moment.

But a question more sordid than child-rape is already popping up around the edges of the Internet: Would reporters have cared if Madison were black?

Mediaphobic bloggers and other assorted paranoids have squawked and groused endlessly about the so-called "missing white woman syndrome." They believe mainstream journalists only care when the victim of foul play is a pretty white woman (or a cute little white girl.) They think that black, Hispanic and Asian women who go mising get less coverage because of insidious prejudice. The media doesn't care, these fractious folks say, about minority women.

Hogwash. Piffle. Bullshit. Get a lithium refill.

Last week, you couldn't avoid hearing the story of Nailah Franklin, a Chicago pharmaceutical saleswoman who went missing and whose murdered corpse was found Thursday. She was black ... and she was all over the news.

The story of Madison and her videotaping rapist wasn't splashed on the evening news because Madison is a cute little white girl. It's because the facts in this case -- so far -- were extraordinary. It wouldn't have mattered if Madison were black, green, purple or multi-colored ... whether she came from the 'hood, Beverly Hills or Oz ... her story gripped us because of its raw grotesquerie. Would you feel any less sympathy for here -- or would your anger about her rapist be less than white-hot -- if she had been a little black girl? Would you have preferred the news media decline to tell her story because we had already met our month's quota of "white children in peril" stories?

But not every "white woman or child in peril" story makes the front page of the NY Times or prime-time CNN, so immediately a viewer/reader must ask what makes these cases special? I propose, modestly, it's not color but the uniqueness of the case. The more mystery and intrigue, the higher the news value.

As the managing editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper, I assure readers that the color of the victim is of absolutely no importance to news decisions, except in crimes where race is central ... I'm more interested in the extraordinary circumstances. The 10th fatal mugging at a midnight subway platform by a gangster is less intriguing than the discovery of a grandmother's corpse in a public park and the realization that her 4 grandchildren are now missing. Which would you put on the front page?

And who among us is not intrigued by Madison's story? Was it because she is white ... or because of the facts of the case as we know them? When I blogged on this subject recently at true-crime uber-blog, In Cold Blog, the response was generally dismissive. No amount of logic or facts can sway a myth.

And here's a twist you won't hear about: Men also get "ignored" generally in such cases. FBI statistics show men are more likely than women to be reported as missing, and that blacks make up a disproportionately large segment of the victims. On May 1. 2005, there were 25,389 men in the FBI's database of active missing persons cases, and 22,200 cases of women. Blacks accounted for 13,860 cases, vs. 29,383 whites. (USA Today, 6/15/05)

Should men rise up and demand equal attention from Nancy Grace or Greta van Susteren? No. When a fascinating case of a missing man comes along, rest assured it will make the news, too.

Facts have no moral quality, only what we project upon them.

Crime news is like a cultural ink-blot test, in which society looks at a set of insensate, numb facts and projects its own history, fears, impatience, insolence, clemency, insecurities, dreams -- and nightmares -- upon those facts.

In theory, we are not really describing the ink blots, but something inside ourselves. And what's inside is every fairy-tale monster: A brutal ogre, a bloodthirsty werewolf, an elegant vampire, a bullying giant, a scheming devil, a predatory wolf, a sneering troll, or maybe just an abusive step-mother.

The archetypes of our fears have trickled into every heart. And when a crime captures the public's imagination before a trial, the great majority of citizens are already projecting the monsters of our collective mythology onto the suspects.

And that's a bigger part of choosing the stories on the front page than the color of the victims.

And if you would have skipped Madison's story in favor of anything else, check your pulse. You probably don't have one.

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