Runaway Bride Lost in Junk Journalism

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Veteran
newsman Sam Donaldson announced
it
. Jennifer Wilbanks – the Runaway
Bride
– proved it.

“Network
news is dead.”

Tabloid
journalism used to be a guilty vice enjoyed by people waiting in
supermarket lines. They now dress it up as evening news, but even
good journalists cannot infuse the supermarket stories with substance.
In fact, they don’t seem to be trying.

Elements
of the Wilbanks story are newsworthy but, oddly enough, those aspects
remain almost unmentioned.

Instead,
the police officer who walked Wilbanks through an airport is interviewed
on primetime TV. Instead of discussing the serious cultural issues
the Wilbanks’ story raises, “journalists” rush to break the story
that Wilbanks had been nabbed as a shoplifter
a decade ago. Therapists announce a new psychological syndrome:
ColdFeetitis,
which drives brides-to-be “over the edge.”

What
are the newsworthy aspects of the Wilbanks fiasco? There are several:

A
sea change is occurring in how our culture regards and deals with
those who make false accusations and police reports. Five years
ago, it was commonplace to hear in the media that victims – especially
women and children – never lie. Skeptics who doubted a victim’s
story, even in the presence of questionable evidence, were accused
by victims’ rights advocates of re-victimizing the person and, so,
silenced.

Today,
it is clear that false reports occur with some frequency and there
is an increased willingness to treat those who file them as criminals.
On April 20, my column “False
Rape Claim Hurts Real Victims”
described a false rape report
filed by Desiree Nall, president of the Brevard, Fla., chapter of
the National Organization for Women. The state attorney’s office
has brought charges against Nall.

The
sea change in attitude became clear to me last April with the Audrey
Seiler story. At that time, FOX reported,
“A college student accused of faking her own kidnapping last month
was charged Wednesday with lying to police in what they suggested
was a desperate attempt to get her boyfriend’s attention.”

Seiler’s
false report caused a massive manhunt for her abductor that cost
an estimated $96,000. She pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice
and was ordered to make financial restitution to the police.

The
recognition and punishment of false accusations is an important
and necessary shift in our culture…but there are dangers. Real
violence happens constantly and faux victims like Wilbanks can harden
hearts toward real ones. I doubt that Wilbanks’ neighbors will ever
view a ‘victim’ with unconditional sympathy again. An awareness
of false reports can too easily become callousness toward real victims.

Another
under-discussed but newsworthy element: Wilbanks allegedly made
false statements
to the New Mexico police (and later the Georgia authorities), claiming
she was kidnapped
by an Hispanic man and a woman. That allegation has been widely
broadcast, and perhaps she will be prosecuted. But her mental instability
makes that prospect unlikely and the absence of criminal intent
is a problem.

What
is unmentioned by the media, however, is the fact that until she
made those statements – an act that occurred at the tail end of
the police investigation – Wilbanks had done nothing wrong in a
legal sense.

The
foregoing statement is not an expression of sympathy. As far as
I am concerned, Wilbanks should be disowned by her parents, shunned
by friends, and bitten by the family dog.

But
she is a free human being. Except for the purpose of fraud or other
crime, she has a legal right to disappear, to run out on a wedding.
The alternative is to require people to inform authorities about
their whereabouts and movements, as they were required to do in
the Soviet Union.

And
this is another danger that the dubious likes of Wilbanks inflict
upon society. It is all too possible that people will react to the
mass coverage of her family’s pain by calling for a law to prevent
similar occurrences. And, so, because of a mentally and morally
unbalanced woman, every one of us could become a little less free.

The
fact that Wilbanks broke no law up until the final moments of the
lamentable episode has another implication that the news should
be exploring. Namely, it is far from clear that she should be liable
for the estimated $60,000 it cost police to search for her. After
all, Wilbanks did not file a report on herself; she did not seek
assistance from the police. The tens of thousands of dollars and
man-hours wasted on the search for her occurred before she did anything
legally wrong. And they would have been spent whether or not she
made a false statement.

What
Wilbanks did was exercise a legal right: she left town without giving
notice. To attach financial liability to the exercise of a legal
right has tremendous implications and should never be done lightly.

Just
as I do not understand why the media so quickly turned “a missing
person” story into a nationwide drama, I can’t comprehend why the
most important questions surrounding Wilbanks remain unaddressed.

The
police reaction is understandable. Most police departments no longer
impose a mandatory waiting period on a missing person report. (Perhaps
this is a mistake. Perhaps the waiting period served a valid purpose.)

Moreover,
the families involved seem to be prominent within Wilbanks’ town.
Prominent or not, however, the police could not downplay this report;
there are just too many reporters ready to pounce on juicy “victims”
like a woman abducted from her marriage altar.

But
the media response is baffling. Unless, of course, I return to the
column’s opening: “Network news is dead.” So where do we go for
analysis?

May
12, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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