Runaway Bride Lost in Junk Journalism

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