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Feeding Frenzy

Why Elizabeth Smart Became a Household Name



It had been a week since 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance reached headlines around the world. Like pretty much everyone else in the country, Milwaukee journalist Annysa Johnson had heard the news. And like many parents, she felt a nauseous sense of unease.

Smart’s kidnapping had tapped into the deepest and darkest of maternal fears to which Johnson was certainly not immune. They were, however, the same fears that she had endured even before Elizabeth Smart became a household name. Johnson’s paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, had been publishing continuous updates about a different missing child for more than a month. Seven-year-old Alexis Patterson disappeared May 3 while on her way to school.

Local Wisconsin news bureaus had followed the Patterson story diligently. A volunteer search team had formed. People were worried. But national attention on the case was virtually non-existent.

While the Patterson story dissolved into Wisconsin’s archives of human-interest tragedies, the vague details of Elizabeth Smart’s abduction succeeded in conquering the country’s imagination. And Johnson said she started to notice herself “stewing” more and more with each update of the Smart case she saw on television. What made Elizabeth Smart’s story so much more compelling than Alexis Patterson’s? With that question swirling in her head, she opened up a national news magazine and immediately saw a full spread presentation of the Smart case … nothing about Alexis.

Johnson was upset. “My first inclination was to write a letter to the editor,” she said from her home in Wisconsin. “And right when I decided to do it, I got a call from our executive editor. He has a television right above his desk and had been thinking the same thing. He told us to investigate the discrepancy. Needless to say, we were very interested in pursuing the story.” Annysa and her colleague Mark Johnson (no relation) came up with a couple of possible answers to one of the Smart kidnapping’s biggest mysteries: Why did her disappearance attract such incomparable attention? Not since the abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s young baby has a kidnapping story reached this level of national—even international—coverage.

But the most compelling missing-child stories of the day, Mark Johnson noticed, were the ones not being told. “Obviously, we want both girls to be found. It’s just that at the end of the day, Elizabeth Smart is not the only missing child in the country and yet her case is almost being treated that way. Her name is the only one people know all around the country. When Alexis Patterson went missing here a few weeks ago, Larry King never did a show.”

But King’s prestigious evening talk show on CNN has dedicated multiple episodes to the Smart case. National evening newscasts on the three major networks have given the Smart story more airtime than the president’s decision to add a secretary of homeland security to his cabinet—the most significant government restructuring since the end of World War II.

The Milwaukee reporters found more than 400 articles about Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance in prominent national print media, all in the first week after the abduction (Alexis Patterson had only garnered 67—almost all of them written by the Milwaukee paper and the Associated Press). The daily press conferences police and family members held at a church near the Smarts’ neighborhood seemed to draw an increasing number of reporters, photographers, editors and producers even three weeks after the teenager disappeared. Depending on the day, various local news affiliates broadcast the manufactured events live.

But like the undertow of a giant tidal wave, the massive media exposure couldn’t exist without a backlash. Some of the country’s most sensitive subjects found their way into the discussion of Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance—subjects like race and sex. The Milwaukee reporters wondered if Alexis Patterson’s brown face wasn’t as angelic to the media as Elizabeth Smart’s. Suspicions of the Smart family itself reached a high point when, in a “world exclusive,” a national tabloid speculated that the shame and fallout of hidden sexual tendencies had resulted in the girl’s disappearance. It was the kind of story no one would dignify with a response.

In journalistic jargon, reporters say a story like Elizabeth Smart’s “has legs”—legs that enable it to run away uncontrollably. In this case though, imagining the story hitched to a jet pack might be a better metaphor. But what fuels the jets is difficult to uncover.

On the day of Elizabeth Smart’s abduction, June 5, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson underwent a vision-correcting operation on his eyes. Told to rest them for the remainder of the day, he hadn’t planned on working at all. But the kidnapping story had started gathering steam in the vacuum of a relatively slow news day. In the late afternoon he stood at a press conference, squinting under a bright sun, and announced the city’s $10,000 reward for information leading to Elizabeth’s safe return.

It was a pivotal moment for the burgeoning story. Local television and radio news had exhausted the few vague details of the crime with countless updates and telecasts. Anderson’s announcement provided the reporters with a fresh news plug for the night. They could actually report something new—a development.

CNN picked up the late-afternoon development: “$10,000 Reward Offered for Girl’s Return.” Local news affiliates preserved a few valuable quotes from the mayor and the police and began replaying them repetitively. With that, a pattern was born. Whether consciously or not, police officials and family members immediately understood the value of some kind of frequent announcement. If Anderson and the police chief hadn’t announced something, anything, there would be no new “developments” in the case—no “breaking news.” The story wouldn’t have died, but the announcement did more than just keep it alive. It solidified a feeling that the crime was still happening. Far from being a story about an isolated incident late in the night at a beautiful home in an exclusive neighborhood, the press conference transformed the story into one about how officials were reacting to the frightening late-night incident. And like any good mystery, that is a much more compelling story to cover.

So began the daily press briefings. Each of them instilled a sensation that something new was happening each day. Regardless of the mundane details released at the manufactured events, a reporter could always return to his office or studio and, at the very least, report to the audience that “a press conference was held today.” Add to that drab bit of news a minor detail about what might have happened, or what the perpetrator might have looked like, and you have a story with legs. Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped only once, but the story was just beginning.

Within a week, the cult of the press briefings attracted huge satellite-television trucks and throngs of reporters, but most importantly it had faced its first crisis and hadn’t lost any steam. On June 11, the Salt Lake Tribune’s Kevin Cantera published a story headlined, “Smart Case Stumps Police.” Reporters were coming dangerously close to pointing out in print and on the air that police weren’t really announcing anything new at all during the daily press conferences.

The next day, in “a major development,” as the Deseret News put it, police reported that, indeed, a member of the human race had abducted Elizabeth Smart. “We are going to get you,” police threatened. At the press conference, Police Chief Rick Dinse announced that police had “narrowed” their search to family, friends and individuals who may have had contact with Elizabeth. Later, Dinse revealed that he was referring to the continued questioning of former family handyman Richard Ricci, among others, when he announced that they had begun a new focus in the investigation.

The story’s legs had just gotten stronger. Cantera expressed disbelief at the vague and reluctant way in which police were revealing new details of the investigation. But he admitted that slow leakage of the facts probably helped fuel the media frenzy that had now virtually guaranteed national network coverage. “It’s just so bizarre and none of the details make it any more clear. The press wants to turn it into the next JonBenet Ramsey,” he said.

That amount of coverage raised some eyebrows along the East Coast. In the two weeks after Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance, the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC and CBS devoted a total of 29 minutes to the Elizabeth Smart story. City Weekly obtained the numbers from Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report—a data-focused review of network news coverage and trends. What’s more, NBC Nightly News covered the story almost as much as both of its competitors combined. While ABC’s World News Tonight gave the story seven minutes and The CBS Evening News spent eight, NBC Nightly News devoted 14. Elizabeth’s 29 total minutes of network coverage ranked respectably among other high-profile stories: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (54 minutes), the new department of homeland security (28 minutes) and the arrest of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla in the “Dirty Bomb” terrorist probe (28 minutes).

“A lot of us are very surprised this story is getting the play that it is,” Tyndall said from his office in New York City. “Human-interest stories like this traditionally may get a mention on the network, but not this daily drumbeat of information. Chandra Levy’s case would never have taken off the way it did without the possible implications for a United States congressman. But with this story, they have hardly explored any of those angles that would normally make it such a huge story. It is really odd.”

It was odd enough to attract the interest of one of the country’s most provocative analysts of media workings, The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, author of the paper’s Media Notes column. Kurtz’s reprinted sections of the Annysa Johnson and Mark Johnson Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel piece about the disparity between coverage of Alexis Patterson’s disappearance and Elizabeth Smart’s.

Kurtz told City Weekly that cable news networks wield enormous power to set the agenda for media news around the country. “There’s always a void in cable news for a heart-wrenching tragedy that can be turned into a national story. Once cable begins fixating on such a tale, other news organizations figure everyone is buzzing about it and they better get on the case. It is a mysterious process because, sadly, there are hundreds of other cases of missing children that deserve attention. But these circumstances seem to have captured the imagination of television executives.”

Noted historian and scholar Daniel Boorstin once had an interesting thing to say about press conferences: “The power to make a reportable event, is the power to make experience,” he said.

The reportable event on June 14 was actually multifaceted. Police had seemingly contradicted themselves by revealing that Elizabeth Smart’s younger sister, 9-year-old Mary Katherine, had not, in fact, received a direct verbal threat from Elizabeth’s kidnapper. The media wanted to know why this detail was revealed after reporters had spent more than a week explaining the sister’s hesitation with a direct threat in mind. Were they misled?

With that revelation came another: The perpetrator had hairy hands and wore a Polo-brand shirt and a Scottish golf hat while he supposedly broke into the Smart’s $1.9-million house and kidnapped the 14-year-old girl. Reporters wondered why the young witness could remember such precise details—such as the brand of the shirt—but couldn’t give any kind of description of the man’s face.

The answers to these questions would comprise the fodder for updates on cable and network news and the meat of the next day’s newspaper headlines. Like the first few minutes of a compelling episode of NBC’s Law and Order, these tidbits and details of the investigation further hijacked the imagination of viewers and readers across the country.

Every day was similar. Across the street from Shriners Hospital at a particularly secluded Mormon chapel in Federal Heights, a group of television photographers waited for someone to set up a podium where they could hook up their microphones. The groups of reporters, editors, producers and mobile anchors from organizations like MSNBC, CNN, CBS and ABC huddled around each other to formulate strategy or banter back and forth about the various oddities of the case.

When asked why they were there, most gave a look of disbelief, as if the answer was as obvious as the question was ridiculous. “A man stole a little girl from her bedroom at gunpoint,” one production assistant said with furrowed eyebrows and a questioning look. He, like the other network soldiers, refused to go on the record with City Weekly. They all referred any inquiries to their public relations offices in places like Atlanta, New York and Dallas.

Sitting on the grass after one of the press conferences, a reporter from the Reuters wire service, James Nelson, hurriedly started to organize his dispatch for the day. Nelson’s stories about the Elizabeth Smart abduction have been picked up by publications in Europe and Asia. He said the universal appeal of the story was a result of Utah’s unique worldwide image. “This comes right on the heels of the Olympics: a wonderful feeling and experience followed by a horrific story. Mormons and Utah are interesting, let alone the basic facts of the story: A girl kidnapped from her wealthy family’s home late at night. People around the world already have a fascination with America—add to it the uniqueness of Utah and then the bizarre nature of this story, and of course it is going to be big.”

Jim Acosta, a correspondent with Newspath, whose reports are broadcast by CBS affiliates around the country, was preparing his June 14 story when he confided that he was surprised Elizabeth Smart’s story had gotten so much attention. “Not to sound cold—I am sympathetic, and I hope they find her well—but it does seem like a lottery for which missing child gets the widespread television coverage,” Acosta said. And after a brief pause, “You can read between the lines of what I am trying to say.”

By June 14, though, the most decisive fuel for the burgeoning story was the power of the police, family and reporters to create a reportable event with each passing day. The Tribune’s Kevin Cantera knows all too well how that power works. Cantera and colleague Michael Vigh published a June 13 story reporting that investigators had focused their probe on members of the Smarts’ extended family. Again, nationwide coverage of the Smart abduction reached a new peak—stories had a new lead, the cable and network news were armed with new updates. Nothing new had happened—Elizabeth Smart had not been kidnapped again—but the story was as big as if she had. How police and family were reacting was the new story. Cantera said he eventually had to unplug his phone as requests for interviews were flowing in nonstop from all the major news media. He turned down an appearance on Larry King Live.

Family members, reportedly infuriated with the Tribune story, distributed fliers and outwardly criticized the article in yet another press conference—another reportable event. Cantera and Vigh had quoted four unnamed law enforcement authorities. They stand by their story.

And just like a Law and Order episode, the tension continued to build as more and more details of the mystery began to emerge. But unlike Law and Order, this case has no resolution in sight.

Within hours of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping, Fox News had paid Marc Klaas to get on a plane to Salt Lake City. Klaas operates the KlaasKids Foundation for missing children. His name is familiar as the father of young Polly Klaas who was abducted from a private home during a slumber party in 1993.

He had a point-by-point outline for how the family should handle the media. “Thirty seconds of television news coverage of your missing child will reach more people than volunteers putting flyers up for 100 years,” Klass said, in a telephone interview from New York. “These are such difficult cases to solve that investigators will eventually want to pull back resources. So families have to continually generate attention to the case which will force the authorities to keep showing progress. While media may seem to get in the way, in the end they are more likely to have a positive effect on an investigation.”

By all indications, the Smarts followed Klaas’ “10-Day Battle Plan” for handling the media fairly closely. On “Day Four,” for example, Klaas recommends that the family “announce and hold a candlelight vigil at a relevant or central location.” Four days after Elizabeth Smart disappeared, the Smarts held a vigil at Liberty Park.

It’s all meant to create a reportable event. It gives the media another reason to write or broadcast the story, Klaas said. And it worked. Klaas said even his own daughter’s high-profile disappearance hardly received the kind of attention Elizabeth Smart has attracted. Some local affiliates broadcast the candlelight vigil live, pictures were peppered in the morning papers. What the news coverage of the story would have been without the vigil to report is obvious: nothing.

But Klaas quickly fell out of favor with the Smarts. Mike Grass, a spokesman for the family, said the Smarts had no idea Klaas was involved with Fox News. When they found out, they felt like he was just another reporter who had tried to manipulate his way into the inner circle and gather exclusive information. “He came in supposedly to console the family but we saw him there as a reporter no different from any other. Then he started criticizing the family for their decision not to have employees of Fox News help with the search for Elizabeth. That says a lot about the character of this individual.”

Klaas says it was the family who was acting strangely. Any negative media attention the Smarts received was their own fault. “The media organizations are full of extremely bright people who come up with good ideas of their own that can make this investigation even more efficient. The family should be happy: They have the world’s largest and most sophisticated media industry running a public relations campaign bent on finding out what happened to their daughter. So what, if sometimes you have to answer a tough question.”

The family is pleased with the coverage. On June 14, Edward Smart, Elizabeth’s father, called the media’s involvement in the search “essential” and he thanked the dozens of reporters surrounding him. “You are facilitating her coming back to us. I truly feel she is alive.” That same day, Grass said the immediate Smart family was filtering through 52 requests for interviews.

The FBI estimates that more than 85 percent of the 870,000 people reported missing in the United States in the year 2000 were juveniles. Of those, more than 150,000 were categorized as either endangered or involuntarily removed.

Each year, the numbers are similar—giving substance to the claim that whatever missing child case garners national attention is indeed the winner of a lottery. The most prominent explanation for the massive media attention, though, was the circumstances under which Elizabeth disappeared: from her bedroom, in pajamas, as her little sister feigned sleep.

Local Fox 13 News Director Renee Bodily, whose reporters broke the story of the police interest in Richard Ricci, said the reason the story is so big is obvious. “When you have 8,000 people in the community spontaneously searching for a missing girl, you’ve got to cover it. This case definitely tapped into a nerve in the community. I think everyone puts their kids to bed at night and trusts that they’ll be there in the morning. Parents can look at what happened to the little boy who drowned in Little Cottonwood Canyon and say, ‘I would never let that happen.’ But all parents put their kids to bed at night.”

That spontaneous community-wide reaction was significant. And indeed, it was a reportable event itself. Alexis Patterson’s disappearance in Milwaukee inspired dozens of volunteers to the search, but not thousands. Marc Klaas said the difference could be attributed to the family’s “presentability.” Whereas the Smarts were an upstanding, wealthy and beautiful family, Alexis Patterson’s family had connections to a rough criminal past.

But one can’t ignore the family’s immediate access to a strong network within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The daily news conferences are held outside of the chapel the family attends, the president of the LDS church made a personal call to the Smart family shortly after Elizabeth’s disappearance, and the statewide search efforts have largely been coordinated through LDS wards.

After one of the daily press conferences, Ted Wilson, former mayor of Salt Lake City and head of the volunteer search, said once the story was communicated to people, they couldn’t help being greatly affected by it. “Anytime your kid comes home late from school, you can feel a sort of panic. This kind of crime pierces into a person’s psyche simply because of how terrifying it is. When somebody invades your house and snatches your child at gunpoint while she sleeps, you hear about it and you can’t help but imagine your own precious sanctuary being so violated,” he said.

And you can’t help but hear about it. Aside from the more detailed description of the perpetrator, very little about the basic facts of the case has changed: A man with a gun quietly woke up Elizabeth Smart, told her to put shoes on, and then they disappeared. The sometimes frustrating lack of reportable news has led reporters to place great emphasis on the only potential villains to get their pictures next to Elizabeth: Bret Edmunds and Richard Ricci. At press time, neither had been charged with any crime related to the Smart case. But both of their mug shots had made it to the national news. During a June 24 press conference, Police Chief Dinse gave out the next day’s headlines when he reported that Ricci had moved to “the top of the list of people we are interested in.”

With each “breaking news” piece, networks and newspapers reengaged their audience, The Washington Post’s Kurtz said the Chandra Levy media frenzy proved how long a story like this can continue to dominate newscasts, like a multi-year murder mystery movie that still hasn’t reached the climax. “As we learned with Levy, television news has the ability to keep this kind of story going for months, until somehow it is resolved or some new tragedy comes along to bump it from the screen.”