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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

A Media Circus in Paradise    

An Alabama reporter discovers the press doesn’t quite shine in the Caribbean sun.

By Hannah Wolfson
Wolfson covers the city of Mountain Brook, Alabama, Holloway’s hometown, for the Birmingham News.     

It's the first news conference, and the police superintendent can't find the keys. But no one's told TV.

One by one, the camera crews push closer, reporters from CNN and Fox News squeezing onto the narrow sidewalk between a line of parked cars and the locked door of the police annex. Jan van der Straaten, the man in charge of Aruba's investigation into Natalee Holloway's disappearance, is stuck, and soon he's sweating in the Caribbean sun.

A few locals slow down as they drive by to see what's happening while uniformed officers smirk outside the main police station across the street. Finally the door opens and everyone tumbles inside, following van der Straaten up a narrow stairway.

Welcome to the media circus, Aruba style.

OK, I'm just a novice, a print reporter from Alabama covering what started out as a hometown story about a missing teen and mushroomed into nonstop national news. Maybe the crews that converge on events like the Michael Jackson trial and the Runaway Bride are always like this. Maybe it was just the bright tropical light and the strangeness of working in paradise that made things look so absurd. All I know is, after nine days in Aruba, I see what we in the media do – and I say we with great trepidation – in a whole new light.

In fact, looking at it from the Arubans' perspective, I'm a little confused about what we do. Most of the job seems to consist of waiting around in hotel lobbies and seeing who can shout the loudest at news conferences.

There were certainly plenty of us crammed into those daily sessions in the peaked attic room of the police annex. There were a handful of local teams from Birmingham and international crews shipped from Latin America. Then came the bookers and the producers, vying for exclusives with the cloistered mother. Then the shows with dramatic theme music, in crews as large as five. And of course, the Aruban print and radio reporters, who quickly became everyone's favorite sources of speculation.

In the early days, there was plenty to cover. The Royal Dutch Marines searched the beaches while helicopters scanned overhead. Hundreds of locals were herded onto tour buses to help with the hunt. Sources were willing to talk, suspects were arrested, and officials gave tempting hints like, "Hold your breath for 24 hours." The networks sent their satellites and set them up on the roofs of hotels, settling in for the long haul.

Then things started to get weird.

First, CNN ran a report on the island's crack dens and prostitution. Local tourism authorities were outraged. So were a couple of the local reporters, who accused the American press of sabotaging Aruba's economy. By the end of week two, it seemed half of each news conference was dedicated to berating the American press. Even the family's PR agent, who originally represented the tourism authority, was accused of a conflict of interest.

We Americans didn't do ourselves proud, either. Fed up with officials' choice to conduct the first half of each news conference in Papiamento, the local language, some crews took to shouting "English, English!" during the Q-and-A.

Along with Papiamento, Arubans speak English, Spanish and Dutch, but their legal system caused tricky translations. When the first two suspects were arrested (they were later released), the chief prosecutor said they'd been charged with a range of crimes, including murder. A day later, we found ourselves redefining the meaning of "charged" to say first "formally accused" and later "suspected." It turns out they can hold suspects for months without charging them. On July 1, more than a month after Holloway disappeared, the Associated Press had to clarify a story in which the same prosecutor was again quoted as saying three suspects had been charged.

Some of the mistakes were harder to explain. Late one Friday night, CNN reported that at least one of the suspects had confessed. AP quickly followed with a report that he was leading police to the evidence. Moments later, a half dozen news crews sped down a pitch-dark dirt road toward an abandoned beach where police were supposedly digging up a body. Nothing. Officials ranging from the original source right up to the prime minister quickly denied the initial reports.

As guiltily competitive as the rest, I crept out later that night with a Birmingham television crew that was filming distant, spotty footage of men digging in the dunes – probably just local bootleggers pulling up their stash of booze.

Theories abound as to why the media became obsessed with Natalee Holloway's story. It involved a beautiful, blond honor student with influential parents; it occurred in an exotic locale; it started while the jury was out on Jacko. Granted, much of the interest back home stemmed from honest concern about a family's loss. Natalee's mother, Beth Twitty, insisted her daughter represented something perfect and innocent that was lost, a fear that touches the heart of any parent. The outpourings of support in Natalee's hometown and on the island were real, even if they were on camera.

But it also seems the sheer lack of information also spurred the story, because it left plenty of room for speculation, especially as the case progressed. (Aruban officials said releasing details of the investigation could cause a judge to throw out their case.) Natalee had been sold into white slavery, the blogs said. Natalee had run away on a previous trip abroad, Aruban radio countered. Fellow graduates who were on the trip refused to talk: conspiracy! The lead suspect's dad is a judge: conspiracy! My favorite theory came from Aruban reporters who thought police staged the false leak about a confession to discredit American news sources.

Back home in the newsroom, I continued reporting the story by phone as my Aruba tan faded, trying to confirm information as it flashed on TV. Again and again, I heard sources on the other end sigh and say, "No, that's not right." I watched the same television personality who "broke" the news about bloodstains in a suspect's car – which turned out not to be bloodstains – criticize authorities for taking Holloway's family on an emotional rollercoaster. But who's really driving?