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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

Just Say No   

Kudos to Bob Costas for taking a pass on the Natalee Holloway story.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Years ago AJR used to poll its readers to determine whom they considered "the best in the business" in a variety of journalistic categories. It fell to me to present the award to the winners at a reception at the National Press Club.

In 1993, NBC's Bob Costas was named best sportswriter. In introducing Costas, I described him as someone equally at home interviewing basketball's Christian Laettner and actor Christian Slater.

That, Costas responded accurately, represented the gamut from A to B.

Costas won again the next year, and I tried to do better, saying he was equally at home interviewing Charles Barkley, Charles DeGaulle and yet another Charles I no longer remember.

It's time to give Costas another AJR award. Let's call this one Just Say No.

Costas occasionally serves as a substitute host for CNN's Larry King. Last week he was asked to do so again, but he begged off. The reason: The program was to be devoted to the already frighteningly overcovered saga of the missing teenager in Aruba.

"I don't believe there was a single American who was sitting around saying, 'I'd really like to see Bob Costas' take on this,' " Costas told the New York Times' Bill Carter.

Good for Costas. It's about time someone stood up in front of this runaway train.

The saga of Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old Alabamian who disappeared on May 30 while on a class trip to the Caribbean island, is a sad one. It is also the latest manifestation of the American media's read cable news' and the network morning shows' obsession with damsels in distress. Damsels, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has pointed out, who must be white, young and attractive.

TV's infatuation with the sensational is nothing new. I remember speaking on a panel at a Society of Professional Journalists convention in Denver in 1997 when I described the JonBenet Ramsey story as the most overcovered story I could recall. I was quickly corrected by "60 Minutes" pooh-bah Don Hewitt, a fellow panelist. It was the most "overmentioned" story, he said. It hardly rose to the level of real news coverage.

Ah, what an innocent time that seems, compared with today's overkill.

The current damsel deluge started in 2001 with missing Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy and gained momentum with the Laci Peterson saga, again a sad situation, but essentially a local crime story that, thanks to the alchemy of cable, became the journalistic equivalent of World War III. Among the many things I'll never understand--quantum physics, Sanskrit, Garrison Keillor how this became huge national news is high on the list.

In Laci's wake came the Runaway Bride and the Missing Teenager.

Now I'm hardly one to call for a strict media diet of currency reevaluation and arms control. One of the reasons I got into journalism was because of the wonderful stories about colorful characters that filled the Philadelphia papers of my youth. Who can forget the Captain Ahab-Moby Dick rivalry of Clarence Ferguson, the porkpie-wearing head of the Philadelphia Police Department's special investigations squad, and Lillian Reis, the "showgirl"-turned-nightclub owner with the boyfriend in the K-and-A gang who was suspected of pulling off the "big heist" at the home of an upstate "coal baron."

But what's totally missing from the cable landscape is any sense of proportion. Remember the early excitement over the prospect of three networks with round-the-clock news? Instead, too often we're faced with platforms for low-rent infotainment, overhyped sagas with which viewers are beaten over and over again into submission.

Props to Bob Costas for bowing out.