How Media Deregulation Kidnapped Natalee Holloway

Illustration for article titled How Media Deregulation Kidnapped Natalee Holloway

Okay, that's a sensationalist headline, but we're going somewhere with this: according to a paper by Leonard M. Baynes (via Feminist Law Professors), the government has actually encouraged America's obsession with missing white women like Natalee Holloway. In the days of the Fairness Doctrine (1949 to the late 1980s), TV stations had to broadcast some balanced coverage of important issues. When that ended, media outlets had no incentive to run anything but stories that would generate quick ratings — aka missing white women. Baynes writes, "the media ecology is now set up in a manner that “nudges” media audiences to consume the tabloid cookies and candy as opposed to the public interest broccoli." So should the government go back to force-feeding us broccoli?Baynes explores how the media create a Missing White Women brand, "an echo effect across a variety of media platforms that actually sell these women’s tragic stories." (Interestingly, he cites People magazine as the "jump off" point between tabloid and "legitimate" news, because it is owned by Time Warner, which also owns CNN.) He links the phenomenon back to the Perils of Pauline, a serialized silent film with weekly cliffhangers in which its white heroine hung off actual cliffs. Baynes says that "the anxiety over white women resonates in our culture," perhaps because white women are put on a pedestal while women of color have historically been "exoticized and exploited." Baynes quotes Catherine McKinnon on "the white women stereotype":

The creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother and not economically exploited. She doesn’t work. [...] she manipulates white men’s very real power with the lifting of her very manicured little finger…She flings her hair, feels beautiful all the time...can’t do anything, doesn’t do anything, doesn’t know anything…


Baynes argues that American culture feels the need to protect (or pretend to protect) such artificially pristine women, especially from "the threats of men of color." And this desire for protection equals ratings! Baynes cites speculations that the "soap opera" of the missing white woman allows us to escape from scary real news, like the war in Iraq. There's little question that focusing on Natalee Holloway rather than Abu Ghraib makes us dumber (unless of course we're her family, or the cops investigating her case). It probably also makes us more racist. So is the solution a return of the Fairness Doctrine? Do we need the FCC to step in and enforce important news? How will they decide what's important? And, raised on a diet of Missing White Girl Scout cookies, will we even watch it? Leonard M. Baynes, “White Women In Peril On Broadcast And Cable Television News” [Feminist Law Professors] White Women In Peril On Broadcast And Cable Television News [Full Paper]



The government should not regulate what is on the news. It should be up to the audience (the people) and the networks (the news-makers) to demand good coverage of important events. It's not a chicken/egg thing- if long documentaries about foreign countries generated ratings, (ie if people were interested) news outlets would run that sort of thing. Both the audience and the news makers hold power to dictate this. The government should have nothing to do with it.