Contrarian: Attack of the Blogs!

In the weeks after an obscure
Philadelphiablogmeister rocked the cable news world by shaming it into
covering the disappearance of a young West Philadelphia mother-to-be, I
kept thinking of the old saying by H.L. Mencken that nobody ever went
broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. It's
also true that nobody ever went broke by bludgeoning the American
public over race.

“, “

Blogger Richard Blair runs,
where he goes by the nom de blog Richard Cranium. (Dick Brain?) He
spent parts of July and August as a minor media darling for mounting a
cyber-campaign that demanded more TV coverage concerning LaToyia
Figueroa. The unwed minority mother of a seven-year-old girl was five
months pregnant with her second child when she vanished on July 18th.
(Predictably, the father of the unborn child was arrested for LaToyia's
murder a month later.)

A lot of women go missing every year under similar circumstances.
But LaToyia disappeared during the media frenzy over the mysterious
fate of teenaged Aruban vacationer Natalee Holloway. Throwing down the
race card, Dick Brain started complaining on his website that LaToyia's
disappearance deserved the same attention as Natalee's.

” Missing Non-White Woman Alert!” Dick Brain blogged. “Someone beep
Geraldo! Call in the forensic dive teams! Crate up the Texan cadavar
[sic] dogs. � LaToyia Figueroa doesn't fit the CNN or Fox profile of a
missing someone that matters.” Other bloggers started piling on with
their own race-based reasoning. And sure enough, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and
the broadcast networks caved. They started covering LaToyia's case.
Then that became the story, as the New York Times , the Washington Post
and a bunch of syndicated columnists all wrote up how Philadelphia's
bloggers had exposed the TV news obsession with fair-skinned beauties
in peril.

But you don't have to look very far to see that the Figueroa case
proves nothing about racial bias in cable crime coverage. What it does
prove is that bloggers are a gang of dimwits happy to taunt a big dopey
dog called cable news. And this time the dimwits found the dopey dog's
tickle spot.

The news media does indeed have a guilty secret, but it's got
nothing to do with race. It's about the cunning exploitation of tragedy
for lurid amusement. Newspeople are loath to talk about it, but a
murder mystery can keep its hold on a national audience only if it
offers a compelling, coherent narrative. Out of the thousands of
murders and disappearances of women every year, only a few cases have
that stranger-than-fiction quality powerful enough to transfix a
boob-tube nation. As Martin Scorsese might say, the story has to track .

Yes, there are missing and murdered black women who don't get the
Natalee Holloway treatment on CNN. But a lot of white women also
disappear and die outside the media glare. It takes about 10 minutes
trawling Lexis-Nexis to find cases from all over the country. Most only
receive passing mention in their local papers. Why? The details are too
depressing. Many involve women who hook up with bad men in bad
circumstances and come to a bad end. It's sad. It's tragic. It's not

News professionals know too well that nothing kills a promising
story faster than a fuller grasp of the facts. You think you've got
something special, but you make some calls, do some research, and end
up with nothing worth pitching to an editor. Bloggers—unedited and
unaccountable—get to run with whatever they have at hand. Dick Brain
and his brethren bloggers (the Dick Brain Trust) live in a state of
blissful ignorance because they are, in general, defiantly ill-informed
amateurs. LaToyia was black, her disappearance was unnoticed, therefore
it was unnoticed because she was black. Don't confuse them with the
facts. Their minds are made up.

Whether a missing woman is black or white, her case won't attract
national media interest if there is any chance her poor judgment or bad
behavior helped seal her fate. If Scott Peterson had had a prior
criminal record, if Laci Peterson had been a battered wife who stayed
with the jerk, her case never would have made Larry King or the National Enquirer .
Instead, she was a sweet and trusting expectant mother, preparing to
live out the American Dream with a handsome, responsible husband—who
just happened to be a homicidal sociopath.

Laci's story was Hollywood. LaToyia's story—unmarried, scratching
out a living, knocked up by some lowlife probationer—isn't. Push the
hot button of race, however, and it's very easy to make an
oversimplified case that the media puts a higher value on missing white
women. Essence magazine ran a story listing eight black
women whose sudden disappearances failed to create Aruba-style media
circuses. But I suspect there are a good number of disappeared white
women who haven't had their relatives interviewed by Greta Van Susteren
either, since the FBI currently has files on 29,000 missing people of
all races who have disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and
homicide is a leading cause of death among pregnant women. Media
coverage of the missing and murdered isn't about fairness or
responsible news standards—it's about myths and fables, the perfect
husband with a secret, the dark side of an island paradise, the evil
that lurks within. To quote that Don King movie, “It's entertainment,

By raising the issue of race, members of the Dick Brain Trust
managed to provide their own entertainment for a little while. They
briefly got as much media attention as the missing-person case they
were trumpeting. In the meantime, poor obscure LaToyia's name finally
crossed the lips of Nancy Grace and other cable news demi-gods. Not
that it accomplished anything. It didn't help solve LaToyia's murder.
But it felt good to the bloggers because the blogosphere is a great big
cyberspace circle-jerk.

The big question is why CNN, MSNBC and Fox would roll over for this
race-baiting bull. Besides the fact that the race debate provided
juicier cable coverage than LaToyia's case by itself, I think that all
the Dick Brains out there have cable news running scared. The
executives and on-air talent know they are obscenely overpaid for
beaming unbelievably dumb stuff into everyone's living room. Now an
unpaid band of computer jockeys are making their reputations by
pointing it out, however clumsily. In the cable news business, that
Mencken quote isn't just some quaint saying. It's a way of life. The
cable news types know Dick Brain is clueless, but they can't count on
anyone else knowing it. Rather than telling Dick to get lost and go do
some homework, they let him and his crew dictate their coverage and set
the terms of a racially charged debate. They know what they're doing.
They're not about to risk going broke by over estimating the intelligence of the American public.   b