Try to imagine this scene. It’s early last Wednesday afternoon, in a grim hallway somewhere in the bowels of Rockefeller Center. Dan Abrams, host of MSNBC’s The Abrams Report, is sitting on a radiator, an empty Styrofoam coffee cup in hand, staring vacantly at the floor. Interns and producers rush to and fro in front of him, but he doesn’t notice. From time to time, he shakes his head in apparent anguish as he privately follows some unhappy train of thought.
Suddenly Pat Buchanan, hair still wet and with a towel around his neck after a trip to the company gym, bounces up to Abrams in a Fila sweatsuit, his zip-up jacket open to the navel. "Jesus," he says to Abrams, as he wipes his temples dry. "What’s wrong with you?"
"I don’t know, Pat," Abrams answers. "It’s this Elizabeth Smart case. I just–I get so worried sometimes that little Mary Katherine Smart is going to grow up feeling guilty, you know, that she was the one that survived, that the whole thing was her fault somehow…"
"Dan–" Buchanan begins.
"It’s just–it’s just so fucking sad," Abrams sighs, and then he collapses, burying his head in his hands.
"Dan!" Buchanan snaps. "Didn’t you hear? They found Elizabeth. And she’s alive."
"Alive?" Abrams says, perking up. "You’re kidding!"
Buchanan says no, he’s not kidding, and he starts to explain the story, but by then Abrams has bounded to his feet and is hugging Buchanan in the middle of the hallway. Buchanan pulls back, smiles and throws his arm around Abrams. "Come on, kid," he says. "Let’s go get a hot chocolate."
But then how to explain what actually happened the day Elizabeth Smart reappeared? On that first evening, Abrams had Carolyn Francom, Elizabeth’s aunt, on his show live (it seemed like there was one lachrymose, media-savvy relative per cable network), and near the top of the show, he starts asking her questions about Mary Katherine–you know, is she okay, how’s she feeling, etc. Then he adds:
"And you’ve got to believe that there’s a sense amongst the family now there won’t be this sort of guilt by Mary Katherine…which I think is just absolutely terrific."
Right. As if Dan Abrams wouldn’t throw a hundred Mary Katherine Smarts into a lake of molten lead if it meant a shot at replacing Brokaw.
Television lies all the time: it lies about politics, it lies about its own commercial interests, it lies about what America looks like (when was the last time you saw a set of food stamps on television?), it lies about how scared you should be of teenage black criminals, Muslims, sharks and whatever other vermin of the day are around to freak out about. But the biggest, most scandalous lie it puts forward–and this is the one that was most on display during the Elizabeth Smart coverage–is that it cares.
There were obviously a lot of things that were insane about the gavel-to-gavel media blitz following little Elizabeth’s reappearance last week. For one thing, there was the exaggerated concern for the life of one little girl a week or so before hundreds of little girls are going to get their arms blown off in Iraq (and possibly at the hands of that most gigantic of Pentagon phalluses, the MOAB bomb, which was lovingly featured on MSNBC and Fox the day before Elizabeth reappeared). And there was the obvious fact that if Elizabeth were a black girl from Watts, and not a angelic harp-playing white girl from Mormon country, no media would have cared to celebrate her return to her parents (indeed, it may even have questioned the wisdom of such a move).
But that’s just tv being tv. What was most disturbing about this case was the transparent way tv went about its assault on family dignity, enlisting every relative it could find as accomplices. And how quickly it began euphemistically speculating about "what happened" during those nine months that Elizabeth Smart was gone. Most all the major networks hit the "We’re pitching a tent just thinking about what Brian Mitchell did to Elizabeth" story from a number of different angles, including:
She wanted it. "You would think that maybe Elizabeth would have run away or yelled or screamed or something like that, you know?" (Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor, March 12.)
We don’t know what happened–but if we did know, this is what the story we’d tell you might sound like. Connie Chung took the backdoor route in her rape speculation, as Louree Gayler, Brian Mitchell’s stepdaughter, described some of the things Mitchell did to her when she was Elizabeth’s age: "The way he touched me sometimes, the way he came in and kissed me and caressed me," Galyer said. "Certain things like that that have happened."
The direct approach. Leave it to Bill O’Reilly to cut the crap and reach straight for the cookies. In this exchange from the Thursday, March 13 O’Reilly Factor, he actually twice pushes uncle David Smart (who for two days usurped the "Can you hear me now?" guy as the most ubiquitous presence on tv) to answer the rape question:
O’Reilly: "Now, the people want to know about Elizabeth herself. Has she been molested or harmed in any way?"
Smart: "I–as I stated when I came on, I have not had any contact with her right now or my brother or sister-in-law, so I don’t know all of the specifics…"
O’Reilly: [not giving up] "Yes. But you would think that if there was something wrong, if she had been raped or molested, that the family would have been notified right away. At least that’s been my experience. You haven’t heard anything in that regard at all."
Smart: "I have not heard anything."
I’m as cynical as the next guy, but we’re talking about an underage girl here, and here are all three major cable news networks publicly speculating about her rape and molestation. You can make a 15-year-old girl cry just by asking her in front of five nerds in a cafeteria if she’s got a tampon in. Imagine what this is like.
If it were your daughter, you’d be pissed, right? Not Ed Smart. He held two press conferences in the first day after Elizabeth returned, in the second one ascending to the podium with his arms outstretched in a Nixonian victory stance, looking like he’d just been elected mayor of Burbank. He kept in regular contact with all the networks, and the family even took pictures of Elizabeth in the home and distributed them to the media (If you look closely, those "Elizabeth reunited" pictures have a photo credit that reads something along the lines of "Tom Smart/ Deseret News/Getty Images").
It was the ultimate victory for television. It wants the little girl’s virtue and the rest of the family out on the street turning its tricks. The whole point of tv is to dominate–to first eliminate and then replace our other emotional connections. We see a hundred commercials a day where the boyfriends keep changing, but the Kia sedan stays the same, or the husband flies past his love-hungry wife out the window in search of a Bud Light. Normally this takes place on an abstract level. But sometimes, like in this case, you can actually watch it happening. When tv says it cares, run for your life.