Media Coverage Does Pretty Young White Women No Favors

Let the first word be one of compassion.

For anyone who has a loved one missing, Godspeed the day of that person’s safe return. Or failing that, Godspeed the bitter satisfaction of knowing his or her fate. To have someone you love vanish is, one imagines, a special kind of hell.

That said, let the second word be one of exasperation.

Another white woman has turned up missing. And, as predictably happens in such cases, television news has gone into overdrive, CNN, ABC, NBC providing breathless updates of Michelle Parker’s disappearance, how she was last seen the day she appeared on “The People’s Court,” suing her former fiance, who is now the prime suspect in her alleged kidnapping.

This story unfolds in the wake of similar media fixations on Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, JonBenet Ramsey, Jennifer “Runaway Bride” Wilbanks, Chandra Levy, Lori Hacking, Robyn Gardner, Natalee Holloway, all of them young, female, white, pretty — and imperiled. There is, should it need saying, a naked bias in the media’s obsession with white women in danger to the exclusion of pretty much every other cohort of the American demographic.

If all you had to go by was NBC or CNN, you’d never know that more than 335,000 men and boys went missing last year or about 230,000 African-Americans. You will rarely see coverage of them on national news. Nor, for that matter, of older people, or less attractive ones.

While the effect of this bias is to deny the worth of anyone who is not a pretty young white woman, a case can be made that it does pretty young white women no favors, either. The driving force of that bias, after all, is a narrative that depicts them as damsels in perpetual distress, helpless little things under constant threat from the harsh vicissitudes of a big, mean world. With apologies to a certain Oscar-winning song, it’s hard out here for a white woman.

Or so TV news routinely suggests.

To imply it is somehow more important, more heart-rending, when a young white woman is in danger is, at best, a backhanded compliment. The implication is laced with a certain condescending paternalism that finds echoes throughout history, from assurances that women ought not to trouble their pretty little heads with voting to debates over whether they belong in the workplace.

When we recall how white men once routinely lynched black ones who were thought to have cast so much as a stray glance at white women, our attention rivets, rightly, on the victims of the violence. But no one ever notes the corollary injustice: the fact that those white men felt they had an absolute, unquestioned right to police the sexuality of “their” women.

This idea of white women as communal property, hothouse flowers in need of constant, vigilant protection, has taken different forms, then, throughout the years. In 2011, it takes the form of breathless reports on missing white women almost to the exclusion of everyone else.

We should all decry this, but no one should do so more loudly than white women. It is, after all, their competence, independence and self-sufficiency that are being tacitly demeaned.

Somebody should tell them: a backhanded compliment is just an insult by another name.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at

(c) 2011 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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