May 1, 2005

Let's spare her that detail.

Why do so many of the news stories about the runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks leave out the detail that she told the police that the man who abducted her was Hispanic? When you're making up a story about a crime, what motivates you to make the criminal a member of a minority group? I think leaving out this aspect of the story is an attempt to help her with her reputation. Why, we might associate this nice woman with Susan Smith, who drowned her children and then made up a story about a black man kidnapping them.

Newspapers that left out the detail: SF Chronicle, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, ABC News, Chicago Sun-Times, NY Daily News, Houston Chronicle, New York Times.

Newpapers that included the detail: NY Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a second piece, "One volunteer's perspective on Wilbanks: Charge her." The volunteer was especially angry that Wilbanks blamed a Hispanic man: "The Hispanic community has it tough enough. Some of them even volunteered with the search! Fliers were printed in Spanish."

Blaming a Hispanic man was an important fact that belonged in the report. Leaving it out was -- it seems to me -- an attempt to save Jennifer Wilbanks from additional harm to her reputation. I don't see how that sort of pity is part of journalism, and I don't see why someone who plays upon prejudice this way deserves pity.

UPDATE: WaPo's Howard Kurtz links to this post and agrees that the detail belongs in the article -- assuming you're going to cover this story at all, which is a questionable choice in the first place. Here's my critique of Nancy Grace's coverage of the show -- on Friday night, when she thought it was a new Scott-and-Laci.


Wade_Garrett said...

I'd like to think that they left out that detail because her case didn't pass the smell test, and they feared another Susan Smith situation, and didn't want to print anything that would unfairly prejudice people against Spanish-speaking Americans. That's probably naive of me, however.

Ann Althouse said...

Terrence: I'm talking about the reports that came out after it was revealed that it was a hoax. If they really thought they were tracking someone down, though, it would be much more likely to be reported. I guess I don't understand you point at all. If it's a known lie, why would there be prejudice against HIspanics? The only prejudice it inflames is the one about white people being prejudiced. Actually, your comment is too vague to understand. What exactly do you mean by "the smell test." We know it's a lie. And what do you mean by "another Susan Smith situation"? Why shouldn't we shame people who make false reports that stoke racism?

Meade said...

"That's probably naive of me, however."

Yes it is, terrence -- unless you're being willfully ignorant.

Meade said...
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Meade said...

"Later, Wilbanks gave a statement for the media to a flight attendant before she left the plane, according to CNN. She said she had spoken with Mason. The wedding was not off, she said, just postponed."

wow! speaking of willful ignorance...

Mona said...

Great phrase, Ann, in your comment: "stoke racism." That's what she did and it's appalling that the media perpetuates with presenting this woman with the romantic notions of a "runaway bride" and not a "lying bride."

Dave said...

She should be prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to decades in jail. But then we'd still be wasting taxpayer dollars on this loser. Can we deport her? Say to Siberia?

What an idiot this "person" is.

LLB said...

As I recall, there was an earlier well-known instance of this--the Charles Stewart(?) case in Boston. Stewart shot his pregnant wife to death, wounded himself, then blamed it all on "a black man". There was much outrage at the murder of a woman and her unborn child. Boston police, taking his statement at face value, rousted a lot black men in what many felt was an racist over-reaction.
I remember some people involved in the Susan Smith case citing the Stewart case is an example of what they didn't want to happen, and they made efforts to work with people in the black community.

I would like to see this woman punished, but from what I've been hearing, there's little with which they could actually charge her. She filed and then re-canted a false report to police in New Mexico, but not in Georgia. Why aren't the police in New Mexico filing charges? I'm guessing they don't file on false reports that are quickly withdrawn and that she cried big tears and made them feel sorry for her--just a guess.

Why is the media not mentioning the hispanic kidnapper part of her story? It could be that in today's society we're often told that we can't judge someone--how do we know what they've been through, what they've had to deal with, etc. Or it could be that the media isn't sure which way the public is going to go on this and they're afraid of guessing wrong--the pack mentality.

It'll be interesting to see, in the next couple of weeks, if this woman shows up the various news magazines and how she is treated--victim or perpetrator.

Ann Althouse said...

LLB: The criminal law is heavily based on the belief that we can judge people. The question is why some people have to pay for the harm they've caused and others are let off the hook. How much tax money was spent as a result of her hoax? What other services did the police not perform while they were giving priority to what they imagined might be a murder about to happen? The torment she caused her family may not be a crime, but filing a false report is. Recanting is completely irrelevant. The harm is done. And what about deterring other idiots who would do something like this. It's an awfully easy way to get attention if there are no consequences.

neo-neocon said...

I, likewise, am puzzled by the free pass given this woman. In addition to this coverup about her accusations that it was a Hispanic who abducted her (I hadn't heard that before), it seems that the police and her fiance are willing to forgive and forget. My guess is that, in person, she has a very sympathetic demeanor and "little girl lost" presentation that makes people feel sorry for her. Something about this woman seems to encourage people to make excuses for what is pretty outrageous behavior. Just a guess.

LLB said...

Yes, the criminal law says we can judge her, but I still see only one posible charge against her--filing a false report in New Mexico and they've already declined--rather hastily I think. I agree that she has done tremendous damage and I would like to see her charged, but I don't know what they would charge her with other than that (is that a misdemeanor?)--I'm not a lawyer. What would you have her charged with? Can the various departments involved send her a bill? If they can, I think they should.

If she can't be charged with anything, or anything significant, then we're left with the "court of public opinion" and it's in that arena I was thinking of a reluctance to judge. Will she be able to "get off" by going on Larry King, telling a sad story, and shedding a few tears?

And the press calling her a "Runaway Bride" is especially annoying, as if this were all some light-hearted romantic comdy rather than a selfish and cruel act.

Dean said...

I agree with the volunteer. I can't imagine why they're not charging her with something.

There was also that fairly recent case of a college student who staged her own abduction. I can't remember what happened to her.

Ann Althouse said...

Dean: That was a UW-Madison student. She was charged with two misdemeanor counts of obstructing the police. She was sentenced to sentenced to three years' probation, mental health counseling, and 250 hours of community service, which seems about right to me.

At least she had the decency to make up a white guy. As soon as I saw the police sketch based on her description, I thought she was faking. Something so generic about it.

Dean said...

UW-Madison, that's right. No wonder she stuck in my mind. You're right about the sketch, put a wool cap on me and remove my glasses, voila!

The sentence she got seems right, too. Ms. Wilbanks, being older although obviously not wiser, should receive something a little more harsh.

The AP is now reporting that she may face misdemeanor charges in Georgia and that it was a sudden decision. I liked the first paragraph of the story:

On what was to be her wedding day, Jennifer Wilbanks wore not a white veil but an orange towel over her head to prevent the media from taking her picture. Instead of being led down the aisle by her father, she was led by police to an airplane that flew the runaway bride home.

Nothin' like irony!

Now I wonder if they have a hate crime statute in Georgia and if that would apply at all to blaming an Hispanic for her abduction.

Also interesting is that she accused a Caucasian woman with the Hispanic male.

Dean said...
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M. Jeeves said...

I think she might have mentioned a Hispanic man and a white woman because she befriended a Hispanic man and a white woman at the bus station in Vegas and went with them to New Mexico.

If that is true, then she used those descriptions because they were people she had recently seen and not out of some sinister motive.

Dean said...

If that is true, then she used those descriptions because they were people she had recently seen and not out of some sinister motive.

But sinister motives are so much more juicy!

This probably adds to the evidence that it was a sudden decision rather than planned far in advance

Hazy Dave said...

I suppose it would have been more believable if she'd made up a balding overweight middle-aged white male abductor, but I don't see the point of accusing her of a "hate crime". Does this truly demonstrate racism, much less inflame racism? Or does your stereotype of a little Georgia peach make you assume she's racist? I don't recall if I saw her picture before my baloney detector pinged, but I hadn't heard anything about the ethnicity of the imaginary abductor until this morning. When that dude stabbed his wife near Northridge years ago, what was he going to say? "Sorry officer, I didn't notice their skin color, but they might have been ninjas?" Somehow it's politically incorrect to state the most obvious characteristic of a suspect - unless he's white? Is the media supposed to report the race of real criminals but not fake suspects, or vice versa? (I seem to have a lot of questions for a Monday morning... And how come I never hear about the Mifflin Street Block Party until it's already over?)

Ann Althouse said...

Hazy Dave: It's absolutely correct to describe criminal suspects so they can be caught. I'm objecting to not reporting the race given by a person making up a fake crime. The false report was a crime and inventing a Hispanic man to accuse made it a more harmful crime. I stand by that!

Table Talker said...

remember those good ol' days when abandoned sheep in a neighbor's pasture was the evening news? i'm so sick of hearing "kidnapping" sob stories. i welcome a story that has actual news. OMG, a runaway bride actually RAN AWAY!!!! Let's file charges for the search & rescue operations ($60,000) and make her pay! maybe she came to her senses and realized a 400 person wedding was ridiculous. maybe she realized her husband-to-be was a dolt. maybe she thought this was the only way out. i myself have thought about "running away" long ago. leaving and never telling anyone where i went. start a new life. no debt. no family. no worries.


people might miss me

but would i miss them? yes, too much so to follow through with it. maybe i'll try it for like 5 years, and then pop back in. i wonder if they'd still all love me as much.

so here i sit, wondering if they'll send a $60k search team for me if i don't show up for three days. oh wait, i'm a guy. nevermind. no one wants to rape and kill me.

damn X chromosome.