As the biggest kidnapping case in television history reached an astounding climax on Wednesday, cameras rolled once again. It was a scenario that has become so common in the Elizabeth Smart case that it was easy to forget just how unusual it was.
That local TV stations became obsessed with the kidnapping is not surprising. That the national networks and programs — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, MSNBC and more — offered blanket coverage was a first. No kidnapping had ever received this kind of attention, and in an age when news is available around the clock, the attention was unending for months.
In June, July and August of 2002, there was valid conjecture that at least part of the reason the networks ran with the story was that there was so little else going on in the national news. But on Wednesday, news of Elizabeth's recovery prompted special reports breaking into regular network programming and knocked the impending war in Iraq off the top of the newscasts.
Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw led with the Smart story. Larry King, Bill O'Reilly, Connie Chung and Sean Hannity did, too.
Print news media also responded in an immediate frenzy.
Wednesday night, USA Today's Web edition prominently showed a picture of the Salt Lake teen with the headline "FOUND ALIVE" and " 'A miracle.' Elizabeth Smart safe."
The Washington Post's Web edition was dominated by a large picture of Sandy Police Chief Steve Chapman over text reading: "After 9 months, 'A Miracle.' Missing Salt Lake teen found alive and well in company of drifter."
Similarly, the New York Times' Web edition showed a photograph of Ed Smart over the headline, "Missing Teenager Found Alive" and text reading, "Edward Smart, whose daughter Elizabeth had just been found alive, waved to bystanders on Wednesday at the Salt Lake City Police Department."
As was the case so much of last year, broadcast journalists can't be proud of all of they put on the air. In their rush to get on the air, they made mistakes. (Every local station and national network reported that suspects Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, as well as Elizabeth, were taken when his car was stopped; in reality, the three were on foot.) And some of the interviews with "witnesses" that aired on local stations seemed somewhat suspect — whether these people will turn out to be credible remains to be seen.
As the hours passed, TV's talking heads repeated the same information for lack of anything new to report. Which is preferable to what the cable news channels turned to almost immediately — so-called experts who know nothing about the case other than what they were hearing on TV offering their opinions on everything from Elizabeth's mental state to the conduct of the Salt Lake police. And offering those largely unfounded opinions as fact.
Still, the media in general and television in particular deserve no small degree of credit for the happy ending to the Smart kidnapping. It was pictures of Mitchell aired on TV that prompted the witnesses to call police on Wednesday. And it was the omnipresent TV coverage that kept the case in the public eye.
One of the more surreal moments on Wednesday came when Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson praised and thanked the media — and how often does any politician anywhere sing the praises of the press?
Contributing: Wendy Ogata