David Adams on the Media Assault on Aruba

David Adams

David Adams has been the Latin America Correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times since 1994. He has written for the Economist, the Independent and Newsweek, and reported for the BBC. On Monday, the Times published his story about Arubans’ frustration with the U.S. media’s “unbalanced and overblown” coverage of the Natalee Holloway case.

Brian Montopoli: First off, what has the reaction been to your piece?

David Adams: I don’t think I have written a story that has gotten me so much email response — ever. Certainly not a serious political story about Latin America. The last time I got such a big response was in the days before email and the Internet. I wrote a story about Hurricane Andrew for a British newspaper, a first person account of what you do when a hurricane hits your house, and I wrote that I evacuated my house with my wife and we left the cat behind. And I got so many outraged letters about “how I could do such a thing?” As it turned out, by the way, my wife did take the cat at the last minute, after I filed my story.

It’s a good example of how human interest stories are the ones that get peoples’ goats.

BM: What have people been saying when they’ve emailed you?

DA: I’ve had emails from all over the country, and from different parts of the world, and the great majority of them, I would say 80 percent, have been extremely positive. People saying that they’re sick to death with the TV coverage of this story. They sympathize enormously with the Holloway family, and it just makes them even sadder, the way in which it’s been turned into a cable TV soap drama.

I suppose the majority of the people who are reading my story … are print readers, and more likely to be sympathetic to a print treatment of the story. And I guess the story is circulating on various Web sites that are following the Holloway case — there’s a bunch of them. But some people are just trotting out exactly what comes on cable news. I had a neighbor on my street — a very nice lady, who I know very well, and we get on very well — we bumped into each other last night, and she asked what I’d been up to, and I said I’d been down in Aruba working on this story. And I told her I thought it was a disgrace, the way the media had handled it.

And I was amazed. She bit my head off, and started to trot out all of the junk that’s been on cable TV. This is a smart woman, who — fortunately we have a very good relationship, and we were able to laugh about it — but I thought it was very symptomatic of how this story has worked. She has absorbed, like many people, what they have heard on the cable shows. I don’t know whether it was a naivete about the way people watch cable news. I thought that the public was much more skeptical about journalism in general. They certainly seem to be skeptical of what we write in print. I thought they would be equally skeptical about what they watch on these shows.

But perhaps because you actually see the person being interviewed, it’s more credible or more believable, what you see on cable TV, than what you read in the newspaper. Because at least the viewer is seeing it for themselves. I saw that person, he said this, and that’s maybe more believable than me quoting somebody in print and the reader not being able to see into my story. It’s a curious phenomenon.

Everyone — well, not everyone, but the people who criticized my story — believe this idea of a cover up, which is what the cable shows are saying, and that Joran Van Der Sloot is this ne’er-do-well, self-destructive, psychopathic teenager. And there isn’t any evidence to support that. That’s the shocking thing. I’ve made a point of answering all the emails I’ve received — I must have received about 80 — and I’ve made the point to some of them, don’t you think it’s important that we give the benefit of the doubt to these people who haven’t even been charged. That you’re innocent until proven guilty …

There’s a witch hunt, really. The story turned into a witch hunt. I found myself getting sucked into it when I was in Aruba. It’s hard not to sympathize with what the family must be going through. Obviously one does. But shouldn’t we, maybe, really leave the family alone? I mean, are the cable media really doing this out of sympathy for the family? Out of concern that justice prevail? Let’s be honest with everybody. The cable shows are expensive to run. Yes, they follow things that the public is interested in — or a segment of the public. But the bottom line is money, isn’t it? And ratings? It’s fascinating to watch the shows. I’ve been watching them quite a bit. Bill O’Reilly is taking the mickey, as we say in England, or taking the piss — he’s having fun with the coverage of some of the other programs. Why is that? Is it because he feels threatened by some of their ratings? Is it because Greta van Susteren is nibbling at his heels, so he’s turned on the story?

BM: We noted that O’Reilly had a guy from Aruba on, and suggested the Arubans weren’t doing a good job, and he actually said “We don’t want the island to suffer, and people to not go there, but frustration is growing in the United States.” Which is basically a veiled threat — if Aruba doesn’t convict somebody soon, we won’t go there anymore.

DA: I think there are a couple of things. One is cultural insensitivity. These shows are utterly insensitive to a different system of law … they don’t have the same system of law as we do, they don’t have jury trials. But at the same time, these hearings are not in secret, as people insist on saying. Lawyers are present. That’s just the way they do things. It’s a trial before a judge and hearings before a judge. The American system of justice has incredible secrecy. Cases are sealed. Hearings are held behind closed doors. There’s no real difference. They’ve just decided to pick on this case. And you could make a case that there were one or two blunders at the beginning, but they don’t realize that the police deal with missing girls a lot.

BM: Why is that?

DA: Because they’ve gone off to fuck about — they’ve met somebody, and there’s been a mini-infatuation, and they go off for a couple of days, and then they show up. They maybe missed their flight. And the police there are quite used to putting girls who’ve gone AWOL on flights home. So the first few days, that’s what they thought had happened here …

I could go on forever about the way in which they have presented the news and information in this case in a very highly biased way to paint the island badly. And Aruba is the envy of most of the rest of the Caribbean in terms of its conviction rate, in terms of how little crime there is. And the cable shows, to be fair, they have entered that side of it. But you only do that once, don’t you? And then you move on. I think everyone on the island believes they have a reasonably competent police force, and with Dutch and FBI help, hopefully they will be able to solve this case.

BM: After the story came out, did you hear from any of the people in the media who came in for criticism?

DA: We dropped it from the story, because it’s just boring and takes up space, but we had a line saying CNN and Fox declined to comment for the story. And I also thought to contact the family. CNN never got back to me. Fox got back to me and were very nice, but said they did not think the St. Petersburg Times was a publication worthy of responding to. They allege that we’ve trashed them too much. They were very nice about it.

I have had emails from somebody at “Good Morning America,” somebody at ABC, somebody at CBS, somebody at NBC, and several other print journalists, all saying, “way to go.” There is a great deal of disquiet among both print and broadcast media about the way this story is being handled.

Last night I was watching Nancy Grace reporting on the pop singer whose boyfriend had gone missing in California — Olivia Newton John — and she had this poor guy who’s the regular entertainment correspondent on, whose name I forget. And she says to him, “So what’s going on, Jim?” And Jim says, “Well you know, Nancy, it’s still a bit of a mystery.” And she cuts him off and says, “Well, you’re going to have to do better than that, Jim.” You know, invent something. Speculate. Give me anything.

I’ve done radio journalism — when you’re doing a two-way, and somebody asks you a stupid question, which they sometimes do, you can’t say — because you work for that organization — “Ask me a more intelligent question, you frigging idiot.” You have to say something polite.

BM: But the ratings don’t come if you just say, well, it’s a developing case, we don’t know anything.

DA: I guess, to be fair to Nancy Grace, she knows her audience. As Matthew Felling likes to say, print aims at the brain, and TV, especially cable, aims at the gut.

BM: But they do appear on television networks that bill themselves as news, not entertainment.

DA: But it’s not journalism. As a professional journalist who spent 20 years covering this particular part of the world, I really take offense at people professing to practice journalism and doing the kinds of things that they do. Because, I’m sorry, but it makes my job more difficult. It hurts my credibility. It destroys the credibility of us all. So I think as professional journalists we should stand up against it. And we should object to them muddying the waters of our profession at a time when our profession has already got enough problems in terms of credibility.

If their response is, go away, shut up, stop whining, do your job and we’ll do ours, and don’t tell us how to do our job, I’m sorry. We are a profession. We’re a funny profession, because there’s a lot of gray area. There isn’t a code of ethics like doctors have. But sometimes I wish there was. Because it does none of us any good to sit by and watch people abuse our profession for the sake of ratings, and lead an important segment of public opinion so far from the truth that people are left wondering what, really, professional journalism is really all about. Is it about entertainment, or is it about information? Is it about helping readers, or is it about exploiting them?

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.