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On Smart Story, Iraq-Weary Media Embrace 'Good News for a Change'

March 14, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen and Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — The safe return Wednesday of kidnapped teenager Elizabeth Smart arrived as a ray of sunshine amid storm clouds of war. Media outlets, already sensing viewer and reader fatigue as the United Nations negotiations on Iraq dragged on, embraced this story with a happy ending.

But Ed Smart said Thursday he isn't going to push his daughter to give details of her nine-month disappearance before she is ready, saying, "What is going to come out is going to come out." So although an interview with Elizabeth moved to the top of many media wish lists, it's anyone's guess when or if she will tell her story to the media and the public.

Booking big, news-driven interviews is traditionally an elbows-bared, rough-and-tumble process -- the faster, the better. But Elizabeth Smart's age, the length of her ordeal and the family's extensive media contacts are tempering the frenzy to "get" the big interview this time, media executives said.

"I think everybody's interested in hearing her story, but it's obviously up to the Smart family and her parents if they want to tell it," said Michael Bass, senior executive producer of "The Early Show" on CBS, who sent co-anchor Harry Smith on a plane late Wednesday to get to Salt Lake City in time for Thursday's broadcast. "It's a very personal family decision, and I would hope people would be respectful of the time the family needs." Still, he said, "When she's ready to talk, we're ready to listen."

"The Smart family seems sophisticated about their use of the media," said Larry Hackett, assistant managing editor of People magazine. "I don't think they'll imperil Elizabeth. We'll make it their call."

Reporters and anchors would also like to talk to Elizabeth's mother, Lois Smart, who through the months has left much of the talking to her husband and hasn't commented extensively since her daughter was released. Lois and Ed Smart are booked for Fox's "America's Most Wanted" on Saturday night.

Ed Smart and other family members made up for voices that were lacking. Smart walked out of his home Thursday, spied CBS' Smith and agreed to an interview. Later, he talked to the ABC and NBC morning shows. He also talked to John Walsh, whose daily talk show and weekly "America's Most Wanted" had never let Elizabeth Smart's disappearance out of the limelight. Smart made another stop at CNN's "Larry King Live," where an additional guest was media heiress Patty Hearst, whose 1970s kidnapping has some parallels for many observers.

Rivals were betting that Walsh -- who gained national attention as an advocate for victim rights after his son Adam was abducted and killed in 1981 -- might get the first interview, if or when one happens. On Wednesday's "Larry King Live," Elizabeth Smart's uncle, Tom Smart, thanked Walsh, as well as King's show, for their efforts.

"Ed has said, 'If Elizabeth is up to it,' [and] I said there's no obligation," Walsh said. "I speak first as a father of a murdered child, second as a TV reporter.... When she's up for it, I'd be honored."

NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker "called and said that we have to blow out our whole show for Thursday and air live," said Linda Finnell, senior vice president of programming at NBC Enterprises, which distributes Walsh's talk show. The show is normally taped. "We were all in agreement this is a topic that everyone so closely associates with John Walsh because of his own personal experience."

The media's embrace of the story -- CNN's Lou Dobbs on Thursday cut off one interviewee on another topic because Tom Smart was calling in -- didn't sit well with one media critic.

"The story broke yesterday afternoon and, suddenly, Iraq wasn't important anymore," said Marty Kaplan, associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

While he conceded the Smart return is "a great human-interest story," he singled out cable TV outlets in particular for criticism. "Television is a great leveler, assigning equivalent importance to all things. Unlike a newspaper, which depending on placement gives you a sense of a story's importance, television can do only one thing at once. There's an all-or-nothing mentality."

But editors and producers defended their choices.

"It's an incredibly positive story," said Bass at CBS. "It's good news for a change. It's also something different. The lead-up-to-a-possible-war story has moved so incrementally," he said, that some viewers are finding it hard to maintain interest.

"How many guys in suits walking out of the U.N. can you look at," Hackett said. "You can get your hands around this -- what a relief." People closed its current issue Tuesday, Hackett said, so it missed Smart's release, but the magazine is chasing the story.

"This story -- about not giving up hope -- is so important to the country," said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of "48 Hours Investigates" on CBS. "With 9/11, the buildup to war, we've been on edge so long. The Smart story was a spiritual gift, showing that great things, in fact, do happen.... I cried when it broke."

"Everybody has learned that the American public cares more about missing children than who the president of Enron is," Walsh said.

Viewers seemed to side with TV producers. "Larry King Live" dominated its competition Wednesday, while "48 Hours Investigates" had nearly 50% more viewers than the week before.

*

Brian Lowry in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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