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Tabloid TV in Its Element

Cable news shows are again quick to judge -- and to roll the child beauty pageant tapes that made the JonBenet case such a sensation.

August 18, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Cleared of involvement in their daughter's slaying, still guilty of involvement in beauty pageants.

That's been the hasty verdict from cable news following the apparent break in the JonBenet Ramsey case. When the news hit, the imagery that had made the JonBenet story a tabloid TV home run resurfaced.

Here's JonBenet, strutting across the stage costumed as the last of the Vegas showgirls, as a debutante in plaid, as a sassy cowgirl.

It was the Vegas showgirl get-up that seemed to border on child endangerment.

"Was this man stalking child beauty contests?" Ed Miller of "America's Most Wanted" speculated Wednesday night. "Did something in her performance set him off? That's the big question."

That John Mark Karr has been living in Bangkok, Thailand, notorious for its underage sex tourism, seemed to bring the story full circle thematically. Thursday we got our first glimpses of Karr in custody, his khakis pulled Ed Grimley-high. He was sallow-complected and gave off a loner vibe. Or maybe it was that he'd already confessed to the camera, saying the whole thing had been an accident.

Child pornography, Bangkok kids sold into sexual slavery, and child beauty pageants swirl around the story now, replacing the stage mom who seemed, perversely, to enjoy treating her daughter like a doll.

"Clearly it's not unusual in the South," Patsy Ramsey's sister, Pam Paugh, told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News on Wednesday night.

They were talking about the queasy-making spectacle of child beauty pageants.

"It is just pure and simple good family fun," Paugh said. "And they do have these little costumes, and they learn to parade and whatnot. It's totally innocent. There is no pressure on these children."

But in a world of sexualized toddlers, the parents come off as the damaged ones. It's one of the overarching themes of the movie "Little Miss Sunshine," whose otherwise nonjudgmental tone about the human comedy abruptly changes on the subject of kiddie pageants, the directors casting angry, mocking stares at the parents caught up in this subculture.

As quickly as it had cast suspicion on the parents 10 years ago, cable news quickly set about trying and convicting Karr, even though the leading practitioner of open-and-shut outrage, CNN Headline News' Nancy Grace, was on vacation, and little in the way of hard facts was being released.

On "On the Record," Van Susteren, with a lawyer's mien, deposed Nate Karr from a phone somewhere. He positioned the arrest as a giant misunderstanding, saying his brother had been researching a book online about men who commit horrible crimes against children. But by then Van Susteren's questioning had revealed him to be a less-than-perfect witness (he couldn't remember, for instance, the name of the community college his brother had attended).

Wolf Blitzer, still covering some cease-fire thing in the Middle East, pitched in his alarmist drone about the crack in the case, while Larry King's guest Wednesday was the suddenly unfortunately named Jon Bon Jovi.

The story had broken in Bill O'Reilly's face, but he respectfully passed. (Perhaps Fox couldn't figure out who O'Reilly might yell at, because no one was implicating the French.) But it was CNN that seemed particularly star-challenged -- no Larry, no Anderson Cooper.

"It is extraordinary how this small-town murder case turned into a national story right away," the network's Paula Zahn intoned.

Really, Paula? Do you think it might have something to do with the B-roll of the sexualized 6-year-old aping a come-hither look on my TV screen?

Meanwhile, the anchors all said, some kind of closure and vindication had come for the Ramseys -- particularly Patsy, who died of ovarian cancer knowing authorities were zeroing in on an arrest.

*

Paul Brownfield is a Times television critic.

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