As the stampeding hooves of the 24/7 news cycle gained traction Monday night, first on Twitter (as always) and then cutting into the nightly cable gabfest, the shock of the headline -- three women missing for roughly a decade and presumed dead in Cleveland, Ohio, had been rescued, alive! -- gave way quickly to a second reaction among Americans outside the 216 area code.
"So they found Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight -- that's incredible! Who are they? And why are we hearing of this for the first time?"
Yes, the live wires of this huge national story touch on a decade-old debate: Why does the national news media elevate some cases of missing women to a nightly soap opera -- so much so that one expert dubbed this sad parade of lost affluent, attractive blondes as "missing white woman syndrome" -- while so many other cases get little or no publicity, even as loved one frantically search.
There's no easy answer. Depending on how you look at it, tens of thousands of young people go missing every year, or hundreds vanish due to murder or kidnappings, so those TV news editors have to either ignore all of them or go with a handful. Critics look at those choices and see white suburban girls -- think Alabama's Natalee Holloway, who vanished on a school trip to Aruba in 2005, for example -- who received pedal-to-the-metal coverage on shows like CNNHN's "Nancy Grace," while such coverage of missing black or Latino young women or so rare that when it happens it's usually because of online complaints.
But two things about the Cleveland trio. Two of them -- Berry and DeJesus -- got extensive play in their excellent hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and they also both received a little coverage in the mid-2000s -- brief, but it was something -- from Grace, from John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted," and Rita Cosby of the Fox News Channel, among others. And whatever media attention they did or didn't get, race can't be considered a factor since at least Berry is white. (Knight's disappearance received absolutely no coverage -- not even in the Plain-Dealer -- perhaps because she was 19 or 20, already a mom, said to be struggling with mental health issues, and her family apparently did nothing beyond file a police report.)
So what kept Berry -- the poignant story of a girl who simply vanished, wearing her Burger King uniform, the day before her 17th birthday -- and DeJesus, a 14-year-old whose dad scored the neighborhood for months -- from becoming another Holloway or Elizabeth Smart? The dividing liine here, arguably, isn't race but class. Their saga played out on the ragged blue-collar streets of a deindustrialized Great Lakes metropolis -- not a place that seems likely to stimulate upscale editors or producers.
Mia Moody-Ramirez, assistant professor of journalism at Baylor Unversity who has studied the issue, told me that part of the problem historically is journalists with upper-middle-class backgrounds, and she added this: The 'lost potential' frame is very prominent. This is the idea that the missing person had so much potential (beauty, youth, etc.) and promise."
Shame on us if we didn't see that in Amanda, Gina, and Michelle. It's true that reading the mid-2000s coverage in the Plain-Dealer, writers describe the blocks around Euclid Avenue as a place in the shadow of an interstate where middle-class cohesion was struggling in the face of drugs and prostitution, where 37 percent of residents lived in poverty a decade aho, before things go worse. It is the place that Michael Harrington famously called "the other America," and its missing persons are just a small part of its stories and its crises that should demand our full attention -- but doesn't get it.