Can we put an end to "white women in peril" journalism now?

Bonnie Sweeten disappeared two days ago after calling Philadelphia police dispatchers claiming she and her 9-year-old daughter had been abducted by two black men after a minor car accident.  The police kept an open mind and sent out an Amber Alert, as they should — and the media created a 36-hour firestorm of coverage, with breathless updates on Sweeten’s fate.  It turned into a carnival, which had a certain amount of irony to it when Sweeten turned up at Disney World with her daughter after traveling on false identification:


The frantic search for Bonnie Sweeten and her 9-year-old daughter – which began after she called 911 Tuesday to report that they had been kidnapped in Bucks County – ended yesterday at Walt Disney World.

Sweeten, 38, and daughter Julia Rakoczy were taken into custody at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa about 8:40 p.m., the FBI said. Sweeten was being held by authorities in Orange County, Fla., and her daughter was safe.

Sweeten will be extradited to Bucks County, where she faces charges of making a false report and identity theft, both misdemeanors. The investigation is continuing into possible theft charges, said Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry.

Julia Rakoczy’s biological father, Anthony Rakoczy, of Feasterville, will go to Florida today to pick her up, Henry said.

Over the last week, Sweeten withdrew $12,000 from several bank accounts and used a coworker’s driver’s license to travel, Henry said.

So yet another “white woman in peril” story falls apart under scrutiny.  The most egregious of these was the Susan Smith case, in which she blamed a black man for kidnapping the two children she cruelly murdered by drowning.  This case also featured a scary black man — two of them, in fact — and a series of nagging facts that suggested a hoax, but which the media seemingly never bothered to question.

Why do these stories get a deluge of attention from the national media, especially the cable news shows?  They’ll say that they want to help save lives, but Shaun Mullen is skeptical, to say the least.  The former Philadelphia news reporter notes a few, uncomfortable similarities to these stories:


Women and sometimes women and their children go missing much too often in and around a big city like Philadelphia, and it’s a pretty good chance that they’re black and get little or no news coverage.

But Bonnie Ann Sweeten is willowy tall and has blond hair, blue eyes and is attractive. Local media — print and teevee — treated the story as if it was Armageddon on wheels — in this case the silver 2005 GMC Denali SUV that Sweeten was driving with daughter Julia Rakoczy as a passenger when, according to what she told police, she was rear ended by two black men in a black Cadillac sedan at a suburban Philadelphia intersection who then threw her into their trunk.

By the way, what were those signs that pointed out that Sweeten may not have been on the level?

Sweeten told police that she was abducted in Feasterville in suburban Bucks County about 2 p.m. Tuesday. But there was no sign of the Denali when police rushed to the scene. Her first 911 call was traced to a cell phone tower near 15th and Chestnut streets many miles away in Center City Philadelphia where the Denali, a parking ticket on its windshield left at 2:20 p.m., was found, an indication that the SUV might have been there the entire time.

Meanwhile, if Sweeten was abducted, why didn’t her assailants take her cell phone? Why did they allow her the opportunity to repeatedly call police? Why did she tell police how to contact her husband but nothing about her abductors’ descriptions beyond their blackness?

And if Sweeten is the wonderful mother that her husband described on NBC’s “Today Show” on Wednesday morning, why did she withdraw Julia from school on May 1?


Shaun makes a good point.  Unfortunately, women and children get abducted or worse in our communities, usually during family disputes, and sometimes they get murdered as well.  Most of those cases never make it to the media, even though they are legitimate abductions with the same risks as those Sweeten allegedly faced, had her story been on the level.  Police issue Amber Alerts on all of these cases that they get.   But who gets coverage?  Willowy-tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired victims. Those cases get hour-long panel discussions on cable news networks.

That says something about the American news media, and it’s nothing good.  Did the media even bother to ask about the uncomfortable details, or did they just want to keep a ratings bonanza alive?

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