Stop the treadmill, I want to get off: Live cable news has become an art form in its extremes
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 May 2005)

Jennifer Wilbanks, the Georgia woman who disappeared four days before her wedding, provided ideal material for a peculiar art form that's emerged in recent years on the news channels. Jennifer's story changed its style from hour to hour. It started out as a mystery but turned briefly into a possible tragedy when hundreds of volunteers searched for her and police bloodhounds sniffed for her remains along the Chattahoochee River. It descended into farce when she showed up in Albuquerque, N.M., reported she had been kidnapped and raped, then confessed she hadn't and finally came home, walking through the airport with a blanket over her head.

When we met John Mason, her still-loyal groom, the tone switched to pathos. Later, it all turned into topical satire about lawyers, therapists and other publicity hounds. What began as a Tennessee Williams play became a Billy Wilder movie.

It's structure that makes news-channel narratives unique. Conventional journalism, in print or on old-fashioned TV, organizes facts into a pattern. By tradition it always places information in the past tense, even if it's just an hour old.

But something like Jennifer's tale, as played out on Fox, CNN and the other channels, exists in the never-ending present and makes no pretense of being organized. It emerges as intermittent fragments, delivered by journalists who have no idea where their reports are leading.

Everything happens, and gets broadcast, in real time. If the story lasts a couple of weeks, as this one did, that's how long TV takes to tell it. It's as if TV were inventing a 21st-century version of the unity of time that Aristotle defined for Greek drama around 330 BC (admittedly, he may not have had CNN in mind). He suggested that drama ideally describes events that happen in the same length of time it takes to perform them on stage.

By the title they gave it, journalists linked this news to Runaway Bride, the 1999 film in which a reporter (Richard Gere) tries to write about a woman (Julia Roberts) who habitually leaves grooms waiting at the altar. But Jennifer's story was more complicated, a series of events almost too rich in plot points.

The drama reached its climax on a Saturday morning when audiences awoke to find that it was, in one sense, all over: Jennifer had admitted her hoax during the night. No professional writer would have let the climax unfold as the audience slept, but the main facts tumbled out in a way that only heightened the feeling of realism.

Days later, the monologue: Jennifer prepared it off-screen and had it read on camera by a clergyman, Rev. Thomas Smiley of Lakewood Baptist.

She remained in seclusion, perhaps reasoning that her hair (which she had cut while on the run) was not up to TV standards.

"I had a host of compelling issues which seemed out of control," her statement said. "Issues for which I was unable to address."

"Issues" was the key word in the language of the case. A decade ago that term seldom arose in this context but now it's everywhere. What, exactly, are issues? They can be problems, neuroses, or conflicts. Often they refer to a troubled history. In her twenties Jennifer had been arrested three times for shoplifting.

She said she was sorry and wasn't trying to avoid marrying John. "I was simply running from myself and from certain fears controlling my life. I have started professional treatment, voluntarily." Layers of pathos lie buried beneath the choice of that adverb, "voluntarily."

Another key word was, of course, "therapy." Rev. Tom said Jennifer obviously needs therapy, and we heard a lot from therapists who were willing to explain Jennifer's issues without meeting her. Dr. Elizabeth Yoon, a Virginia psychiatrist, said we should not be judgmental, then made judgements ("I would suspect that she had kind of a hysterical character already"). Dr. Yoon introduced a neurosis that was new to many of us, commitmentphobia, which turns out to have its own how-to books, chat room, support groups and specialized therapists, including the man who named it, Steven Carter of Los Angeles. Who knew?

Wendy Murphy of CBS, a former prosecutor, metaphorically indicted Jennifer ("She may have mental health issues, but ... deserves to be punished"). Gloria Allred brought CBS the defence lawyer's perspective: She's already suffered enough. "Do I think she is a danger to the community? Is there going to be an epidemic of runaway brides if she's not prosecuted?" Even so, Danny Porter, district attorney for Gwinnett County, muttered about prosecution, mentioning that in Georgia making a false police report can get you 12 months on a misdemeanour but a felony called "making false statements to authorities" carries five years.

This case provided opportunities for everyone. A press release for the tough-love co-authors of One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self Reliance, declared that Wilbanks may or may not need therapy but "in the near term she needs a stern talking-to..." Because Jennifer claimed her kidnappers were a Hispanic man and a white woman, a group called Hispanics Across America demanded an apology. An Albuquerque radio station offered to make Jennifer co-host of its morning talk show.

Viewers and readers, their opinions solicited, served as Greek chorus. A reader of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said Jennifer should pay for all the extra policing: "For goodness' sake, this woman is 32 years old -- hardly a naive, mixed-up kid. There is no free lunch."

Everyone enjoyed this accidental glimpse of prosperous Georgia. Jennifer's china was Solitaire by Lenox, pure white with a band of platinum; her crystal was Lismore Tall by Waterford. What would happen to all the presents? Her family invited 600 guests, so parents everywhere wondered how the caterer would be paid off, not to mention the venue and the band. Meanwhile, guests sold their wedding invitations on eBay.

We might call a long-running cable-news piece a Treadmill Story, because it's best viewed in a mildly dazed state while exercising at the gym and also because journalists telling it (watching every little fact come around and around on the news cycle) walk their own kind of treadmill. This style has become increasingly familiar, but the Jennifer incident may go into history as the Treadmill Story in its most intricate and sophisticated form.

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