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Two Bleed, One Leads

August 30, 2006

Two young girls lost.  The name of one, Jon Benet Ramsey, is etched in the collective U.S. consciousness. The other, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, barely registers—if it registers at all.

Spurred by the recent arrest of a man who claimed to be Jon Benet’s rapist and murderer, John Mark Karr, the media has devoted hundreds of primetime hours to the Ramsey case during the past two weeks, consuming the attention of national pundits and local newscasters alike.  While this degree of media interest is rare for any case in today’s attention-deficit-disorder—and infotainment—afflicted news world (and especially unusual for what is a ten-year old, cold case file), media coverage of the Ramsey case is even more disturbing when juxtaposed with the al-Janabi case.

“If it bleeds, it leads” goes the old newsroom adage. Is the brutal stalking, gang-rape, massacre, and torching of Abeer—and the murder and burning of her family—less newsworthy because it occurred during wartime? Because it happened in Iraq?  Because these crimes were allegedly committed by six U.S. soldiers? Because Abeer was not white, wealthy, or a child beauty pageant winner posed in kiddie porn-like displays for the camera?

Why are media hours and resources lavished on researching and reporting the background of one man—even after DNA evidence has proven him not to be the Ramsey rapist/murderer—but not one five-minute segment, and hardly any newsprint, devoted to the backgrounds of the six U.S. GIs who allegedly committed the Iraq atrocity—not even Spc. James P. Barker, the one who has confessed to it? (Others accused are Sgt. Paul Cortez, Pfc. Jesse Spielman, and Pfc. Bryan Howard; a fifth, Sgt. Anthony Yribe, is charged with failing to report the attack but not with having participated.  Pfc. Steven Green, also accused, has been discharged but faces charges.)

In the summer of 2002, the U.S. public faced similar questions when Elizabeth Smart, a blonde teen from an affluent Salt Lake City suburb, was abducted from her bedroom one June night. The case garnered hundreds of hours of local, regional, and national news coverage. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the abduction of Alexis Patterson, an African American girl, went virtually unnoticed by the press. That same summer, Erica Pratt was named a Time Person of the Week in July 2002. Erica was a then seven-year old African American girl who literally chewed her way free from her captors. Only by her extraordinary feat did she warrant the media’s attention.

Jon Benet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Chandra Levy, and Natalee Holloway—these names we know.  But Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, Alexis Patterson, and Laura Berenice Monarrez, one of the more than 400 girls and women abducted, raped, and murdered in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, are not only gone, they’ve been disappeared by the media.

Jon Benet, as almost everyone now knows, was a six-year old girl with blonde, bouncy curls from a white, wealthy family in affluent Boulder, CO. Her rape and murder is certainly no less vile than the rape and murder of Abeer, an Arab Muslim girl from a country shredded by war. But the implications in the coverage are alarming. The lack of in-depth coverage of Abeer’s murder is, in effect and whatever the final outcome, a pre-pardoning for the six U.S. soldiers whose crimes are deemed unavoidable, if not acceptable, because they occurred during the U.S. occupation of a foreign country, against a dark-skinned child.

Rape and murder against Jon Benet, on the other hand, are reported as a heinous anomaly—bad things like that aren’t supposed to happen to little white girls who are safely tucked in their beds.

Ironically, wrong in both cases. Someone is sexually assaulted every two and a half minutes in the U.S. One in six women has been raped (attempted or completed). Of rape victims, 44% are under the age of 18, and 80% are under the age of 30. (For statistics and additional information, see RAINN (http://www.rainn.org), the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Clearly, it needs to be the right kind of bleeding to lead the news. The skin, if not the blood, needs to be the right color. Can there be much doubt about the differences that race, ethnicity, class, and nationality/geography make to media coverage in the U.S. today?

To get to Abeer, her family was murdered. They can no longer ask, “What about Abeer?” So we must.

This commentary continues the Women’s MediaCenter series and organizing campaign focusing on the crimes against Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and their implications for the U.S. military and foreign policy. For the Iraq Series opening commentary, see Robin Morgan's Manhood and Moral Waivers. For voices of Iraqi women, see Baghdad Burning and an interview with Yanar Mohammed. Look to the WMC site for continued coverage of this case, information from women's organizations concerned with issues of women, war, and violence, and relevant reprints and links to reporting from a range of media outlets.

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