The FBI has announced that it believes it has found the body of 22-year-old Gabby Petito in Grand Teton National Park. This story that captivated the nation has now become a manhunt rather than a missing person case. Petito’s fiancé, Brian Laundrie, is regarded as a person of interest and has been missing since September 14.
Media coverage of the story has dominated headlines that would otherwise have been devoted to the burgeoning crises of the Biden administration. But going one step further, the Fourth Estate has decided that ethnicity should become a prime factor in its broadcasting. Outlets, including a prominent Washington newspaper, are attempting to insert a racial aspect into the story. Not that either the victim or the prime suspect are persons of color. No, this time, it is the cultivated audience that is guilty of having a white supremacist outlook.
All About Whiteness
Scott Bonn, a criminologist specializing in “cultural touchstones,” said, “You’ve got this beautiful young couple, supposedly in love, making this romantic adventure across the country, and then something goes very bad.” He continued:
“It’s about our culture and our society. We place a priority on whiteness. We place a priority on youth and on our expectations of physical beauty.”
Bonn explained that the public is so wrapped up in this story because of Petito’s race and that if she were “a woman of color,” there would be little interest in the case. But is this true? Or is it yet another attempt to castigate the American public for perceived inadequacies in dealing with racial issues?
Interest in true crime has been a burgeoning market over the last several years. With the success of such TV shows as True Detective, a plethora of investigative shows such as CSI and its associated spin-offs, never before have individual Americans had so much access to both data and criminal procedure tools.
There are hundreds of podcasts devoted to present and historical murders, in which the hosts and guests examine all the gory details of a crime and propose theories, present evidence, and evaluate data points. Websites, books, radio shows, TV shows, and movies have contributed to this fascination that has gripped the imagination like few other trends. And yet, the Big Box media writes that it is merely the color of the victim’s skin that has created the attention.
In 1966, Truman Capote detailed the brutal murders of the Clutter family in his book In Cold Blood. It was an instant success in the genre and was only ousted from its top spot by Helter Skelter in 1974, covering the Manson family murders. The macabre has always proved compelling to the audience, and rightly or wrongly, the media itself is at least partly responsible for developing this taste.
Newsrooms across the world have long followed the adage of “If it bleeds, it leads.” Journalists and anchors portray every gruesome detail of crimes in the hopes of hanging on to the viewers for just a few moments longer. The case of Gabby Petito has been no different. The outlets that now lambast the public for being interested only because of racial bias are the same ones that ran countless stories in a drip-feeding fashion to create an emotional connection to the victim. Hours of interviews, page after page of print, photos and diagrams, all presented to generate an investment in the story.
A Narrative Change
Now that a body has been found – with an autopsy into the cause of death expected Tuesday, September 21 – the tragic tale is about to transform into a procedural affair rather than a mystery, and so the public must be fed the next installment with as much fanfare as possible. In 2021, what could be a grander event than telling all of those folks who followed the arc of the story presented by the mainstream media that they are now little more than racists who lack empathy unless it is for those of their own background?
As columnist Dave Barry wrote, “I would not know how I am supposed to feel about many stories if not for the fact that the TV news personalities make sad faces for sad stories and happy faces for happy stories.” The Fourth Estate appears to believe the American audience are little more than children with malleable minds and that it has a duty to either educate or scold as the situation defines. But perhaps the media has this time overplayed its hand.
The public cares about this story because it is one of life lost, of love trampled, and of youth betrayed by the grim specter of death. It is a tragedy with which all can relate because it represents a primal fear. It is not race that has birthed the fascination, but instead, empathy. Something those who seek to profit from the death of Gabby Petito seem to lack.