Still missing

Debra J. Saunders

4/18/2003 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

The parking lot outside the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff was packed with TV vans, camera equipment and shivering reporters on Tuesday morning. To the public, we probably looked like vultures, ghoulishly itching to feast on what factual remains we could scavenge from two corpses that had washed up on the Richmond shore over two days, corpses that might be of Modesto resident Laci Peterson and the unborn baby whom she planned to name Connor.

In fact, however, there was little appetite for this story. Many reporters didn't want to be there.

Many don't think the Peterson story deserves the media attention it has garnered. If it weren't for cable news, this would be a local story -- local for Modesto, not for California, not for the nation.

Why is Laci Peterson a big story while countless other missing people rate a back-page story, if that? A reporter from a rival publication lists the traits he thinks helped to inflate her story: white, very pregnant and from Modesto, home of the late Chandra Levy. And she disappeared on Christmas Eve, another newspaper reporter added.

I don't think the story would be as big as it is if Laci Peterson weren't so cute, and so, well -- at least we thought -- happily married.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Janine DeFao, who has covered the story for months, told me earlier that she frequently hears from journalism students writing papers on why this missing-person case has received so much media attention.

The question is more than academic. Just ask Modesto resident Donna Raley, whose beloved 36-year-old step-daughter Dena Raley-McCluskey disappeared in 1999. Raley has had to watch a media whirlwind follow Levy, then Peterson, but largely bypass her step-daughter.

Raley doesn't begrudge the Laci coverage. "Laci's family, they got what they deserve. It just didn't happen for my family," Raley said. The focus on Levy and Peterson, she believes, prompted police to focus on Dena's disappearance with a stronger understanding of the epidemic of violence against women.

Raley and Chandra's mother, Susan Levy, founded a group, Wings of Protection, to support the families of individuals "missing under suspicious circumstances. "

Some reporters resent the Peterson story because it entails a lot of time for precious few developments in the story. They've spent days, hours, hanging around, waiting for press conferences at which authorities won't answer even the simplest questions. (CoCo County sheriffs' spokesman Jimmy Lee, for example, wouldn't answer if the adult body had a head. Readers may find that question macabre, but it's an important question to ask if you don't want to repeat an incorrect allegation.)

And there is always the fear that the press may serve to convict husband Scott Peterson of a crime he didn't commit. Yes, his actions are questionable. Yes, it's odd that he traded in her Land Rover for a Dodge Ram a few weeks after she disappeared -- even as he maintained that he believed she was alive. Yes, it's hard to believe, as Scott Peterson claimed, that the very-pregnant Laci wasn't angry when she learned of her husband's affair with a Fresno woman.

I'll admit it -- there were mornings when I'd open my Chronicle wondering what new smarmy thing I'd read about Scott Peterson.

The reporter from another paper says there should be media panels to determine what criteria make a crime story deserving of national coverage. "There's an absence of critical thinking among the editors and news directors, " he explains.

Yuk. A panel of experts to tell me that I shouldn't be interested in this tragic, real-life soap opera? A panel to pronounce that I shouldn't care if Peterson trades in his wife's SUV for a pickup because it has no impact on my life?

Phooey. Newspaper readership has been declining; 72 percent of Americans read Sunday papers in 1970, but 66 percent read Sunday papers in 1997, according to the Newspaper Association of America. That trend isn't likely to turn around if editors listen to solons who sniffle at stories that actually intrigue the public.