When an 8-year-old girl in Atlanta said she had been almost abducted at school by a man who grabbed her off the slide at recess — and his gun fell out of his pocket, and he aimed it at her and touched it to her nose, and he choked her, too, but ran off the minute the teacher blew the whistle to indicate recess was over — at least one veteran newsman thought, "Hmm."
Bill Torpy, a columnist at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, immediately texted a friend that this tale sounded totally fabricated, "a figment" of the girl's imagination.
A stranger with a weapon on the playground in the middle of recess? Snatching, choking, gun-dropping, nose-touching — and no one else noticed? Even Liam Neeson might pass on that script.
But the school was so shaken it went into lockdown. (I do wonder if administrators are allowed to keep calm and carry on, or if there is zero tolerance for skepticism along with everything else.) For its part, local TV news was so eager to believe this incident — or at least so eager to offer this outrage hoagy to the hordes — that they soon picked up the story. And then there was the interview with the girl's mom saying how horrible it is that even at school, a child isn't safe. (In the mom's defense, I'd be a wreck, too. I'd just wish someone had pulled me aside to say there was a good chance this incident was pure poppycock.)
Two days later, the cops declared the whole thing "unfounded." They'd interviewed witnesses and reviewed the playground surveillance cameras.
No guy. No gun. No attempted anything.
Torpy is glad, of course, that nothing happened. But he was sickened by either the gullibility of the media or their inability to wait a beat or two before terrifying viewers with what surely sounded like a little kid's (or "Law & Order: SVU" writing room's) idea of the crazy crimes out there.
Torpy called me, ye olde common-sense mama, to recite the stats for him on how rare stranger danger is (the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they know), how safe times are (it's the safest time to be a kid in America ever) and how long a child would have to be left outside unattended for it to be statistically likely she'd be kidnapped (let's just say it's over 100,000 years).
But I wish I'd have also said this: How do you think an 8-year-old comes up with a story like that? Clearly, the picture of a creep snatching kids right and left is so seared into our national consciousness that even before a child is old enough for long division, she's already heard this storyline enough that it seems real, maybe even common, to her. And to her school. And to the media.
In his book "How Fear Works," Britain's Frank Furedi writes that all cultures have storylines that become so popular, they just keep getting repeated. Stick to what sells. For instance, if you buy a romance novel and at the end, the mousy secretary is at home scarfing a pint of Chunky Monkey while her billionaire boss elopes with the vice president of compliance, you'd throw that book across the room.
So, too, the news media knows what sells. We've gotten so used to the perverse being served up as "just the sick world we live in" that some researchers decided to study the effect. They showed a bunch of Brits a photo of a man and a boy and asked, "What's this a picture of?" The majority replied, "a pedophile."
It was a dad and son.
A society weaned on the sick, sad and scary expects — even enjoys — hearing more of the same. And darned if they won't get another helping tomorrow.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.