Elizabeth Smart: Privacy Versus Publicity; Media And Money

by John Edward Gill

While Ed Smart and other members of Elizabeth Smart’s family have appeared on various television talk shows, some print journalists have questioned whether Elizabeth is having enough privacy.

“Now they (the family) should tell everyone to go away and let this young girl heal in peace,” wrote Jim Stingl, in the March 16, 2003, edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“I’m sure Elizabeth’s parents love her very much,” Stingl continued, “and they can show it by doing their best to protect ¬†what’s left of her privacy and helping to ease her back into school, which will be traumatic enough.”

Yet, that may be hard to do with more than 100 media and book offers for Elizabeth’s story.

TV movie producer Larry Thompson said “a person who has his or her story transformed into a made-for-television movie could make $5,000 to $25,000. If it airs, the take climbs to $100,000 to $500,000,” he told Vanessa E. Jones of The Boston Globe on March 15, 2003. ” A four-hour miniseries could yield half a million dollars. The sale of a feature film moves into the millions.”

Thompson pointed out, in the same article, that the Pennsylvania miners who were trapped underground two years ago “rode” their ordeal to a $1.5 million contract with a television network and a book publisher.

“The media spotlight her family so desperately sought to aid in her recovery will be difficult to dim,” wrote Brooke Adams in The Salt Lake Tribune on March 16, 2003. Adams pointed out that Chris Thomas, a family spokesperson, has a recording on his voice mail asking film and literary agents to send movie and book proposals in writing.

Elizabeth Smart, now 15, was taken from her Salt Lake City, Utah, home one night in June, 2002, and found on the streets of Salt Lake City one day in March of this year. A homeless couple is being held in her kidnapping.

The McClure family, of Midland, Texas, tried to protect their daughter, Jessica, when that child, then just 18-months-old, fell down an 8-inch well behind a relative’s house on October 14, 1987. Thanks to TV, Adams wrote, the world was ringside when jubilant rescuers finally freed the tot.

According to the Pew Center for People and the Press, “Jessica McClure is the only other individual to have ranked with Princess Diana in news interest,” Adams reported. A movie was made of Jessica’s ordeal two years later, with a book about her father published in 1997.

Now living in Tyler, Texas, with her father and stepmother, Jessica declined an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. She told one interviewer recently she tries to be just a typical teenager, but can’t imagine life without being “Baby Jessica”.

Another Jessica, Jessyca Mullenberg, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, gives a similar answer. In 1995, when she was 13, a male neighbor who had stalked her family for years, kidnapped her. She was his captive for three-and-a-half months and found with her abductor in a Texas motel.

She had endured a lot of bad, bad things,” said her mother, Monica Lukasavige of Junction, City, Wisconsin. Mullenberg returned home very much a public figure. Lukasavige said the family was torn between privacy and wanting to shout the victory of Jessyca’s homecoming, settling on ¬†compromise.

“She (Jessyca) did some interviews, but they were very short and they had specific instructions about what and what not to ask her,” Lukasavige said. “I guarded her as much as I possibly could. I feel it was the best decision because it gave her a chance o speak, rather than hold it all in. It showed to other kids that have had this happen that there is a way out of it.”

The challenges of Mullenberg’s public status followed her through high school and even into college. She received both empathy and skepticism, she said. Some people asked why she didn’t run away; others were envious of her publicity.

What helped her most was a positive attitude and support of family and a few close friends, she said.