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From paradise to paradox in Aruba

At first, finding a missing American girl was paramount. Then the American media settled in, and attitudes have changed.

Published August 22, 2005

ORANJESTAD, Aruba - Hurricanes almost never come this far south in the Caribbean.

It's one of the many attractions that lure hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to the sunny, slow-paced island of Aruba.

But, when an Alabama teen, Natalee Holloway, disappeared May 30, Arubans had no idea of the storm that was about to hit them.

Within days of her disappearance packs of reporters - mostly cable TV producers and crews - descended on the unsuspecting island. They were soon followed by dozens of members of U.S.-based volunteer search groups.

Audiences in the United States are used to the sight of media satellite trucks arrayed outside Los Angeles courthouses, high school shootings and even a Pinellas Park hospice. But tiny Aruba has never seen anything like it. Only 20 miles long and 6 miles across, with 97,000 inhabitants, it is less than one-third the size of Pinellas County, with one-tenth the population.

At first the Americans were met with open arms by locals. They found them free hotel rooms and meals. They washed their clothes. Arubans are proud of the island's reputation for hospitality and a low crime rate. Auto license plates boast the slogan, "One Happy Island."

But almost three months later patience with the media - and the Holloway family - is wearing thin.

"We put out the welcome mat and we were trampled upon," said Julia Renfro, the U.S.-born editor of Aruba Today , a daily English-language newspaper that rallied island support for the family. "We all wanted to help, but we never thought this would become a case against Aruba."

Arubans say they sympathize deeply with Holloway's family. But unbalanced and overblown coverage by the U.S. media has put TV ratings ahead of professional journalism, they complain.

Criticism of Americans does not come easily to Arubans. U.S. consumer culture is everywhere to be seen in Aruba, from brand names such as Marriott to Taco Bell. But, as the story grinds on with no end in sight, Arubans are learning there are aspects of U.S. culture they could do without.

* * *

Most of what we know about the case was known in the first few days.

Natalee Holloway vanished hours before she was to catch a return flight to Alabama at the end of a high school graduation trip.

Authorities detained seven people in the case, but only Joran van der Sloot, the 18-year-old son of a Dutch trainee judge, remains in custody. Holloway was last seen leaving a bar with van der Sloot.

Despite the lack of major developments, the Holloway story continues to receive prime-time coverage in the United States.

So what are all these reporters doing?

On Wednesday, cameramen and reporters staked out the courthouse for a closed-door hearing, hoping to catch a glimpse of van der Sloot entering and leaving in handcuffs. Lawyers were ambushed on the courthouse steps, but had little new to say.

With networks paying as much as $1,500-a-day for freelance cameramen, $300 to $400 for hotel rooms for producers and crew, as well as $3,000 for satellite feeds, any tidbit will do.

When a park ranger found a piece of duct tape with a strand of blond hair, it became major international news. Talk shows deemed it crucial evidence. The hair turned out to belong to a local wave-boarder out surfing.

An arm found off the coast of Venezuela was treated with similar scrutiny. The dubious testimony of two supposed witnesses - a gardener and a homeless man - is endlessly debated.

One witness led authorities to drain two salt ponds, disturbing a flock of nesting egrets. Journalists clambering for a view accidentally broke a water main, reflooding one pond. The day after the pipe was fixed, reporters broke it again.

A Texas search group of mostly middle-aged men with large waistlines held a press conference to announce they would appreciate some free food. Another group from Florida accused the Texans of overindulging at local bars, and failing to do a professional job.

A park ranger accused a Texas volunteer group of destroying a nest of endangered sea turtle eggs while searching on a beach, a charge the group denied. Environmentalists photographed the cracked eggs.

"We don't know who did it," said Edith van der Wal, secretary of the island's sea turtle foundation. "But all these years we never had any man-made destruction."

She also stopped another search team member from riding over another nesting area on an all-terrain vehicle.

"They don't do it intentionally, but they have no idea about our nature," she said. "There's a lot of reward money" - Holloway's family has offered $1-million - "It's like gold-digging."

It's a gold mine for the cable shows, too.

Ratings at CNN and Fox have soared since this story first broke, especially for the Fox show, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, who is averaging more than 2-million viewers a night, up almost 60 percent from a year ago.

Perhaps that explains why at the end of a slow news day last Wednesday, the nightly shows on Fox and CNN still managed to find something to discuss. The spokesmen for the two search groups revisited their continuing feud, but sought to downplay the animosity.

"We feed them (the media) chum to keep them happy," said Jim Knox, a West Palm Beach businessman who is sponsoring a two-dog search team on the island. "We don't like doing it. We do it to keep the story alive."

Not everyone in the media is grateful.

Last week, Bob Costas declined to fill on Larry King Live because the show planned to cover the Holloway case.

"I didn't think the subject matter of Thursday's show was the kind of broadcast I should be doing," Costas said in a statement. "I suggested some alternatives but the producers preferred the topics they had chosen."

* * *

The Holloway case caught authorities woefully unprepared.

"They are the "Not ready for prime time island,"' said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Felling, and other media watchdogs, say Aruba is a victim of a network fascination with missing white women as ideal fodder for 24-hour cable TV.

"The networks realized that there is nothing more durable than the damsel-in-distress," he said, reciting a growing list of cases, going back to Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart and Laci Peterson.

At first, Aruban authorities handled the Holloway case as they would any other.

Like most European-based police and judicial systems, little public information was released. That smacked of a coverup in the minds of the U.S. media, which is used to a steady diet of tips from police and judicial sources.

The government tried to counter that by staging a handful of press conferences. They explained Aruba's discreet judicial system. They explained that 20 percent of the 500-man police force was working the case. Behind the scenes, FBI and Dutch authorities were also involved, they said.

But the damage was done.

The Alabama legislature passed a resolution calling for a tourism boycott of Aruba.

The family wrote a letter to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley rejecting the idea, saying it "could severely harm our relationship with the people of Aruba, who have done so much to assist us."

On TV, the family strikes a different tone.

"The level of ineptness, the level of omissions of things, blatantly orchestrated errors ... just was incredible," Holloway's mother, Beth Holloway Twitty, told CBS last week.

That kind of talk has exasperated many islanders.

"They are giving Aruba a very bad name," said Juan Chabaya Lampe, 85, a beloved Aruban musician, painter and writer, who composed the country's national anthem in 1954. "The American media should apologize."

Clearly, criticism wounded the nation's pride.

After all, hadn't islanders leaped to help the Holloway family when news first broke of the disappearance? They treated them with the famous hospitality that entices 550,000 tourists every year, nearly three-quarters of them American.

One of the first people Holloway's mother contacted when she arrived on the island was Renfro at Aruba Today .

"Beth called and said, "I've lost my daughter, can you help me?"' said Renfro, 37. It was late and the paper was set. Renfro ordered printers to stop the presses, a first in the paper's history.

"We are all mothers and have daughters and we all wanted to help them," said Angela Munzenhofer, a reporter at the paper.

More than 200 local volunteers turned up the first day. They went house-to-house with fliers. They tied yellow ribbons on trees. When they ran out of yellow ribbons, they used white ones.

They searched for 19 days. Government offices closed so workers could join the search.

Staff at the paper grew close to the Holloways, arranging interviews with cable networks. They did the search teams' laundry.

"Did we get a thank you for washing their clothes?" said Munzenhofer. "No, instead we got in trouble for mixing them up."

What they saw reported on TV made the reporters even more uncomfortable.

Suspects and witnesses were incorrectly portrayed, say the women. Holloway was described as the victim of sexual assault, though no evidence has confirmed that. The father of the main suspect was identified as a politically influential judge, when in fact he was still studying and had failed exams for the bench. The family lived in relative obscurity in a modest home.

Media analysts continually speculated about van der Sloot's guilt, suggesting he was a difficult teen with behavioral problems. Van der Sloot has admitted to lying about some of the details of his last night with Holloway. But his school teachers deny any class problems. He graduated as an honor roll student and has several offers from U.S. universities.

"CNN used to be held in high regard. Today we don't even consider them respectable media," said Aruba's government spokesman, Ruben Trapenburg. He said other broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, had been more fair. Among print media, he praised Associated Press for its balance.

* * *

Tired of the media coverage, many Arubans have already refocused on everyday life. School has restarted and national elections are scheduled Sept.23. Public finance and education are the main topics. With only two murders in the past year, crime is hardly a topic.

"We are very open to American culture," Dilma Arends, another Aruba Today reporter, said, "but we are realizing that we are still a Dutch island."

With the nightly talk shows enjoying high ratings every time the Holloway case is featured, there's no sign the TV crews intend to break camp.

Prosecutors must decide by Sept.4 whether to charge van der Sloot or release him from custody.

Even then it may not be over. The law allows a 30-day extension.

--David Adams can be reached at

[Last modified August 22, 2005, 01:08:08]

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