Albion Monitor /News

Media Frenzy Over Bizarre Amnesia Story

by Arjay Morgan

"We want to find out whether we've been had"

(AR) TAMPA -- While investigators continue their quest to determine whether a Florida teenager's disappearance and subsequent claims of amnesia are true, media in the Tampa Bay area are bashing one another over the wretched excess of their coverage of the story.

The whole imbroglio centers around Cheryl Ann Barnes, the Bushnell, Fla., teenager who disappeared January 3 and who was found disoriented in a New York City snowbank 15 days later. She was hospitalized as a Jane Doe patient and was treated for amnesia.

Now, New York investigators are telling Florida sheriff's investigators that someone, thus far unidentified, called the impound yard where the girl's car was being stored on January 26. The car had been towed from a no-parking zone near the Empire State Building.

This has led Sumter County (Florida) Sheriff James L. "Jamie" Adams to begin to doubt the girl's story. "We want to find out whether we've been had," he said in a news release.

Oddly, the TV folks seemed to overlook her father's problems

Meanwhile, the news media in Tampa and St. Petersburg has gotten itself into a tizzy over its coverage of the event.

Initially, police and the media treated the girl's disappearance as a kidnapping or abduction, and the requisite foot and horseback search of the barren Florida scrubland around her home was begun.

Naturally, the television stations flew their helicopters above the scene and became overly anxious to "help," which is another way of saying reporters and news managers would do anything to put themselves into the middle of the story, thus reaping ever greater TV ratings.

Whenever the story looked like it was about to die, one enterprising reporter or another would come up with a new angle. The girl's Pentecostal church congregation was a mother lode of ideas. Prayer meetings and "praise services" were booming, and TV made the most of them.

Oddly, the TV folks seemed to overlook, for the most part, her father's problems. It seems William Barnes, Jr. had gotten married just a few months before the disappearance. He married Cheryl's 18-year-old "best friend." They also seemed unable to find Barnes' 1980 conviction in Chicago for contributing to the sexual delinquency of a juvenile. The fact was, the media had already scripted the story. He was the Anguished Father, and nothing, not even the facts, were going to change that.

When the girl surfaced in a New York City hospital, claiming amnesia, the feeding frenzy commenced.

One TV station, the ABC affiliate, attempted to corner the story. It offered to fly the family to New York to retrieve the girl if it could have a 24-hour exclusive on the story.

Another TV station, the Fox affiliate, hollered "no fair" and put together a pool arrangement whereby all the stations would contribute to the $8,000 price of a chartered jet. This was deemed more acceptable by not only the electronic media but the two newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, as well.

Of course, when the seating arrangements were worked out the Fox station's reporter and cameraman as well as two of the newspaper's reporters were aboard. Not to be outdone, however, the other TV stations flew their own crews to New York to stand outside Beth Israel Hospital to make speculative reports on what would happen next. The hospital, much to its credit or discredit, depending on your point of view, cited patient confidentiality and stood mute.

"We're poor people, and we need the money," he said

It made no difference. The TV Twinkies interviewed Brooklyn cabbies who couldn't have cared less, and grizzled New York cops to whom runaways are common. But amid the gritty gray snow piles of Gotham, all of this made less-than-riveting video for the folks at home, except for New York transplants who could, yet again, thank their lucky stars they no longer live there.

When it came time for the homeward trek all and sundry piled back into the chartered jet, including Cheryl, who by now seemed to be able to cry on demand. In fact, despite her amnesia, she seemed able to burst into tears upon recognizing just about anything deemed "familiar." All of which was dutifully recorded by the pool cameraman.

But, it seems, all was not well in the pool. Yes, video of the joyful events were released to all the members, but, apparently, not all of the video. And, it seems, the TV folks had managed to put the family up in a posh Manhattan hotel and then rented a stretch limo for the trip to the airport. After all, a stretch limo wheeling across the tarmac looks a lot sexier than a beat-up Yellow Cab. This was to prove to be an unwise move in the peace and harmony department.

By the time the entourage arrived back in Tampa the stage had been set. Local crews set up for live broadcast of the joyous homecoming at the airport. Crews were also at the family home in Bushnell, about 60 miles away. And, oddly enugh, all of this was happening just about in time for the 6 p.m. newscasts.

Of course, it wouldn't do for the family, which up to now had been enjoying a modest lifestyle, to ride home in even another stretch limo. No, TV helicopters are much more glamourous, so in two news choppers they were whisked away from Tampa International Airport. It needs to be said that TV helicopters are equipped with radios and those radios connect with TV producers, so it was no real surprise when they landed in a field in Bushnell precisely in the middle of the Prime Time newscasts.

And, it was a touching moment when the father pleaded with the horde of media types to give his anguished daughter some breathing room. "No questions, please," was heard. This spirit of fatherly protectiveness was to disappear a day later when minions from "Inside Edition" and "The Montiel Williams Show," and, yes, even "Sally Jesse Raphael" began to wave airplane tickets to California and even more posh hotel digs.

To his credit, Barnes decided to hold out for even bigger money from the tabloids. "We're poor people, and we need the money," he said. Cheryl, meanwhile, was rejoined with her congregation and, once again, showed an amazing ability to cry.

TV news directors claimed that their performance in covering the story was journalistically correct

When the sheriff and fellow doubters appeared, Barnes -- to no one's surprise -- came up with the quote, "they're trying to smear this family." He also conveniently forgot to mention that he had just returned from jail, where he was forced to pay $1,300 bond to get out. Seems the law enforcement types had discovered he was wanted for not paying his fine on a drunk driving charge in another Florida county. They said they didn't arrest him before the homecoming on humanitarian grounds.

On the media front, things had begun to fall apart. The St. Petersburg Times declined to pay its share of the limo rental and the hotel room. Columnists from both papers waded in with cynical columns about the coverage of what, to them, was a non-event.

Even a TV news director sniffed that the video wasn't all that great, and his was the station which showed not only moderation in its coverage, but which amazingly had reaped the highest ratings of the evening. He also pointed out that the Fox station had withheld some video from the pool for its own "exclusive" use, which it bannered on the screen with its own "EXCLUSIVE" graphic.

This left the pot simmering until the Society of Professional Journalists chapter took up the cudgel and cancelled its regular meeting to instead discuss the coverage in an across-the-bay forum. Groups assembled on the campus of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and in Tampa, and the whole shebang was televised between the two venues.

As might be expected, the news directors from the various TV stations in the market were each accompanied by their own Praetorian Guard of assignment editors, reporters and cameraman. Also, as might be expected, each claimed that their performance in covering the story not only was journalistically correct, but that the media had performed yeoman service.

Dan Bradley, news director of the NBC affiliate even claimed that if it were not for the media attention, the girl could perhaps have lain forever, undiscovered, in the New York hospital.

Bob Jordan, who heads the ABC affiliate's news department, said, "We don't pay for interviews; we don't pay, never have, never will, for people to talk to us." Jordan's outfit, it may be remembered, was the one which offered to pay to fly the Barnes family to New York, and in return demanded 24 hours exclusive access to them.

Prior to coming to Tampa, Jordan was the news director of the TV station in Los Angeles which aired videotape of Marsha Clark, prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case, inspecting Simpson's mansion prior to the issuance of a search warrant. He subsequently left that station when it was discovered the time code on the videotape of the incident was wrong, and the station had to admit its error.

The love fest would have continued unabated were it not for one journalism student, who kept asking over and over again how the news honchos could justify paying for a story.

Perhaps the summation came from Mark Douglas, a TV reporter who observed, "This story has taken on an aura of perversion."

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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