Minutes into watching the crazy octuplet mother calmly explain to news actress Ann Curry the totally nonsensical reasons why she thinks a single mom with no job and a small house can raise 14 kids by herself, I got an odd feeling -- like watching an accomplice get away with murder.
Somehow, in viewing Dateline NBC's breathless report Tuesday on this woman who looks like she paid a plastic surgeon to make her look like Angelina Jolie, I felt like a contributor to the media circus. I felt like I -- and everyone else who bothered to tune into this string of lies and rationalizations presented like a news report -- helped make this happen.
It seems obvious now that Nadya Suleman's best hope for avoiding bankruptcy is cashing in on her status as a baby factory. If People magazine will pay $100,000 for exclusive pictures, or some TV news outlet will pay $50,000 to use her personal photos during its reports, or Doubleday will pay six figures for a ghost-written book on her tribulations, the financial picture starts to look a bit brighter.
(NBC has denied paying Suleman anything for her interviews; initially, according to the Los Angeles Times, one of her publicity representatives said the matter was between her and NBC before denying she was paid. The newspaper cited unnamed competitors saying Suleman's family asked for as much as $1.2 million for the interview; networks sometimes provide first-class plane fares or license fees for personal photos to sidestep issues of paying high-profile sources directly.)
But none of this happens unless Suleman can convince media companies that her bizarre personal situation will draw a paying crowd. Hence the interviews that produced three days of coverage -- and time-slot winning ratings for NBC Tuesday night -- on the Today show and Dateline NBC.
Curry was perfect for the job. Challenged enough to read headlines and pitch softball interviews on the Today show, she must expend a tremendous amount of energy just to look like a serious journalist in these settings, leaving little juice left to actually challenge Suleman.
Questions I wish she had asked more aggressively:
Why did Suleman split hairs, saying she wasn't planning on accepting welfare, if she already was on public assistance and three of her children are receiving disability payments?
Why does she look like she has altered her nose, lips and hairstyle to resemble another celebrity focused on building an unusually large family, Angelina Jolie?
Who will pay the estimated $1.3 million in costs expected from the effort to keep her eight newborns alive? If the public eats that bill, and it likely will, why wouldn't that be considered welfare? (And why didn't Curry press her more on any of these points?)
If she's being shifty about receiving public assistance -- and denying having had plastic surgery when it's obvious from looking at old pictures that she's had some work done on her face -- can we believe anything she says?
This case brims with irony: The doctor who apparently implanted the six embryos into Suleman, exceeding the numbers other doctors have said is ethical and safe, has one of the worst success rates in the country. And the mother at the center of this case, facing increasing questions about her own fitness of mind, once worked at a state mental hospital.
But the worst irony may be that those of us clucking over her excesses also help feed the frenzy of attention that will allow her to cash in on her horribly pathological choices.
Follow Eric Deggans on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Deggans