The Runaway Bride: Not Yet Dead

This morning, as I exercised aboard my treadmill -- a pointless routine if ever there was one -- I scanned most of the TV-news-and-chat programs. Today, GMA, American Morning, some of the local shows here in New York. Even Imus, on MSNBC. I do this five times a week, usually between 8 and 9 o'clock. I walk slowly, but I give the TV remote a pretty brisk workout. In truth, I'm not sure if I'm losing any weight, but I think I may have shed a few IQ points along the way.

I'm not complaining, not at all. Silly morning TV is an American rite. It may not always be good for us, but we have come to demand it nevertheless -- even when it's godawful sour or smarmy or lazy (which is about 51 percent of the time).

My big disappointment today is that through the entire morning, as I sweated on my trusty mill, I learned absolutely nothing new about Jennifer Wilbanks, The Runaway Bride. What's happened to TRB in the last 24 hours? No "Flash News"? No "Breaking Story"?

I did a quick Google search, which brought up more than 4000 news accounts about Ms. Wilbanks, although not too many bore today's date. This no doubt explains why TV has been ignoring the bride-that-wasn't. TRB remains in seclusion, which is where runaways generally remain for a time while they are being characterized as a "disgrace" by the press.

But that is just plain wrong. And frustrating. How long must we wait for Fox, or some other news outlet, to post its Senior Seclusion Correspondent on Ms. Wilbanks' tail?

The wait isn't exactly infuriating, but it's ... well, at the very least, abnormal.

Cable TV must continue to focus on this story for a while. It's not played out. I mean that.

After all, that's what cable news does best -- zero in on a story and ride it until a hour past the public's interest has finally expired. Cable was born to fulfill just this mission, was it not? (Think in terms of the Peterson trial, the Wendy's chili finger, and, from eons ago, the legendary Wardrobe Malfunction.)

The Runaway Bride has got life in her yet.

It's all well and good that Bush and Putin are powwowing in Russia. Very nice, fellas. We've got some ongoing battle-armor issues to deal with in Iraq. That needs to be resolved, sure. And we're still getting to know and understand Pope Benedict XVI. Brian William and his anchormen colleagues are obediently covering those stories, as well they should.

But Jennifer Wilbanks -- who, it now turns out, is not just a fleeance but also a serial shoplifter -- resonates deeply with most of us as a figure of both contempt and despair. Even President Bush, on his best day, cannot match those creds.

Which is why Wilbanks is bankable still. She may be a reluctant celebrity, even an inadvertent celebrity, but she's heart-and-soul news, and that's the kind that endures beyond a couple of weeks.

I've read many of the online complaints and heard the radio talk-show blather about the extent to which this episode has been overplayed in the media. Granted, there are those who looked into Jennifer Wilbanks' oversized eyes and said, "Enough is enough." (Who are these people?! I want to know.) Time to get on with it and leave the beleaguered bride to the courts -- so goes one (barely indefensible) argument.

I disagree. I'm with CNN's recently appointed president, Jonathan Klein, who, in backing his minions, told a reporter this week that he could easily justify deploying the extensive journalistic resources of CNN in order to get us inside the Bride's brain.

Klein may be many things -- even inside his own organization there are concerns about his news judgment -- but a fool he's not. America is not yet done with Jennifer Wilbanks. You don't walk away from a big wedding, report to police that you've been abducted by foreigners, head to New Mexico, and then just get to disappear into seclusion. Not in modern-day, news-nuts America you don't.

There are questions yet to be answered, Ms. Wilbanks. (Such as ... "If your intended husband imposed impossible sex limitation on your pre-wedded life, as has been widely rumored, was your cross-country Greyhound journey meant to embarrass him or, rather, to scare up a last-minute date for yourself? Huh?")

Come out, come out, wherever you are, Jennifer Wilbanks.

American TV needs you now. So do I. So do millions. Your tale is far from over.