February 1, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Titillation is not helping in Ayla case

The media report many newsworthy developments in the case of the missing toddler – but then there's the mindless chatter.

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Was it news? Was it entertainment? Was it both?

"Baby Ayla blood 'clean-up' in daddy's bedroom? What do you think is the truth? Questions? call me now: 877-NANCY-01," read the tweet early Tuesday afternoon from the Twitter account of cable TV crime diva Nancy Grace.

Lest we all forget, the investigation into the disappearance of Ayla Reynolds is a criminal investigation of the highest order.

But let's also hit the pause button long enough to admit it – this increasingly sordid tale has become one part news, two parts reality TV show.

Somewhere between that 911 call by Ayla's father on the morning of Dec. 17 and Monday's apparently erroneous report by a Boston television station that police now think Ayla is dead, this seemingly straightforward whodunit has morphed into the talk of not just one small town, but of an entire nation.

"Informing the public takes many forms now," observed Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police, moments after taping his second interview in as many days with, you guessed it, Nancy Grace. "There's a useful purpose to it, but there are a lot of balls you have to keep up in the air."

The useful purpose, of course, is to keep the public (which by now means the entire planet) abreast of the investigation in the hope that someone who knows something might somehow step forward and save an innocent child. Or, if that's now impossible, at least help police find little Ayla's remains and figure out what happened to her.

Clearly, that's what prompted a sudden and significant change in McCausland's message over the weekend, when he announced for the first time that investigators don't buy Justin DiPietro's claim that his 20-month-old daughter was abducted from his modest home in Waterville while he, two other adults and two other children slept.

"Six weeks out, we have explored that (abduction) scenario every which way," McCausland said. "And there's not one piece of physical evidence that we've found in the home to back it up."

McCausland also confirmed a report posted by Ayla's mother, Trista Reynolds, on her family's website that police found evidence of blood in the basement of the home – and that the blood was Ayla's.

All newsworthy developments, to be sure. All deserving of the media's time and attention.

Then there's the mindless chatter.

We've got the incessant battle of the polygraphs, in which both Ayla's parents and assorted other players all say they've taken lie detector tests. Dad claims he knows his results but won't divulge them, while Mom says her test couldn't be completed because of medical problems she won't disclose.

Titillating? You betcha.

Useful? Hardly – especially when you consider that even under the best of conditions, polygraphs are not admissible in court as proof of guilt, innocence or anything in between.

We've got the nonstop appearances by both parents on the network morning news shows, appealing to an entire nation for help in locating their little girl.

Call me cynical, but I can't help but think all that face time with NBC's Matt Lauer has a lot more to do with ratings than with actually finding little Ayla. (I'll also go out on a limb and predict that the key unlocking this mystery will be found right here in Maine, not via Mississippi or Montana.)

Finally, with the national media on red alert, we've got the relentless pressure to be first – at all costs – if and when the big break finally arrives.

Hence Boston TV station WCVB's claim on Monday, based on "several anonymous sources," that Justin DiPietro left a police interrogation when confronted with the blood evidence and that "police do not believe Ayla is alive."

(Continued on page 2)

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