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Media Battle Over Elizabeth Smart Story

Media Battle Over Elizabeth Smart Story

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NEW YORK (AP) -- Elizabeth Smart and her family have been all over television in the past week -- a story that speaks as much to the rivalries and egos of media titans as to the family's own harrowing experience.

It could make a TV show of its own: "When Good Publicity Campaigns Go Bad."

Or did it really go bad?

Smart, now 15, was abducted at knifepoint from her Utah home last June, then was found and her alleged kidnappers arrested nearly eight months later. Her disappearance dominated the news, as did the good news of her safe return, a rare happy ending in a missing child case. "It was sort of a watershed moment," recalled NBC's Katie Couric. "I remember so vividly hearing the completely unexpected news" of her recovery.

Couric is central to the story of the media battle over the story. Elizabeth's parents, Ed and Lois Smart, have written a book, "Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope," to be released Tuesday. They also cooperated with CBS on a television movie due to air Nov. 9.

The book's publisher, Doubleday, constructed a media campaign that granted Couric the first news interview with Elizabeth and her parents, which aired Friday on "Dateline NBC."

But six days before Couric's interview was shown, the publisher was surprised to see CBS broadcast a one-hour prime-time special, "Elizabeth Smart: America's Girl," featuring an interview with Ed & Lois Smart from the set of the movie.

Doubleday, whose representatives would not comment on the campaign to The Associated Press, angrily accused CBS in published reports of breaking an agreement not to broadcast anything to promote the movie until a week before Nov. 9.

CBS' special had, at least in part, scooped Couric.

"As fiercely competitive as broadcast networks are with one another, there's no way we would make an agreement for a competing network to dictate when we begin promoting a movie," said Chris Ender, CBS entertainment spokesman.

CBS would never admit scheduling a show out of vengeance. But its executives were privately annoyed that the deal with Couric was made without their knowledge.

Beating the drums for Couric's interview, NBC's "Today" aired excerpts of the chat every day last week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, ABC's "Good Morning America" also ran clips from an Elizabeth Smart interview. The source? Oprah Winfrey, who had already completed what was to be -- per Doubleday's plans -- the second interview with the family. Winfrey is devoting her syndicated talk show to the discussion on Monday.

NBC News President Neal Shapiro was so angry about the "GMA" segments that he phoned his ABC News counterpart, David Westin, to complain, according to the New York Post. Representatives for both men would not confirm they talked.

Winfrey was miffed that she was awarded the second, not the first, interview with the Smarts, according to a news executive close to the story who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Winfrey spokeswoman, Carly Ubersox, said it was strictly promotion, not anger, that led Oprah to "Good Morning America." Winfrey violated no agreement with the publisher, she said.

ABC was only too happy to oblige. "Good Morning America" and "Today" are sharp competitors.

"There was an opportunity to provide information to our viewers and we took that opportunity," said Jeffrey Schneider, ABC News spokesman. "I think any good news organization would do that."

NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust said: "While ABC has been forced to play catch-up on this story, we remain focused on our own special, which provides the first and most complete look at Elizabeth Smart and her family."

In Utah, Ed Smart said he "can't believe" the media wars surrounding his family's story.

"I'm very surprised it's been as crazy as it's been," he said. "The phone rings off the hook."

A similar media campaign will unfold over the next few weeks for rescued POW Jessica Lynch, with ABC News' Diane Sawyer getting the first interview. But since subsequent interviews will be conducted live, there's less of a chance Sawyer will be beaten on that story.

Media campaigns on big stories almost beg news organizations to compete. Simon & Schuster was angered earlier this year when The Associated Press reported on the contents of Sen. Hillary Clinton's memoir, "Living History," ahead of its meticulously planned media release.

"At the end of the day, all of this is really silly -- two media companies doing their best to make their respective projects work," CBS' Ender said.

Despite the media sniping, the publicity may help sell the project. "Living History" certainly wasn't hurt by controversy.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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