Tuesday, May 1, 2007

At Least Miss America Didn't Put on a Flight Suit

I am a dramatization of a doctor.
- Felix Unger (played by Tony Randall) acting in a television commercial in an episode of "The Odd Couple"

Politicians and celebrities love photo ops. And, if the opportunity is to pretend to be a police officer or a soldier, it seems as though the value of the appearance is doubled. So, it was a match made in publicists' heaven when Lauren Nelson, the reigning Miss America, traveled to Suffolk County, N.Y. to help authorities with a sting operation aimed at Internet sexual predators.

According to a Yahoo!/AP article, Nelson went online, pretended to be 14, and chatted with men. If they continued chatting when they found out her proffered age, she set up meetings with them at a "sting house" with television crews and law enforcement officials waiting at the agreed-upon location. And, of course, the whole thing was filmed for an episode of "America's Most Wanted."

All in good fun, and nobody got hurt, right? Kind of like Shaquille O'Neal riding along on a child pornography bust in Virginia? (I'm sure that Shaq had nothing to do with the fact that it was the wrong house. Oops!) Uh, no. See, while it might have been a gas for Nelson to go out to Long Island and practice her acting skills while securing a television appearance, it seems that actually coming back to testify against the people she helped bust isn't in the cards. Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota told Newsday, "Her agents have told us that she's not coming back to testify." I guess the fun is over, and Nelson is done.

That news was music to the ears of the defense attorney for one of the men nabbed in the sting. You see, since Nelson spoke to him, that makes her a key witness and one that he would like to cross-examine. Spota, as a result, said in the Newsday article, "Given the fact that we have now determined that Miss America was actually speaking to one of those arrested, I have instructed prosecutors not to present any more cases to the grand jury until we can determine her involvement." As for a case already presented to the grand jury, Spota added, "That case, in my view, could be compromised."

Spota called the police sting using Nelson well-intended but "nothing more than a publicity stunt." And therein lies the problem. Granted, as a 20-year-old at the beck-and-call of the Miss America organization, Nelson is probably as much of a puppet as she is a troublemaker, but the underlying point is the same. In this media-driven society, there is a disconnect between publicity and reality. Do what you need to do to get press or on television (or both), but don't even think about the real-world implications.

Really, how far of a jump is it from Miss America flaking to President Bush dressing up in a flight suit and landing on an aircraft carrier to declare victory in Iraq with the now-infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner in the background? Bush, with a military record spottier than a Dalmatian, had as much business wearing a flight suit as Pacman Jones has lecturing strippers for being greedy.

Bush's presidency has been conducted using the same strategy employed by the Miss America folks: Reality does not matter, just worry about how to portray things in the media. And, really, could Nelson have been any worse at being a law enforcement officer than Mike "Brownie You're Doing a Heck of a Job " Brown was at running FEMA? (By the way, for those of you who think that liberals have made up or exaggerated the Bush compliment to Brown, you can still see the quote on a news release on the White House website.)

Felix Unger's matter-of-fact proclamation that he was portraying a doctor in a commercial on "The Odd Couple" got a laugh partly because of his tendency to be too honest. When Miss America flutters into a serious situation, participates, and then flutters out, leaving the local prosecutor to clean up her mess, the photo op has crossed from silly to harmful. How would Nelson explain her decision not to testify to the parents of the next teenager sexually abused by a predator she helped catch (but refused to help put away)?

It's time we start calling public figures on their photo ops. Go ring the bell of the stock exchange or stick a silver-plated shovel into some pre-loosened earth. Just stay away from serious law enforcement issues. Or dressing in flight suits and prematurely telling us a war is over.