A media blitz surrounding the Elizabeth Smart case is raising questions about the impact of national TV exposure on a teenage crime victim - and provoking a high-stakes game of one-upmanship among television networks.
NBC's Katie Couric says the young Utah kidnap victim's first television interview was conducted with her parents' consent and included nothing that might traumatize her. Her interview with the 15-year-old Elizabeth, who was allegedly snatched at knifepoint from her Salt Lake City home and rescued nine months later, will be televised Friday.
"Part of her healing process is her ability to make decisions and do what she wants to do, obviously with her parents' consent," Couric told The Associated Press. "I guess different parents would make different decisions, but I think Ed and Lois (Smart) have her best interests at heart, and I don't think they would exploit their daughter."
The interview is one in a flurry of TV events timed to the publication of "Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Legacy of Faith," by Ed and Lois Smart. The Doubleday book is to be released Oct. 28.
Elizabeth - accompanied by her parents - also was interviewed last week by Oprah Winfrey for her syndicated talk show. The Winfrey appearance will air next Monday, the day before the book goes on sale. And CBS will air a television movie about the kidnapping, "The Elizabeth Smart Story," on Nov. 9.
In response to Couric's interview, CBS moved quickly to air "Elizabeth Smart: America's Girl," a one-hour special on the making of the movie that included an interview with Smart's parents. The interview, broadcast on Saturday, was produced by CBS' entertainment division (Smart's parents were paid for their participation, unlike with Couric's NBC show), not its news division.
That, in turn, had Doubleday fuming.
"CBS misled the Smarts and misled Doubleday regarding the timing of the movie promotion," Doubleday executive vice president for publicity Suzanne Herz is quoted on the Web site for The Drudge Report. "We were all shocked and disappointed that they would break their verbal agreements."
Citing Daily Variety, The Drudge Report said Tuesday that CBS had agreed not to promote the TV movie until after the book campaign had begun and Couric's exclusive had been aired. Daily Variety said a CBS spokesman denied any such agreement had been made with the publisher.
Elizabeth disappeared June 5, 2002, and was discovered in nearby Sandy on March 12 and her alleged captors arrested. Brian David Mitchell, 50, and his wife Wanda Barzee, 57, are charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated burglary in Elizabeth's abduction.
Elizabeth has been seen on television before, playing the harp after her parents were interviewed on John Walsh's syndicated talk show. But this will be the first time most Americans will hear her speak.
Couric said NBC was not trying to exploit Elizabeth.
"It was a very, sort of casual conversation, and I was careful not to go into subject areas that I thought would be traumatic for her," she told AP. "It's a fine line and, I'm sure, if given an opportunity everyone is going to criticize everybody else for something, but I think I handled it as sensitively as I possibly could."
Asked by AP if Couric asked Elizabeth any questions that caused her discomfort, Ed Smart said Monday, "No. We wouldn't allow it."
When she left for the interview with the Smarts, Couric wasn't sure if she would speak with Elizabeth, she said.
She asked Elizabeth to read a passage she had written for an upcoming book but the teen declined. Couric then asked if she would talk a little about how she's doing and Elizabeth agreed.
NBC released a snippet of their conversation on Monday. Couric asked what were some of the greatest things for Elizabeth about being back with her family and what she had been looking forward to during her months of captivity.
"Um, just being back and not having to be, like, told I'm a horrible, evil, wicked, evil evil girl every 10 seconds," she replied.
Couric said it was not an extended interview, "but we talked about a variety of subjects and I think she was able to give some insight into how she's doing and a little bit about how this experience has changed her."
During their interview, Smart's parents told Couric that Elizabeth insisted upon taking them to the crude campsite near their home where she was first held against her will.
"I said to her, 'Elizabeth, how does this make you feel coming back here, seeing this squalor that you lived in for so long?' " Lois Smart said. "And she said, she stood up and she said, 'I feel triumphant.' "