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Couric treats 'Bride' with kid gloves

Let's assume that, as NBC insists, Katie Couric and her crew didn't pay a cent for an exclusive interview with Jennifer Wilbanks, the already-too-famous ''runaway bride."

There's still a cost to whatever cajoling and sweet-talking landed this ''get." A deal like this can only work if the subject comes out ahead. So the woman who filed the world's most famous false police report must be treated unequivocally as a victim.

Thus, ''The Runaway Bride: A Katie Couric Special" was steeped in the plodding instrumental music that's usually reserved for issue movies of the week. And Couric soft-pedaled her way through the hour, offering pop-psychology tips (''Was that a cry for help, and was anyone listening?") and asking her few vaguely-difficult questions in the most apologetic way.

The answers didn't matter much, anyway, since this hour was just as much about Couric. It came, after all, in the midst of her much-discussed rivalry with Diane Sawyer -- whose ''Good Morning America" on ABC is encroaching on the ratings dominance of NBC's ''Today," and who appeared this month in her own much-publicized tete-a-tete with Brad Pitt.

Who was worthier of an hour of primetime coddling is an open question. Both Pitt and Wilbanks play the maddening game of pretending to hate the attention while taking it to the bank. Wilbanks has signed a $500,000 deal for book and movie rights, which surely won't be devalued by an hour of primetime exposure.

At least you could argue that Wilbanks's story had left some unanswered questions; all of the ink spilled in April offered little real insight. When she disappeared, we heard the usual platitudes about how happy and stable she was. When she turned out to be neither, we got silence.

And there were a few truths to be gleaned, between the lines, from Couric's interview. Sitting beside fiancé John Mason in a demure suit and TV-ready hairdo, Wilbanks didn't seem malicious or scheming. As her botched adventure suggests, she was hardly a criminal mastermind. Her brown eyes -- as in the unfortunate photograph that circulated when she disappeared -- had the wide, frightened look of an animal caught in headlights.

But neither weeks of therapy nor Couric's polite prodding seemed to have increased her powers of introspection. Here, for example, was Wilbanks on her brief criminal record of shoplifting and theft:

''What in the world was I doing, what was I thinking, why?"

On why she chose to take a bus out of town, instead of an airplane:

''For whatever crazy reason, it just seemed like it would be safe for me to be on a bus."

On how she came up with her bizarre tale of abduction and assault:

''Maybe I watched too many cops and robbers movies?"

Or too many episodes of Ricki Lake? Couric didn't press. Instead, she allowed Wilbanks to roll out a series of victim-platitudes, like, ''I've got to first of all learn to be happy with myself, so I can have confidence others will be happy with me."

Hers is a sad story, on the whole: someone who could only find a spectacularly abnormal way to cope with fairly normal pressures. She is getting inpatient psychiatric treatment, which appears to be much-needed. She is, as Couric gently pointed out, widely maligned.

But when she sniffled, ''Who in the world wants all their secrets out there? Not me," it was hard to sympathize. We'd forget her a lot more easily if she had turned down those TV requests.

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