In Depth

The 'Get' of the Season: Octomom

Medical ‘Miracle’ Story Turns Into Tabloid Tempest

What started out as a medical “miracle” story ended up among the biggest of the year’s news “gets.”

In early February, “Dateline NBC” and “Today” show co-anchor Ann Curry landed an exclusive interview with Nadya Suleman, the mother of octuplets whose birth less than two weeks earlier had made worldwide headlines.

The heavily promoted interview aired over three days on “Today,” on “Dateline NBC” and across other NBC News platforms as well as on the network’s affiliated television stations throughout the country. The airings happened shortly after it had been revealed that Ms. Suleman—a woman who quickly became known as Octomom—was a 33-year-old single mother on disability who already had six children, all under the age of 7.

In their one-on-one, Ms. Curry asked Ms. Suleman how she ended up with 14 kids. “That was always a dream of mine, to have a large family, a huge family, and I just longed for certain connections and attachments with another person that I really lacked, I believe, growing up,” Ms. Suleman replied.

The interview created a media firestorm about Ms. Suleman’s mental health and her ability to be a fit parent. “I took no delight in getting or doing it,” Ms. Curry said. “I found it very troubling and emotionally trying to do that interview. It raised troubling moral questions—what was going to happen to 14 children and why a doctor and a woman would get into that position.”

The story had rapidly evolved from the birth of the octuplets as a medical “miracle”—a medical team of 48 assisted in the delivery at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Bellflower, Calif.—to a sort of real-life soap opera fraught with ethical questions about in vitro fertilization and concern about the welfare of the premature infants and the cost of caring for them.

“It spiraled into a kind of tabloid entertainment show,” Ms. Curry said. “Part of that is people are fascinated and troubled. The majority of people are concerned about the children. The story is what is there that would prevent a woman from this life-risking scenario. There are so many questions about fertility, in terms of how to make sure a woman is not in this position again.”

Other networks and television programs soon followed with their own exclusive angles on the story. ABC News and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” interviewed Ms. Suleman’s father, Ed Doud, who said he was taking a primary role in caring for the babies.

“The big question is why anyone would have a number of children in these circumstances,” said Martin Bashir, co-anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline.” “I just think it’s a difficult time with the economy, and people are asking each other to be responsible. People have a misunderstanding of the reproductive process, and many have condemned the doctor. The principle concern has to be the ongoing care of the children. They did not have any part in this, and the desire to condemn the mother should be tempered.”

Entertainment programs and tabloid media made Ms. Suleman into daily fodder. “To show the absurdity of the whole thing, we’ve found her at MAC Cosmetics, we found out about her deals with various shows and buying a house,” said Harvey Levin, executive producer of “TMZ,” which first ran the shocking photograph of Ms. Suleman’s pregnant belly—an image that stirred up heated viewer response. He said “TMZ” broke other elements of the story about Octomom, a woman he called “a train wreck.”

“We are very aggressive journalists, and that’s how we found documents about the foreclosure of her mother’s house, the pregnancy picture and the sale of the new house being funded by money from television shows,” Mr. Levin said. “She’s charging for everything. They were trying to sell the birth tape. She had an agency trying to sell it. Finally they pulled it.”

Ms. Suleman’s being a resident of Southern California ensured that the octuplets story is a local as well as a national one, and Los Angeles television stations have covered many angles, starting with the medical aspects.

At KNBC-TV, health, medical and science editor Dr. Bruce Hensel aired comprehensive reports when the story first broke. “We discussed what happened to the babies, the likelihood of their survival, the medicines used, how one was not seen in the ultrasound and the risks to the mother. When more information came out, we discussed the details with local fertility experts,” Dr. Hensel said.

“The issue of science and ethics often comes up in the news, and with the current management team, we believe in the scientific side,” Dr. Hensel said. “The moral and ethical side got debated. For me, it came down to what’s safe for the babies and mother—at what point were their lives in danger? We covered that extensively. It’s very important to take any medical story and make it useful for the viewer. If a person is having problems with fertility, a story like this allows us to illuminate the issues.”

“The card we had to play was medical expertise from Bruce,” said KNBC News Director Bob Long. “When it became a tabloid love/hate exploitation story, it rapidly lost interest for me.”