Sunday, July 13, 2008

The modern news media could hardly care less about the good name of a man accused of rape

Since when did an unsubstantiated allegation of a single woman justify destroying a man or a boy for the titillation of the masses?Since the news industry became indistinguishable from the entertainment industry, of course.

The news media in general has no compunction about painting a man or boy accused of rape as "guilty" before a single fact is adjudicated based solely on the allegation of one woman or girl. The man might work all his life to attain a sparkling reputation only to have a woman falsely accuse him of rape, and if the media finds the details of the accusation juicy enough for a story, the man becomes little more than raw meat tossed to ravenous dogs.

When you shake your head disgustedly upon hearing the news that, for example, a young lacrosse player was accused of participating in a vicious gang rape, and when you pronounce him "guilty" before even one witness has testified -- because obviously something must have happened -- you forget one important thing: that young lacrosse player you assume must be guilty could just as easily be your son, your boyfriend, your brother, your father, your husband -- or you. And he just might be innocent.

And maybe then you will wish people weren't so quick to judge.


Outrageous! Media's Influence on Jury Trials

By Michael Crowley

For modern pundits, "presumed guilty" has more entertainment value than "presumed innocent"

After his fourth wife vanished, former police officer Drew Peterson was deemed a "person of interest." When a pathologist determined that Peterson's third wife had been forcibly drowned in her bathtub, Illinois authorities reclassified him as "clearly a suspect" in the disappearance. By the time CNN host Nancy Grace finished rolling her eyes and mugging for the camera, Peterson had become "the prime suspect."

A relatively fine point, to be sure, and certainly mild compared with what was being said on the Internet. On the website, Peterson was a "murderer" and a "sick, sick animal." No charges had been filed -- and still haven't, as of this writing. But who wants to wait for a thorough investigation, much less a trial, anymore?

Last March a video surfaced on YouTube showing a U.S. Marine tossing what looked like a puppy over a cliff to its death. Before it could be determined if the puppy was still alive or was sick -- or was a even a real dog -- hundreds of cyberpundits had announced their verdict (guilty) and proposed various punishments, including "making his life a living hell." The incident is still under investigation.

After a roadside bomb destroyed a Humvee carrying Marines through the town of Haditha, a firefight left 24 Iraqi civilians dead. As a probe began, Congressman Jack Murtha appeared on MSNBC's Hardball. The show's host, Chris Matthews, wondered if the case echoed the 1968 slaughter of over 300 Vietnamese in the hamlet of My Lai.

"Was this My Lai?" Matthews asked Murtha. "You have got some civilians sitting in a room [or] out in a field and they're executed."

"That's exactly what happened," replied Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and a vocal critic of the war. In other remarks, the Congressman accused the Marines of "cold-blooded murder." Ultimately, a more complex picture emerged, of soldiers in tense house-to-house searches with uncertain rules of engagement. Of the four Marines originally charged with murder, only one defendant remains -- a squad leader who staunchly asserts his innocence.

Not that you'd know that. In newspapers, on television and radio, and now on the Internet, pundits and politicians treat accusations as truth and make sweeping declarations of guilt-shattering lives without waiting for the legal system. The "presumption-of-guilt culture," Washington attorney Lanny J. Davis calls it. "Accusations and headlines have become surrogates for facts and presumptions of guilt," he says, "to the point where reputations can be ruined beyond repair."

The infamous Duke "rape" case is a prime example. After an African American stripper claimed she'd been gang-raped at a lacrosse-team party in March 2006, the press vilified the well-to-do white accused. The media took weeks to find the huge holes in prosecutor Michael Nifong's case. Factual inaccuracies repeated in the press contaminated the commentary.

So did ludicrous notions about guilt and innocence. On CNN, one on-air pundit, New England School of Law adjunct professor Wendy Murphy, flatly called the Duke students rapists, adding, "I'm going to say it because at this point [the accuser is] entitled to the respect that she is a crime victim." After the charges were thrown out, Nifong was disgraced and disbarred. But there were no penalties for the media commentators who had condemned the young men.

One factor underlying the current rush to judgment is the craze for cable TV shows that treat true crime as a subject for opinionated argument. MSNBC recently debuted a program hosted by legal affairs expert Dan Abrams. The name of the new show: Verdict. After all, who really needs a courtroom? The most notorious offender may be Nancy Grace, who, according to her own CNN colleague Larry King, "represents a kind of thinking -- and it might be true in 60 percent of America -- [that] if you're accused, you did it."

Sometimes a person need not even be accused. Looking last year at a photograph of Paris Hilton with what appeared to be a hand-rolled cigarette, Grace confidently pronounced it marijuana.

Or take Grace's approach to the 2002 disappearance of teenager Elizabeth Smart. When a handyman was arrested on an unrelated parole violation, Grace insisted that the man -- who turned out to have no connection to the crime -- was guilty.

False accusations don't just taint juries. They ruin lives. Ask Francis Evelyn, a Brooklyn elementary school janitor accused last year of raping an eight-year-old student. Cameras filmed Evelyn's arrest. With the girl's credibility in doubt and no evidence, police dropped the charges, but not before Evelyn's life had been trashed. "Just kill me," the weeping 58-year-old said after a judge cleared him.

Journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr., an early skeptic during the Duke farce, points out that Evelyn's fate wasn't entirely the media's fault. Too often, law enforcement uses the press as a prosecutorial tool. Good reporters are taught to be skeptical. The problem with judge-and-jury commentators is that they aren't trained as journalists at all. Even those who are can be lazy. The one-two punch of overzealous prosecutors and slack journalists ruined the life of Richard Jewell, the man falsely accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. Jewell, who died last year, should have been remembered as a hero. Instead his obituary was a reminder of a culture gone horribly wrong.

Do More
• Call them out -- Most journalists listen to feedback. If someone's getting an unfair rap, protest to the network, newspaper, or magazine.
• Reward good behavior -- Some commentators take admirable care to presume that people are innocent until proven otherwise. Let them know you've noticed.
• Spread the word -- If you suspect a trial by media, contact a local columnist, e-mail a press watchdog organization (two nonideological sources are and, or let us know at
From Reader's Digest - July 2008