Thursday, January 7, 2010

Anatomy of how the news media dismantles the reputations of men accused of rape

The actual facts are simple: two former employees of the Oklahoma governor's mansion will not be charged with raping female prison inmates assigned to work on the grounds of the mansion because there is insufficient evidence to support such charges, according to this AP story. The rape accusations first surfaced last October, in this earlier AP story. 

An examination of how these accusations were covered in the aforementioned AP stories raises serious concerns for the presumed innocent.  These two news stories represent a sort of microcosm of the way men, and to a lesser extent boys, accused of rape are treated by the press, and it isn't good.

Let us look at the news coverage:

First, the AP reports that that the state's Department of Corrections believes sexual battery occurred. Perhaps it did. But nothing in these stories indicates why the state believed misconduct occurred. A spokesman for the department conceded that there was no physical evidence, just a "he said/she said" scenario.  Nothing factual in the stories lends support to any conclusion that the rapes either did or did not occur.

Second, the stories paint the inmates in a favorable -- one might say, angelic -- light.  The inmates' identities are guarded by the press with all the tenacity that Clark Kent uses to guard Superman's identity.  The AP is sure to let us know that these inmates were on their good behavior: "The allegations raise questions about security at the chief executive's residence and oversight of a program meant in part to reward good inmate behavior by allowing them leave prison for the day and work off-site." And: "The 11 female inmates assigned to maintain the flower beds, shrubs and other greenery at the mansion, were chosen for the program because they are considered low security and escape risks . . . ."  A state spokesman said: "Generally, they're people we don't consider to be a risk, that interact well, that show good job performance.  Obviously, since they'll be interacting in some cases with non-department staff, we want to be sure they exhibit behavior that would warrant their placement in the community."

But nowhere do the stories tell us why the women were in prison.  For example, were they convicted of a crime involving dishonesty, or as we learned in law school, a crime of crimen falsi?  Since these women accused two men of perpetrating the crime that most people believe to be the worst crime short of murder on repeated occasions spanning ten months, wouldn't it be pertinent for the AP to tell us whether they were in prison because they committed crimes involving dishonesty?  For example, were they convicted because they falsely accused someone of rape?  Tried to defraud someone of money? Blackmailed someone?  Forged someone's signature? Stolen someone's identity?  The AP makes sure to let us know that these women were a low security risk but never mentions if they were a low dishonesty risk.  Being a low security risk is scarcely pertinent to a potential false rape claim; being imprisoned for a crime of dishonesty is.

Third, the men accused -- the presumed innocent who were actually cleared of charges by the prosecuting attorney -- aren't portrayed nearly as well by the AP.  The AP reported the men's names, as is customary in these cases, and revealed they had been fired from their jobs.  Again, the AP doesn't tell us the factual basis for the state's belief that the men engaged in misconduct.  Moreover, the AP sought out a quote from one of the accuser's retained, paid advocates to describe the alleged rape and to put the final nail in the coffin as far the men's reputations go: “My client was dragged down, held down by one and raped by another. That doesn't sound very consensual, does it?” she said.  The men and their attorneys refused to speak to the AP reporters, but is that in any sense surprising?  The men were under investigation for serious criminal charges, and it is certainly understandable if their attorenys chose not to litigate the case in the press.

But wait, there's more. The AP makes sure to show us that the alleged rape was part of a larger pattern of wrongdoing at the Governor's mansion: "The accusation that two mansion employees were involved in rape just outside the building's security perimeter came one month after three state troopers assigned to guard the mansion were disciplined for falsifying hours, saying they were working when they were not."

The fact that falsifying hours and alleged rape have nothing in common, or that the purported crimes were alleged to have been committed by different people and do not arise from a common nucleus of operative fact, seem lost on the AP reporter. Falsifying hours is not pertinent to these stories, by any measure.

The AP explains that after the allegations were lodged, mansion officials ordered "refresher training" to remind employees they can't have sex with inmates but otherwise said they didn't plan to alter the inmate-labor program for the mansion grounds.  Gee, sounds like those men must be guilty, don't you think?  Still, there is no indication from these stories as to why mansion officials believed rapes occurred.  There is not even an indication that the AP bothered to ask mansion officials that question.

Fourth, it is well to note a factual matter about the accusations -- I will leave it to the reader to decide how pertinent this is.  The women claimed the assaults happened between March 2008 and January 2009 but they only reported them after they were released.  They didn't report earlier, supposedly due to fears of reprisal. The delay in reporting alone may not be especially noteworthy.  What is noteworthy, however, is the following: Back in October, the lawyer for one of the accusers said her client finally came forward "to try to persuade prison officials to stop sending female inmates to the governor's mansion."  Sounds noble, doesn't it?  But now, three months later, it turns out the accuser didn't report while she was an inmate precisely because she was fearful of losing the privilege of working at the mansion.  According to the accuser's lawyer: "It makes it risky to report that they've been a victim. They lose something. Time. Liberty level. That particular job. If they're not in that job they would be sent back to prison." 

The accuser waited to report a series of rapes that stretched on for ten months because she wanted to keep her job at the Governor's Mansion and didn't want to be sent back to prison.  After the accuser was released from prison, she eventually did report the alleged rapes -- because she thinks it's critical that other prisoners not be allowed to work at the Governor's mansion. 

Get it?  Neither do I.

What I do get is this: the two men accused of rape have had their reputations dismantled in the news media for reasons that are nowhere spelled out in the four corners of the news articles. Perhaps these men committed the rapes, and perhaps they didn't.  We don't know, and our speculation serves no legitimate purpose since the men haven't been charged and remain presumed innocent of any crime.

More to the point, what public interest is served by dismantling the reputations of two presumed innocent men, under the guise of "reporting the facts"?  The answer is none -- aside from titillation of the public's fancy in order to sell newspapers. I respectfully submit that whatever tepid interest might arguably exist to report this story is substantially outweighed by the certain and substantial harm to the men's reputations. Even the whiff of a lurid rape accusation is sufficient to forever blacken a man's good name.  And for those who would argue that it's not legitimate to weigh interests in deciding whether to splash someone's name all over the newspaper, I suppose they also oppose the policy of American news outlets to withhold the names of rape accusers?  The names of rape accusers are not reported precisely because the news outlets have decided that not reporting their names serves a greater interest than reporting them.

The most frightening part? If it is true that these men did not commit the rapes (and it is only fair and just that we make that presumption), they likely could not have prevented the false accusations.  Let this serve as a sobering reminder that a false rape charge can strike anyone privileged to have been born with a Y-chromosome. And with the help of the news media, a false rape claim can destroy the life of virtually any innocent male.