As child molestation charges last year began to swirl around Robert Adams and the school where he was headmaster, the Creative Frontiers School in Citrus Heights, California, Joy Terhaar, the executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, wrote a column claiming that the “lessons of the past” in child molestation cases served as a guide to the newspaper’s present coverage. She declared:
The shadow of the McMartin Preschool fiasco hung over Sacramento law enforcement and media last week.
You likely followed the news of the abrupt closure Monday of a private elementary school in Citrus Heights because of allegations the principal molested students beginning in 1997.
Just as law enforcement learned from the McMartin molestation allegations in the 1980s, and changed its investigative approach in such cases, the media learned to be more skeptical.
Unfortunately, the column was little more than self-serving rhetoric and when Adams was indicted and charged, the Bee ran a number of articles and columns inferring that Adams really was guilty, including this one by Marcos Benton that lumped Adams with convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football defensive coordinator and did not even offer the possibility that Adams might be innocent. Because I will be writing on the Adams/Creative Frontiers case in future posts, I don’t want to go into detail except to say that I strongly (very, very strongly) believe this case is yet another sickening hoax in which the media glorifies police and prosecutors while innocent people are charged with “crimes” that never occurred.
I have been involved as an observer, a blogger, or an adviser in cases where people have been charged with rape or child molestation, including the Tonya Craft trial (she was acquitted) and the infamous Duke Lacrosse Case (in which the charges were dropped after North Carolina Attorney General found “no evidence” that a rape or any other crime had occurred). There also are others and if I have found one common thread in all of them, it has been the role of the mainstream news media. With only very, very few exceptions, the pack mentality of mainstream journalism has come to the fore and journalist after journalist has written or broadcast stories that assume that charges automatically mean guilt.
Meanwhile, despite the Bee’s claim that the McMartin and other notorious cases of false accusation have helped to steel coverage of cases involving such accusations, I find that simply to be untrue. This unfortunate thread runs from the local media all the way to the top national entities. For example, the Duke Lacrosse Case found two newspapers that inferred guilt and purposely ignored all exculpatory evidence all the way to the bitter end: the local Durham Herald-Sun and the New York Times. (Even after “60 Minutes” eviscerated the charges in an October 2006 broadcast, the H-S and NYT continued to hold to the Party Line.)
(American Journalism Review ran a scathing review of how the media covered the Duke case, and I will say that the writer, Rachel Smolkin, pretty much got it right.)
There is a lingering question here, even as we see media people engaging in the same angst over how they cover these kinds of cases and claiming that they have “learned their lessons,” and the question is this: Why does the mainstream media continue to run over the same cliff time and again?
People have any number of answers ranging from the “liberal media” to outright ignorance. Yes, most mainstream media people are politically liberal and, yes, a lot of them are bright yet ignorant on many things. (Don’t get me started on reporters and economics.) Yet, I believe that the reason we see the same patterns repeated over and over again is institutional, and this goes back to the days of Progressivism and the Progressivist 1922 Canons of Journalism.
In 1922, broadcast media was in its infancy, so newspapers tended to be the organizations that hired the most journalists. As an institution, the news media was decidedly Progressive, and it featured people who believed that the role of the press should be to foster “good government” at all levels. That meant that reporters would spend much of their time covering the various governmental entities from the local police and city hall to the U.S. Presidency. Although reporters were claiming to be the “watchdogs” of government, in reality, they became an arm of the individuals in government.
This has developed innocently enough. For example, when the local courthouse reporter goes on his or her beat each weekday, the reporter speaks almost exclusively with government agents, from clerks to judges. While the journalist might talk to individual defense attorneys, they are not going to be able to have the same relationships with reporters as do the government employees because a defense attorney is more likely to keep important information at bay. (There are exceptions, such as the Raleigh News & Observer’s Joe Neff uncovering a number of illegal acts such as strong arming witnesses by one of DA Michael Nifong’s investigators, along with other documents that demonstrated conclusively that Duke accuser Crystal Mangum was not telling the truth. Yet, Neff was an exception, not the rule, in the Duke case.)
As the relationships develop, the skepticism seems to disappear. After all, prosecutors and police tend to be more forthcoming with what they claim to know than are defense attorneys, and delivering information tends to help cement relationships.
In the “sex crimes” cases, the situation is worse. First, states are required to investigate all claims no matter how specious they may be, and news of investigations into these kinds of cases always will be heavily sought by reporters, even if the claims are not true. Second, and I NEVER have seen this fact reported in a mainstream publication or broadcast, government agencies from the police to prosecutors to Child Protective Services receive federal money whenever they pursue charges in such cases, which increases the incentives to charge nearly everyone no matter how bogus the charges might be.
Third, “sex crimes” always are “hot news.” They just are. People are curious, they have instant opinions, and are much more likely to rush to judgment when such accusations are made than they might be in other kinds of cases. Furthermore, political ideology heavily filters the interpretations. For example, the vast number of “they must be guilty” accusations in the Duke case came from the political Left, including much of the Duke faculty and administration, and organizations such as the NAACP. The Marxist blogs such as Counterpunch automatically assumed guilt, and even after the charges were dropped, Counterpunch ran a piece that claimed the charges might have been true and that Nifong was being mistreated.
Daniel Okrent, a former ombudsman for the NYT, told New York Magazine about the Duke case: “You couldn’t invent a story so precisely tuned to the outrage frequency of the modern, metropolitan, bien pensant journalist.”
However, while the “liberalism” bogey certainly has truth, I believe that the situation is institutional, or as the late Warren Brookes once wrote about the mainstream media, the press tends to lean toward the “statist quo.” Not only do media Progressives tend to have a strong faith in the ability of the State to “fix” problems in society, but most of the important professional relationships that reporters have tend to be with government officials. There is a symbiotic relationship between journalists and people in government (and not just elected politicians), as they depend heavily upon each other for news and favorable publicity.
The problem is that when prosecutors and journalists develop symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationships, due process of law and the rights of the accused often are eviscerated. While various state bar rules for prosecutors specifically prohibit them from making inflammatory public statements that declare someone to be guilty even before trial, prosecutors rarely are disciplined for breaking that rule and for breaking others. Because individuals actually harmed by prosecutorial misconduct are not permitted to sue, the only way for redress is for the prosecutor’s peers to act either through the state bar or by charging the rogue prosecutor with actual crimes. In reality, neither happens very much.
Thus, prosecutors are given free reign and are virtually assured that they will not be held responsible for illegal conduct. Not surprisingly, the media rarely holds them responsible, either. I believe that is because a reporter can benefit when prosecutors illegally leak material to them, an act that is a felony, but is protected by the courts and the media.
One of the worst examples came more than 20 years ago when Rudy Giuliani, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was pursuing Wall Street finance whiz Michael Milken. Giuliani was able to keep Milken and his defense team off balance by illegally leaking testimony and other grand jury material to favorite reporters, and especially James Stewart of the Wall Street Journal. What Stewart and Giuliani did was criminal (as opposed to Milken’s acts which a federal prosecutor later admitted had never been regarded before as criminal), but it was Milken who went to prison and Giuliani and Stewart who went to fame and fortune.
Thus, when journalists act in a reprehensible manner, they are rewarded, and that means it is unlikely reporters are going to change their behavior. What we see in sex crime accusations is that all of these issues come together, and individuals who are accused have virtually no chance with the legal system. With the media trumpeting that the accused always are guilty and with reporters having close ties to the prosecutors, the accused cannot get their story in print or in broadcasts.
In the Tonya Craft case, the prosecutors and police had almost limitless access to the media and quickly pronounced her guilt. When Craft tried to fight back by appearing on a radio talk show, Judge Brian House, who presided at her trial (and made it clear he was in the hip pocket of the prosecutors) slapped her with a gag order that remained until after her trial ended. (A similar thing happened in the Duke Lacrosse Case, when the NAACP demanded that the court impose a gag order. The irony was that the NAACP has long been officially opposed to gag orders because they hurt black defendants, but because of the racial politics of the Duke case, the NAACP was willing to overturn its own positions.)
There is one more factor as to why the media never seems to learn: sheer laziness. When an issue arises, a typical reporter will go to the Rolodex and call up the Usual Suspects. In cases involving alleged child molestation and rape, one often sees Wendy Murphy interviewed, and, as Radley has pointed out, Murphy has a history of telling whoppers. She is not an expert in any sense of the word, but because she is inflammatory, reporters will seek quotes from her.
I recently saw a Discovery Channel broadcast dealing with crimes, and the reporter interviewed Steven Hayne, who claimed that the position of the body would let him know if the murderer was right-handed or left-handed, a preposterous position. Nonetheless, Hayne was available and ready to give a quote. That he was a fraud did not seem to matter, and it took repeated efforts by Radley to expose him.
Likewise, journalists are enamored with people they deem to be experts, and most of them believe that government bureaucrats, from the interviewers at CPS to prosecutors are experts just like the folks at CSI. By not scrutinizing their comments or spending the time to seek out real experts, journalists not only deprive their readers and listeners of facts, but they also further imperil people who are innocent but have been falsely accused.
Given this set of circumstances, I believe that real reform is not possible. The modern media is so tied to government and its stable of “experts” that it is impossible for others to break into that mix. What that means is that every time someone is falsely accused of a sex crime, we can expect the mainstream press to run over the cliff — and then declare after the debacle that journalists have learned their lesson and won’t make that same error again. And again. And again.
— William Anderson