Why the Mainstream Media Never Seems to Learn Any Lessons of History

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

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

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53 Responses to “Why the Mainstream Media Never Seems to Learn Any Lessons of History”

  1. #1 |  Felix | 

    Reform IS possible, but it has to be pretty radical.

    First, there should be no immunity. If a prosecutor screws up, there need to be charges filed. This means the victims, which leads to …

    Second, eliminate the state monopoly on prosecution. Victims are the correct people to file charges, but even if the government still has prosecutors, individuals must be able to file their own, and I do not mean only civil lawsuits, but full blown criminal charges, no different from the government prosecutors. This seems to open up abuse by vexatious litigators, so …

    Third, to prevent people going crazy filing bogus criminal charges, juries need to be able to punish everybody involved in the case, including the plaintiffs. If the jury decides they brought bogus charges, they need to be punished per the charges they tried to file.

  2. #2 |  The Late Andy Rooney | 

    Thanks for covering this case. If there is one thing the media are good at, it’s self-congratulation, as we see with the claim that they have learned their lesson from the past. The reality is quite different, of course.

  3. #3 |  Burgers Allday | 

    tl; dr.

  4. #4 |  En Passant | 

    Excellent and clear analysis of a complex subject.

    The excuse of familiarity and dependence (as reporters familiar with and dependent upon prosecutors for information) is akin to the common excuse for judges giving unwarranted credibility to police and prosecutors. Given the nature of the necessary institutional relationships of the two groups, it is a very difficult evil to eliminate.

    Codes of ethics obviously do not mitigate it very well, especially when the codes are so rarely enforced, and even when enforced, consequences to the actors are so minor.

    Any successful approach to mitigating or eliminating it must create incentives and disincentives significantly different from the current ones. That is difficult to do without a major overhaul of the institutions themselves.

  5. #5 |  Ryan P | 

    I had a friend (who is now deceased) who was a reporter for a series of smallish newspapers, and I was frequently amazed how easily he swallowed the “company line” whenever it was offered.

    A young woman was killed in her own home by a police officer investigating a burglary, and the official police response was one that invited deeper scrutiny since it smelled like bullshit, but it never even occurred to my friend to ask more questions. The police said it happened one way, so that’s the end of it as far as he was concerned.

    No matter what he was covering, the official word was almost never questioned by him or his newspaper.

    And my friend was about as far from liberal as I’ve ever known anyone to be.

  6. #6 |  En Passant | 

    #1 | Felix wrote August 15th, 2012 at 6:08 pm:

    Second, eliminate the state monopoly on prosecution. Victims are the correct people to file charges, but even if the government still has prosecutors, individuals must be able to file their own, and I do not mean only civil lawsuits, but full blown criminal charges, no different from the government prosecutors. This seems to open up abuse by vexatious litigators, so …

    In old common law private prosecutions were permitted. In England such prosecutions were called “appeal”, which is confusing to people today who think of “appeal” as case review by a higher court.

    Today, private prosecution is not quite dead everywhere, but much diminished.

    Wikipedia has a reasonable synopsis.

  7. #7 |  Jake | 

    This column is so absolutely right!

  8. #8 |  Felix | 

    @En Passant #6

    Thanks, interesting starter guide :-) I’ll have to google around, didn’t know it had a name or used to be more common or even existed in common law.

  9. #9 |  Z | 

    I do work as a private tutor but NEVER with kids.

  10. #10 |  sheenyglass | 

    My impression is that sex crimes (and certain other crimes, like accusations financial crimes) tend to elicit the same presumption of guilt from liberals that other crimes tend to elicit from conservatives. So I think that any political motivation is as likely to be due to their relative sympathies for the groups injured by the crimes (or accused of committing them) as it is to a predisposition towards trusting authority. Basically, if the allegations of a crime fit neatly into your worldview, you are going to jump to a conclusion.


    Although agree with you that prosecutorial immunity should be removed, or at the very least limited, I disagree that victims are the proper parties to prosecute criminal charges.

    I think we should avoid conflating the purpose of the civil system, which is to allow individuals who have been injured be made whole by the person responsible for the injury (which not necessarily a moral judgment), and the purpose of the criminal justice system, which is to vindicate society’s interest in maintaining the common standards of morality to which we all of its members are held. An individual can’t represent this interest, because it is society as a whole that has suffered the injury.

    Where an individual seeks to punish someone who has wronged them, it is revenge (compare against seeking compensation for an injury, which harms only to the extent it also heals). To use the ultimate expression of the state’s monopoly on violence–imprisonment or execution–in the service of vindicating a private injury is too close to that line between personal vengeance and justice for my tastes.

  11. #11 |  En Passant | 

    @ #8 Felix:

    You’re welcome.

    I must add that finding history of appeal is a convoluted process.

    For the amusing story of how an overlooked statute allowing trial by combat changed a 19th century appeal case and ultimately eliminated private appeal in England, see Ashford v. Thornton [wikipedia].

  12. #12 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I do believe that the mainstream media is heavily unbalanced in a liberal direction, but I’m not convinced that that has a lot to do with this particular problem. Journalists, no matter what they may tell you, are in the business of telling exciting stories, day after day. They naturally have better connections to the local power structure than they have to anyone who is being put through the wringer. They don’t have the time to play Dan Stamford, Cub Reporter on every story that comes bouncing down the pike, and they don’t try. This is something having to so with the veery nature of daily news reporting. You see it, if you look, in how stories were covered in the 19th century. It gets a little better if there are rival papers in a city, trying to scoop one-another, but it will probably always exist.

    The preventable harm comes from the image that the Mainstream Media have worked so hard to project; of non-partisan servants of Truth. That is, and always has been, so much bushwa.

  13. #13 |  Kevin | 

    We were shocked when we first heard the allegations against “Mr. Bob”. Both of my kids went to Creative Frontiers. I asked them if they had ever felt uncomfortable around Bob or had seen him do anything questionable. They both said ‘no’. The guy loves kids. Of course, that’s exactly what you would want in someone tasked with teaching and caring for your kids for part of each day.

    My wife and I were also appalled at the heavy – handedness of the police regarding closing the school. If Bob Adams was the only suspect, then, assuming there were provisions in the school incorporation structure to allow it to run during his absence, was the school shut down? Why have all those teachers and other personnel lose their jobs? All the kids who had to switch to other schools, and the difficulty it placed on their families? Last but certainly not least, closing the school certainly put a big crimp on Bob Adam’s finances, which may in fact be why it was done. No sense making it easier for him pay a lawyer.

    I worked for a couple of years in a home daycare. I wanted to spend a lot of time with my kids but I had to have some sort of income, so I worked at the daycare my kids attended. It got them out of the house, and socialized with other kids, and allowed me to spend more time with them. Even after paying for their daycare, we had money left over. so it was a win-win. The woman who ran the daycare told me I was very good at it, and I could successfully run my own. I liked kids, and they liked me, but it seemed to me even then, in the 90’s, that a male daycare operator would be an object of suspicion, so I never pursued it.

  14. #14 |  greenback | 

    Given this set of circumstances, I believe that real reform is not possible.

    Then why even bother writing this up? I’ve been reading here a while, and I’m hoping the blog shifts away from posting every puppycide story towards how future puppycides can be stopped. I get it, the state has some obnoxious agents, but rather than throwing Internet temper tantrums, at some point we’re supposed to be doing something about it.

  15. #15 |  William Anderson | 

    I write it up for two reasons. The first is to make a point that we cannot reform those entities that institutionally cannot be reformed. Americans have an unending faith in “reform,” so we pass a law or create a regulation that is supposed to solve everything, but solves nothing. Einstein said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    The second reason is to point the way to other forms of communication. It was not the mainstream media that destroyed Michael Nifong’s case against the Duke lacrosse players. Instead, it was the blogosphere, where people don’t have to play by the same institutional rules that bind mainstream journalists.

    This post is a good example. Steven Hayne and Michael West were doing just fine until Radley Balko came along and exposed their fraudulent behavior. The mainstream publications of Mississippi would not have been able to carry on the same kind of campaign.

    That is why I believe blogs are so very important. And that is why the mainstream media and the politicians would love to shut down or at least control these blogs.

  16. #16 |  William Anderson | 

    As for the heavy-handed treatment of Bob Adams, I think we see once again that despite the claims from the Sacramento Bee, the authorities and the media really have learned nothing. Bob Adams does not fit any profile of a pedophile, and, as people will find out soon enough, the accusers have some issues of their own.

    There are two problems in cases like this: (1) the law is written in a way that requires CPS to investigate every complaint and then decide whether or not to notify the police. The standards for notification are extremely low, and to make things worse, CPS is populated with people who have the “all men are rapists and child molesters” mentality. Obviously, the police love high-profile investigations, as long as the people investigated don’t have the political connections that might make a police officer lose his job.

    (2) Not only is there a low legal threshold for such cases, but Americans have become the poster children for mass hysteria. From the overblown Alar scare in 1989 to all of the various witch hunts that have occurred, beginning with the Kern County and McMartin cases up to the present time, it seems that the pattern always is the same: falsely accuse and then use the legal apparatus to imply guilt, and recruit the lapdog media along the way.

    Don’t forget that the Mondale Act and subsequent laws passed since 1974 have created not only a visual atmosphere of hysteria, but also have empowered bureaucrats, police, and prosecutors to go after these alleged “monsters” with all of the power of the law. Innocence always is thrown out the window (unless the person being investigated has the proper political connections).

  17. #17 |  Burgers Allday | 

    off topic:News conference on the Elip Cheatham slaying today at 11:30 east coast time.

    Because it is a planned news conference, it is a pretty safe bet that they are not going to arrest the shooters.

    They are claiming that Elip and the other two men in the car did a robbery (or perhaps an extortion) two days before the shooting and that this robbery was reported to police a day before the shooting. That doesn’t smell right at all because the survivors of the shooting were not arrested immediately for this supposed robbery. So watch for the conspiracy here. It looks like they are not even trying to make it believable. Frankly, between this and the Jordan Miles verdict, western PA is beginning to look pretty racist.

  18. #18 |  Lenore Skenazy | 

    I was a newspaper reporter for 16 years and am now a blogger. This piece not only tells the truth, it explains it to ME. Stuff I should have figured out years ago. Stuff that is blowing my mind. I can’t wait for more people to read it. Lately I have been wondering about ALL these issues — the obsession with sex crimes, the rush to judgment, the fact that CPS seems to interfere too often and too harshly, and the role the media plays in all of this. Thanks for this guided tour through the injustice factory, and for galvanizing me. – L

  19. #19 |  Mike T | 

    I think 90% of this could be solved by expanding the defamation statutes to the point where making statements that “a reasonable person would construe as implying guilt prior to an establishment of fact in trial” against someone who is acquitted or declared factually innocent would be automatically regarded as defamation with a strict liability standard for intent. Thus the innocent “gosh, he just looked so creepy that we assumed” would not fly. Callous disregard for the truth would be enough to let the defendant bring down the civil hammer on any reporter or blogger who boldly maintains or “strongly implies” their guilt prior to an establishment of fact.

  20. #20 |  Burgers Allday | 

    Back on topic: I was booted off a Progressive message board for saying that I thought Crystal Magnum was making it up. This was a long time ago.

  21. #21 |  AlgerHiss | 

    Mr. Adams may wish to include Gerald Amirault on his defense team.

    I’ve heard Amirault has some experience in these areas.

  22. #22 |  AlgerHiss | 

    Oh, and Dorothy Rabinowitz of the WSJ should be included too. She has spent some time studying this issue.

  23. #23 |  AlgerHiss | 

    Great CSPAN Booknotes video here:


  24. #24 |  The Late Andy Rooney | 

    The Booknotes interview with Dorothy Rabinowitz is well worth watching. She’s good at expressing her outrage in an understated, elegant way. At the time of the interview, Gerald Amiralut was still in prison, but he’s since been released.

    As people here probably know already, another person who deserves credit for discrediting the ritual abuse farce is Debbie Nathan. It’s nice to know that there were at least a few people, even as all this was happening, who actually had some regard for the truth.

  25. #25 |  Felix | 

    @10 sheenyglass:

    Prosecutors have two paths to corruption. One is false accusation, bogus charges, and their own personal agendas, which is why immunity must be removed. The other corruption comes in not prosecuting their friends and cronies, which is why private prosecution must be allowed. As long as bogus private prosecution is punishable, it should be no more dangerous than bogus public prosecution.

    Another advantage of private prosecution is that it allows punishing cronyism. If the fat cats who cycle between government and regulated industry knew they could not rely on their buddies to shield them, they’d be a lot less likely to be corrupt in the first place, and they’d be caught a lot sooner, before they became too big to fail.

    I believe the lack of private prosecution follows the same pattern as denying jury nullification and every other nanny state limitation: a condescending attitude that the masses are too stupid and too dangerous to be let out alone without chaperones. If, instead, the default assumption was that individuals must have rights, then ways would be found to make them work, instead of just banning them altogether.

  26. #26 |  Inkberrow | 

    If the kid discloses, the charges are per se not-bogus, at least in current practice. Child services workers and “forensic” interviewers are filled with true believers, while most juries nationwide are instructed that any live witness who’s believed is sufficient to prove any fact at issue. Meanwhile, protection of The Children is a flag-wrap loaded with civic-duty peer pressure for folks of almosat any political persuasion.

  27. #27 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    My Lady Wife is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The child abuse witch hunts infuriate me because they trivialize the real abuse that my Lady suffered. I am an agnostic, and were I a Christian I probably would not believe in the Medieval concept of Hell. But when I contemplate what has been done to innocent children and the persons accuse of abusing them by prosecutors, child abuse hysterics, and the like I really REALLY wish that I did believe in Hell, because they would be spending a well deserved eternity there.

  28. #28 |  theCL Report: Snap! Crackle! Pop! | 

    […] Why the Mainstream Media Never Seems to Learn Any Lessons of History […]

  29. #29 |  johnl | 

    It’s correct that reporters tend to be authoritarian and lazy. But it might be a bigger problem that most are stupid. They don’t understand the subjunctive mood at all. So stories about crimes will say things like “the victim was allegedly shot” or “After the shooting, the suspect then fled …”. If you remember when you were in college, who were the kids who went into journalism programs, and it’s easy to understand why any story in a paper about a conflict will be told from the POV of oone of the participants in the conflict.

  30. #30 |  Russ 2000 | 

    I do work as a private tutor but NEVER with kids.

    Does bring up a chilling effect. Why go into any business that requires dealing with minors if the risk gets greater and greater? Could one buy insurance for such accusations?

  31. #31 |  Russ 2000 | 

    I get it, the state has some obnoxious agents, but rather than throwing Internet temper tantrums, at some point we’re supposed to be doing something about it.

    I’ve heard this line all my life “Fine, but you don’t offer up any solutions.”

    IMO, that is a lazy, stupid, bureaucratic way to look at it. Also, solutions were offered in the post, along with explanation as to why those solutions are never pursued.

    Step 1 is convincing people that there is an actual problem, and more often that not the problem goes deeper than the surface. Asking “What’s the solution?” is often the tactic of people who are trying real hard to deny the existence of the problem; implying that since there is no solution it’s not worth their time thinking about the problem.

    I’d prefer complex problems be raised and let individuals decide on their own the best ways to solve them. By suggesting that there should be a massive discussion about solutions is a sure fire way to ensure nothing gets done. It’s what bureaucrats do – have a committee investigate it.

  32. #32 |  Why the Mainstream Media Never Seems to Learn Any Lessons of History | Liberty at BU | 

    […] Why the Mainstream Media Never Seems to Learn Any Lessons of History 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.   If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it! /* […]

  33. #33 |  En Passant | 

    #28 | johnl wrote August 16th, 2012 at 12:26 pm:

    It’s correct that reporters tend to be authoritarian and lazy. But it might be a bigger problem that most are stupid. They don’t understand the subjunctive mood at all. So stories about crimes will say things like “the victim was allegedly shot” or “After the shooting, the suspect then fled …”.

    I wouldn’t say it’s due to stupidity alone. I think your own example here actually illustrates a common news publisher’s response to an exogenous influence upon what reporters write, or upon what copy editors allow to be published.

    Why do reports state “the victim was allegedly shot”, instead of straightforwardly stating “the victim was shot”?

    I think part of the reason is fear of lawsuits, which some reporters sloppily apply beyond the things to which it might be reasonably applied.

    If a reporter writes “Joe Smith shot John Jones”, and it turns out later that Joe Smith didn’t actually do the shooting, then Smith could sue the reporter or his employer for libel. So, to avoid every possible lawsuit imaginable, newspapers and other media outlets have developed style guidelines that require reporters to write “Joe Smith allegedly shot John Jones.” Obviously some reporters go even further than that, into nonsense like “the victim was allegedly shot”.

    Were I in a subjunctive mood, I might find it imperative to take a nap and let it be, which tendency is indicative of my lifelong struggle to use the adjective “infinitive” directly and not to rely only upon an example. ;^)

  34. #34 |  Bill Wells | 

    I’m one of those people who was falsely accused and ended up in prison. However, my case never made the headlines. I can’t say I’m really surprised; the charges against me were so bogus that only the most incompetent of reporters would have believed them. The prosecutor had a damned good reason to avoid headlines. (The girl told three stories….each contradicting the others. The alleged sexual assault happened three different ways. The girl had a history of falsely accusing people. There was lot’s more.) But when I went to the media with my story, I never got so much as an answer back.

    Not one media person gave a whit about a public defender that kept evidence of innocence from his client and then told the client that he was going to lose at trial. Not one media person gave a damn that both the prosecutor and the defense attorney knew for a fact that I had not committed the crime I pleaded guilty to. (My alleged acts did not violate the statute I pleaded guilty to violating.) No one in the media was concerned about a judge that twisted the law to uphold a conviction that she knew was bogus, nor that both the appeals court and the Supreme Court rubber stamped that judge’s ruling.

    And, forget the blogosphere. It’s just as subject to moral panics and herd mentality as anywhere else.
    I got kicked out of talk-politics on livejournal *solely* because of my conviction. (So they said, though I suspect they were using that as an excuse to get rid of a political viewpoint they disliked.) And then off livejournal itself, again *solely* because of my conviction. (I was told that they don’t allow convicted sex offenders to remain on the site. You will look in vain for such a restriction in their Terms of Service.) Neither time was I asked about anything….

    While all of the observations in the article may be true, they utterly fail to identify the root cause of the problem. One need look no further than the tiny fraction of government spending related to criminal justice and that the criminal justice system is woefully underfunded to understand that the public does not have justice as a priority. The mainstream media did not cause this, it merely reflects it. You can try all you like to change the media but so long as the public doesn’t care about justice, neither will the media.

  35. #35 |  marie | 

    Bill Wells your story will not surprise people who have seen the justice system in action.

    As for your last paragraph…is all the money going to law enforcement? I know that mandatory minimums give federal prosecutors a way to drive up conviction numbers without having to prove anything. I’m not sure it has to do with the need to save money. In fact, the number of convictions is (probably) directly related to the amount of money that federal district receives.

  36. #36 |  johnl | 

    En Passant, there is no libel to “the killer shot the victim”. An “allegedly” there doesn’t protect anything. And if libel suits were a concern, then why print “after the shooting, the suspect fled”?

  37. #37 |  sheenyglass | 

    @25 Felix

    I think your point about cronyism is a good one. Also, I would be much more comfortable in principle with a privilege of prosecution inherent in the citizenry (akin to the citizen’s arrest), rather than one vested in the victim of the crime because they are the victim.

    But I do think there are still practical concerns:

    1. How do you handle double jeopardy? It would be feasible to have a crony prosecute you ineptly in order immunize yourself. But eliminating double jeopardy would be extremely dangerous

    2. I don’t think the jury’s ability to sanction everyone would provide sufficient protection against frivolous prosecutions. A jury would be hesitant to sanction a prosecuting citizen they felt was trying to do good, even misguidedly. This might be mitigated if the citizen were able to initiate prosecution, but the actual prosecution would require they hire an attorney whose duty is akin to the prosecutor’s quasi-judicial responsibility to prosecute only those they reasonably believe to be guilty. But, given that this observed far too often in the breach, it would likely be insufficient.

    3. If anything, private prosecution would be more susceptible to the kind of moral panic this post discusses. Prosecutors may not be as good as they should be at resisting its pull, but increasing the pool of potential prosecutors could only increase the likelihood of a witch-hunt prosecution

  38. #38 |  supercat | 

    #37 | sheenyglass | //1. How do you handle double jeopardy? It would be feasible to have a crony prosecute you ineptly in order immunize yourself. But eliminating double jeopardy would be extremely dangerous//

    If I had my druthers, the state would have the first option to bring charges; if it could demonstrate that it was actively working on a case, it should have broad but not unlimited latitude to delay proceedings until it was ready.

    Once a case was going to trial, all prosecutors would be required to participate in the same trial. The state would be first to question each witness, but other prosecutors would be allowed to ask questions they felt the state was neglecting to ask. After the state called its witnesses, other prosecutors would be allowed to call their own.

    During the defense’s presentation of its case, the state prosecutor would get the first opportunity to cross-examine each witness, but other prosecutors would be allowed to question them about issues they felt the state prosecutor missed.

    Finally, I think there should be a procedure by which a formal allegation could be filed that agents of the state conspired to feign “jeopardy”. If on two consecutive trials, juries found beyond a reasonable doubt that the prosecutor had deliberately “thrown” the case against a government agent, the agent could be ruled never to have actually been in jeopardy, and thus not protected by the double-jeopardy rule. The use of two jury trials would be to protect defendants from malicious imposition of legal expenses, since in most cases where prosecutors act even remotely reasonably, it would be hard to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant was never in jeopardy even if the defendant ignored the charges. Requiring that the case get that far before the defendant would have any obligation to put up a defense would provide substantial protection in any case where the prosecutor’s conduct was not patently outrageous.

    On the other hand, in a case where a prosecutor neglects to present evidence (e.g. a map) to show that the address where a cop murdered someone was within the county’s jurisdiction, and where the cop gets the charges against him thrown out on such a basis, the notion that the cop was ever really “in jeopardy” starts to seem rather dubious.

  39. #39 |  Steve Verdon | 



    How are things out there on Pluto?

    Jesus….talk about an over abundance of optimism.

    Burgers Allday,

    Yeah I know right? Like this post…oh, wait that is one of yours.

    Basically, what Mr. Anderson is talking about is similar to regulatory capture, but in reverse. In regulatory capture, the regulatory agency, usually government, is captured by the very industry it is trying to regulate. Thus neutering the regulatory agency when it comes to doing the job it is tasked with.

    In this particular case it works in reverse. Since journalists often go to government officials as a source they’ll often form a working relationship with these officials and help each other out.

    As for reform, there is no possibility of real reform. No politician will want to appear “soft on crime”. Most politicians are themselves lawyers. Many DAs have higher political aspirations. And nobody wants to be seen protecting sex offenders especially child molesters. So injustices will continue to happen and since it is a low probability for most people they wont be motivated to give a fuck. After all, maybe the guy really is a pedo, and the evidence isn’t that good….lock him up just to be safe.

    Add on all the other problems with our legal system that we see here at this website and others on a routine basis and the conclusion is obvious…our legal system is seriously fucked. Best bet avoid it at all costs. Never call the cops, never trust the cops, never trust a prosecutor, have nothing to do with them…even if they are your neighbor. Treat them all as pariahs….which any sane person should do, IMO.

    All cops are bad cops. All prosecutors are bad prosecutors. Why? Because the ostensibly “good ones” always protect the bad ones. Always.

  40. #40 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Then why even bother writing this up? I’ve been reading here a while, and I’m hoping the blog shifts away from posting every puppycide story towards how future puppycides can be stopped. I get it, the state has some obnoxious agents, but rather than throwing Internet temper tantrums, at some point we’re supposed to be doing something about it.

    The set of feasible solutions is empty dude….doesn’t me people can’t still talk about it or write about it.

  41. #41 |  En Passant | 

    #36 | johnl wrote August 16th, 2012 at 4:34 pm:

    En Passant, there is no libel to “the killer shot the victim”. An “allegedly” there doesn’t protect anything. And if libel suits were a concern, then why print “after the shooting, the suspect fled”?

    I didn’t say there was.

    However, there is libel in “Joe Smith shot John Jones”, if Smith did not shoot Jones. That is the example I stated.

    There is no libel in “Joe Smith allegedly shot John Jones”.

    Some reporters use qualifiers when there is no need to. I speculated above that the use of qualifiers arose for good reasons in appropriate situations, and some reporters use them profligately because they do not understand the reason for using the qualifier.

  42. #42 |  En Passant | 

    @#37 Sheenyglass —

    I think the Wikipedia page on private prosecutions that I cited in #6 above may shed light on some of the issues you raised.

  43. #43 |  Felix | 

    @37 sheenyglass

    1. Double jeopardy is something I hadn’t thought much about, but if prosecution were limited to victims, not too many cronies could stage a dummy inept prosecution. But if there are multiple victims, one might be bought off to rush an inept first trial and pre-empt the others. You’d need some way of combining cases, but what if the victims couldn’t agree on a strategy? On the other hand, a victim’s staged inept trial to pre-empt the others would be no worse than a DA refusing to prosecute.

    What happens today with civil trials? What happened in OJ’s wrongful death lawsuits? There were two victims, must have been multiple lawsuits at least initially.

    2. Maybe the defendant should be able to include their own charges of false charges as part of the continuing case, so the jury would have to consider them together. I don’t think this is much different from being able to prosecute DAs for false charges. Maybe the burden of proof would be higher than in normal cases, but the intent is to get rid of the most corrupt cases, not all of them. Maybe as the public got used to finding plaintiffs vexatious, they would be more inclined to consider the less-than-infamous cases.

    Or maybe juries could return one of five verdicts (:-) — so guilty as to pay all court costs, guilty but not so obviously as to pay court costs, no decision, innocent but not so obviously as to pay court costs, and so innocent as to mark the plaintiff guilty of malicious prosecution.

  44. #44 |  Felix | 

    #39 Steve Verdon

    I guess you are so far down the hole of pessimism that the surface looks as far away as Pluto.

    Yes, I do believe in individuals. The vast majority want to do the right thing, even when they have warped personas. The biggest problem most people have is not getting enough information, very much like being at the bottom of a well and seeing only a tiny pinprick of light in an otherwise shadow world.

  45. #45 |  Weird Willy | 

    Bill Wells,

    Could you refer us to a source for more details? It seems that yours may be a worthwhile case to research.

  46. #46 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Why would the MSM study this “history” thing? Does it generate current headlines?

  47. #47 |  Steve Verdon | 


    Yes, I do believe in individuals. The vast majority want to do the right thing, even when they have warped personas.

    The right thing would be to curtail the expansion of the criminal/legal system. To stop turning the police into paramilitary units. To find another solution to frivolous lawsuits hurled at prosecutors other than absolute immunity. To come up with institutional changes so that the “good cops” don’t have to feel compelled to protect the bad ones.

    But none of this ever gets done. Ever. Have you asked yourself why? I’ll tell you: voting is not a rational process. That is it does not result in rational outcomes.

    Consider something slightly off topic. Would you agree with the following proposition:

    If you tax something you get less of it.

    Do you agree with that? If yes, now let me ask a second question:

    Why do we tax income?

    If you agree with the first proposition, then the conclusion is that as a society we want less income.

    Does that make any sense to anyone?

    The number of examples I can give on policies we have enacted and put into place in this country are quite numerous. Here are a few of them:

    –We hear bemoaning about our low savings rates, but we implement programs like Medicare and Social Security that discourage savings.

    –Our health care system is really, really badly broken in that costs are rising faster than our economy will be able to support. So why do we keep granting tax preferred status to employer provided health care benefits?

    –The Social Security tax is extremely regressive and in line with the notion of if you tax something you get less of it (in this case both labor and income….at a time when unemployment is stuck above 8%) why don’t we switch to another tax…something were there are several negative effects and will not be nearly as regressive….like a tax on gasoline (google Greg Mankiw’s Pigou Club)?

    Again and again we see government doing things that make little or no sense. Like bailouts. Do bailouts help stave of (economic) disaster or do they merely postpone the day of reckoning and create a perverse incentive to keep engaging in the very activities that necessitated the bailouts in the first place? Have you looked at the magnitude of government bailouts over time? They are getting bigger, not smaller. Could we not conclude that bailouts are part of the problem and not the solution?

    The idea that we can reform things and solve these problems is naive and foolish. There are many who have a tremendous interest in keeping the status quo and that includes every single politician out there. Reform is a pipe dream. The State has all the chips. The State is the only entity that can use force and violence against its people legally. You can’t. I can’t. No other commenter here can…well unless they are an agent of the State, but even then they can only engage in violence that the State wants them to engage in. And given that so many of those in the top 10% and 1% of the income/wealth distribution are dependent on the State and many politicians obtain their wealth from the State….it is a powerful incestuous relationship that mere voting is not going to stop.

    Keep thinking otherwise if you wish, but the fact is you are facing something with vastly more resources than you have…or any group you put together. And failing that you have no legal right to use violence against the State. The State on the other hand can use violence against you with impunity.

  48. #48 |  Steve Verdon | 


    One last thing….you have outlined your ideas of “radical” reform you’d like to see. What you utterly failed to do is to provide even a rough road map on how to get there.

    I would argue that not only will the reforms have to be “radical” the method of obtaining them will also have to be “radical” and the citizens of the U.S. don’t do “radical”.

    But maybe you have a very clever idea….

  49. #49 |  Scott Lazarowitz | 

    You mentioned Warren Brookes and the “statist quo.” Here is a link to his speech on that:


  50. #50 |  You Say “Fascism,” I Say “Communism” – Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off » Scott Lazarowitz's Blog | 

    […] William Anderson: Why the Mainstream Media Never Seem to Learn Any Lessons of History […]

  51. #51 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @47 – Explain the Nordic countries in your framework.

  52. #52 |  Dan Adams | 

    Thank you for noticing the injustice currently being served upon Bob Adams. His reputation has been permanently tarnished, the business he founded and grew over a third of a century destroyed, Thirty employees thrown into the unemployment line weeks before a new school year. Students and families harmed by the school’s scandalous closure. The loss of the 7 acres school property to foreclosure. Without help from friends and family, the foreclosure of his home delayed for now. Bob is expected to defend himself without income. I noticed a few other stories you have written about. One claim can quickly snowball into hundreds. I guess we should be grateful that ours have actually diminished in only seven. If the DA does pursue these charges they will have to eat poo publicly for years for wasting precious taxpayers resources on an unwinnable case.

    I have seen and read most of the “evidence” provide (I couldn’t look into the still missing 299 pages of bate stamped pages from our inept friends at the CHPD almost 1 year later). Detective Joe “Barney Fife” Rangel would make a hilarious character if his actions weren’t so harmful. He subscribes to the Fire, Aim, Ready school of police work. The Sac Bee and other media outlets treat anyone accused of a crime like this, as guilty until proven innocent.

    These are two of the post on today Sac Bee article.

    • Well, well, well… anothe delay. Like that is a surprise… maybe he won’t have to muster up another “heart condition” for another few months… his bag of tricks must be getting a little empty. From bendoverbob (bendoverbob’s only post is this one … the illiterate forgot the word another ends with an “r”)

    • I just knew by the headline that it was not just a “normal convict.” It has to be someone that can have some influential lawyers or friends to keep getting a case delayed. from jocko666

    What kind of sick waste of human flesh jokes about getting raped in prison? Should he be tried in public opinion by cowards who are not willing to sign their names to their post? Maybe these people are connected to the investigation? There have been a small handful who have slandered and besmirched Bob’s character. They never show up to courthouse like the 40 of us who know Bob. They want to forget Bob’s constitution rights of a speedy trial. The prosecution is the one responsible for these numerous delays. I believe it is a tactic to drain all resources and then try and push a plea agreement down his throat. That will never happen!

    Thank you again for shining another light onto this travesty. I look forward to your future post William.

  53. #53 |  Witch hunts and child sexual abuse « Phil Ebersole's Blog | 

    […] on Why the Mainstream Media Never Learns Any Lessons of History and “Bleed ‘Em, Plead ‘Em and Lie for reports on the ongoing case of Robert […]