Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Nation of Witch Hunters

When I was growing up, "innocent until proven guilty" was practically a mantra whenever someone was accused of a crime. Even if everyone knew the accused was guilty, it simply was not considered American to speak of someone as guilty until a jury had reached that conclusion.

That, after all, was the kind of thing the early settlers came to America to escape (and then, ironically, engaged in their own witch hunting in Salem, Mass.).

The newsrooms where I worked in my newspaper days were always sensitive to that. For a time, when I was a police/courts reporter, my editors always reminded me, when I came to the newsroom to write about the day's proceedings in court, to refer to the defendant as "the accused" or "the alleged" until the jury reached its verdict.

Even if we knew the defendant was guilty. We couldn't say so until it was official — meaning that a jury had reached that conclusion.

Saying so in print only made it seem — and rightly so — that the press had already reached its conclusion. To hell with the jury.

That has never been the role of the press. The press' job is to be the eyes and ears of the community. The newspapers for which I worked, as I say, were always very sensitive about that kind of thing. They earnestly sought to maintain an aura of neutrality, and most of the reporters with whom I have worked would have bristled at the suggestion that they were not absolutely fair.

It's been awhile since I worked in a newsroom so I don't know when that began to change. All I know is that it did — probably tentatively at first but grew progressively bolder as the press began to discover that no one was going to hold it accountable for prejudging criminal defendants.

Even if the press was wrong.

Today, all that is needed for the public to turn on someone is for someone else to say something. Anything. Doesn't matter if it is true. It is accepted on face value. Look how quickly people have turned on Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers of his day. He has been accused of truly reprehensible behavior. If those accusations are true, he should be held accountable. But they haven't been proven in court, which is where every American who is accused of something is entitled to face his/her accuser and defend himself/herself against the charges if possible. That's what the people who braved the unknown to settle this land wanted.

Well, at least, that's how it used to be.

How about the case of cable TV cooking star Paula Deen, who admitted using the "N word" many years ago and apologized profusely — only to be driven from the airwaves anyway by those whose only motive appeared to be a desire to see how the other half had been living all these years — not a quest for justice.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the grand jury, as you undoubtedly know, has been investigating the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18–year–old black man. The grand jury's decision not to indict the white police officer who shot Brown sparked riots and looting.

If you look at the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, you will see that most of the witnesses' accounts supported the officer's version of events — and most, if not all, of those witnesses were black. The facts simply did not support accusing the officer of a crime and spending who knows how many taxpayer dollars in a futile attempt to convict him.

And that is what grand juries really are designed to do — filter the unsupported cases from the supported ones. Do you believe that there are too many frivolous cases clogging up the judicial system? Grand juries have been doing their part to keep the frivolous cases out of the system in this country for a couple of centuries. If you think it is bad now, try living in an America that doesn't have grand juries to serve as courthouse gatekeepers.

Apparently, there are, to misquote Jack Nicholson, people who can't handle the truth, though. In spite of the testimony of those witnesses, there are still people who say justice wasn't served — and that race was the reason.

That is mere speculation unless there is proof to support it. Astonishingly, there are people who continue to cling to claims that have been recanted, citing them as evidence in this case — when, in fact, they are no such thing.

Things are a bit murkier in the choking death of Eric Garner in New York in July. I haven't seen those grand jury transcripts, and I would like to because it could give me some insight into the jurors' mindset. From looking at the video, it appears that, at the least, a charge of negligent homicide might be in order — but a video doesn't tell you everything you need to know.

Videos do help, of course, and I like the idea of equipping police officers with body cameras so investigators can see precisely what the officer saw when something like this happens. It's a worthy goal, but Barack Obama's pledge to provide federal funds to help police departments pay for such cameras is one more example of how Obama ignores feasibility in order to pursue what he believes would be an ideal world.

America is already $18 trillion in debt. The wise thing — the prudent thing — would be to focus on bringing down the debt, not adding to it. Hard choices must be made. Such choices almost always involve sacrifice, and, in the last six years, many Americans have had to make sacrifices they never thought they would have to make. Their leaders must give careful consideration before asking for more.

Of course, homicides aren't the only things getting attention these days. There have been a couple of cases of rape — or, rather, alleged rape — in the news. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that rape is anything other than what it is — an act of violence. But it is the kind of charge that sticks to someone even if he's been cleared.

I covered a rape trial once. The defendant was acquitted, but he was forever linked to the charge. He lost his job, couldn't find another one locally and, eventually, had to leave town. I've always hoped he was able to pick up the loose threads of his life and get back on track.

I also left that experience thinking that, if newspapers voluntarily withhold the names of alleged rape victims (and that is a voluntary thing — it is not mandated by law — freedom of the press, don't you know), they should also withhold the names of the accused until they have been convicted.

Rape is an incendiary charge. Bill Cosby, as I have pointed out, hasn't been convicted. He hasn't even been formally charged, yet his long–time associates are throwing him under the bus, one after the other. Maybe they're right to do so. But what if they are wrong?

Yes, sexual assault is an incendiary charge. It must be handled judiciously, which makes the case of actress Lena Dunham both fascinating and troubling.

For the last couple of months, Dunham has been hawking her memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'" which includes her account of an occasion when she was raped.

Well, to be fair, she never actually accuses anyone of rape. But she does describe an evening of what is best described as non–consensual sex.

Dunham, in case you don't remember, made advertisements for Obama's re–election two years ago. Those advertisements were intended to appeal to young voters, equating casting one's first vote with losing one's virginity.

I do not mention that to explain any conclusions I may have reached about Dunham or her moral compass or anything like that — I think most readers are capable of doing that on their own — but because her political leanings are important to remember in the context of a portion of her narrative. I refer to her description of an occasion when she claims to have been raped by a prominent "campus Republican" named Barry when she was a student at Oberlin College.

Oberlin is in Ohio and, from what I have heard, put the liberal in "liberal arts." Just about any Republican would stick out like a sore thumb there.

Her account has been effectively debunked by John Nolte of Breitbart. It was praised for its "truthiness" in TIME back in September.

Now that the reliability of the story has been brought into question, Eugene Volokh of the Washington Post wonders if this prominent "campus Republican," identified in Dunham's book as "Barry," has grounds for legal action against her.

The most egregious example of this willingness — nay, eagerness — to blindly accept anything that is said could be found in the pages of Rolling Stone last month. The article described the horrific gang rape of a woman identified as Jackie at a University of Virginia frat house.

There were angry protests and the school suspended all fraternity activities for a year. Those would be appropriate responses except for one thing — "there now appear to be discrepancies" in the account, Rolling Stone's managing editor says. More than a few, actually. There are more holes in the story than you'll find in the average block of Swiss cheese.

As a journalist, I am embarrassed by the blatantly sloppy fact checking. It is shoddy journalism, and it is inexcusable.

Rolling Stone's managing editor was right to acknowledge that the "failure is on us," but the mistakes were so basic that a first–year journalism student, never mind a newsroom full of seasoned vets, would have spotted them.

The thing that concerns me, though, is this: What if the editors at Rolling Stone knew in advance about the problems with the story, and they gambled that no one would call them on it? That it wasn't sloppiness after all?

I am reminded of the bogus charges leveled by Tawana Brawley against a group of white men back in the late '80s. Do you happen to recall who one of her chief supporters was? Al Sharpton.

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