In Palm Beach story, flimsy excuses from the press On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 18, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — SHORTLY AFTER the Democratic convention in 1988 a "story" surfaced raising a question as to whether Michael S. Dukakis, the party's presidential nominee, might have received psychiatric treatment for emotional depression.

There wasn't a shred of truth in it. In fact, the rumor had been started by supporters of political cultist Lyndon H. LaRouche, the same people who had been telling the world for years that Queen Elizabeth was a dope pusher. That rumor, printed in a flier handed out at the Atlanta convention, was pushed along by another that the Detroit News was about to "break a story" on the alleged mental illness. Before long it surfaced in such highly respected newspapers as the Boston Globe and the New York Times. In the name of competitiveness, Dukakis was forced to defend himself against a totally unfounded accusation.

That episode -- and others during the 1988 campaign -- was an example of how the press these days finds excuses, flimsy as they may be, to publish things that traditionally have been out of bounds for good reason. The current example is the decision by NBC News and then the New York Times to identify the woman who claims she was raped at the Kennedy family compound last month.

In this case the chain of irresponsibility began with publication of the woman's name in a London tabloid known for sensationalism, the Sunday Mirror. Then it was published by the Globe, a supermarket tabloid. The Globe blamed it on "British press reports."

That was enough for NBC News to decide, in a story laying the blame on the Globe, to identify the woman. "We believe in this case, as in all news events, the more we tell our viewers, the better informed they will be in making up their own minds about the issues involved," read a statement issued by NBC News President Michael G. Gartner. "We do not mean to be judgmental or take sides; we are merely reporting what we have learned."

We always thought that in a criminal case it should be members of a jury who make up "their own minds" about guilt or innocence. But even if it is essential for viewers to make up their minds, it is hard to understand how the name of the woman involved helps that process along. Does her identity have anything to do with the truth or falsity of her accusation?

Once NBC News had acted, editors of the New York Times decided, as the paper put it, "that NBC's nationwide broadcast took the matter of her privacy out of their hands."

The result was a story more than a column long discussing her family background including the wealth of her stepfather and how he came to meet and marry her mother, the cost of her home, the circumstances of her giving birth to a daughter, as well as her high school record, employment history, record of traffic violations and social habits. We are even treated to the recollections of the chef at an Italian restaurant who cooked rigatone a la vodka for her one night a few weeks before the incident at the Kennedy estate.

What all this has to do with her claim she was raped is a mystery. Is rape more or less excusable if the victim is someone who hung around Palm Beach bars and lost her driver's license?

Mainstream news organizations traditionally have followed a policy of withholding the names of victims of sex crimes except in extraordinary circumstances or cases in which the victims voluntarily make their accusations public, as happened last year when the Des Moines Register published a long account of the rape case with the cooperation of the victim. The reasoning always has been that they are entitled to their privacy at least until the case has been settled one way or the other.

But these days any excuse seems acceptable. The notion that publication of the woman's name in a London tabloid and supermarket paper legitimizes the invasion of privacy is nonsense. So is the idea that readers or viewers have some "right to know" in a case such as this one where no public official is involved. So is the thesis that publication was justified because "everyone" in Palm Beach already knew the identity of the woman.

The woman has made a serious accusation. It is now up to the criminal justice system to determine whether it was valid. Violation of her privacy by news organizations using trumped-up rationalizations adds nothing to the process.

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