Common Knowledge, Public Knowledge


April 19, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- In the days after the cry of rape turned the Kennedy compound into a media campground, we read much about the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith.

She is 29 years old, 5 feet 7 inches tall, blonde. She has a 2-year-old daughter. She is the only child of an Ohio auto-maintenance worker and a secretary who got divorced. She was a C student in an Akron high school. Her stepfather is a retired well-to-do industrialist who divorced his wife and married her mother after a long affair. The father of her child is John P. Butler. They were never married.

There was one thing we didn't read: her name.

The woman's identity was ''common knowledge'' in Palm Beach. It was common knowledge to journalists, to neighbors and natives, even to the hot dog vendor who added her street to his daily route. But the American media followed their own guidelines. Reporters told almost all and kept their technical virginity: They stopped short of her name.

Monday, however, a supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton broke ranks and maybe broke the state law. Tuesday night, NBC broadcast both her name and picture. And Wednesday, the New York Times followed suit, its editors saying that NBC ''took the matter of her privacy out of [their] hands.'' What was common knowledge is becoming public knowledge. The lid is off, but should it be?

Since the 1970s, the media have held a consensus of sensitivity on the issue of naming alleged rape victims. Editors have generally agreed that the price of identifying these people was too high. They went along with those who argued that women wouldn't press charges if it cost them their privacy.

Big stories and social change have sorely tested this consensus.

Some lawyers have argued that it is unfair to use the name of the accused but not the accuser. Explain the double standard to William Smith, they say. Uncharged, he is nevertheless known nationally as ''the alleged rapist.''

Some feminists, too, who once lobbied for anonymity have revised their view. In the case of the Central Park jogger, lawyer Karen DeCrow asked, ''Is it not blatant sexism to assume that being raped [and left, bleeding, to die] is still such a disgrace for a woman that the victim's name must be concealed?''

Geneva Overholser, editor of the Des Moines Register asked for rape victims to break through the shame, ''to speak out . . . and identify themselves.'' One did, and the story of Nancy Ziegenmeyer won the Pulitzer Prize just last week.

Does this mean that society is ready for names? The question for me is not only a legal one although this may be tested in Florida where there is a law against naming alleged rape victims. The more important matter is how we wend our way through change.

If Americans better understand the difference between violence and sex today, it's because women have spoken out. If there is less shame, it's because of that openness.

Yet I am convinced that the willingness of women to speak out may actually and perversely depend on the protection of their privacy. Even Nancy Ziegenmeyer said that she would not have reported her rape to the police if she thought her name would be printed. It took seven months before she was willing to speak out. Indeed, the woman who named herself supports an Iowa bill that would allow other women to protect their identities.

The Palm Beach story makes the best case for those who want to name names. But the notion that we can judge these cases one by one doesn't work. Would women be ''safe'' as long as they didn't accuse famous men? Who would decide when the public's right to know overwhelmed the right to privacy? The breach it creates for other women is too broad, too soon. It assumes a post-shame society.

Times are changing and the media need to reflect that. Neither the law nor reporters should assume a wish for anonymity. Reporters must be able to routinely ask women for their consent. With each woman who is willing, we'll push the door open a bit wider.

The goal is a day when we can identify the names of women who cry rape as coolly as those who cry thief. But to do so now, against their will, would push rape back underground and chill fTC the warming climate. Privacy is the covered bridge we need to cross over to the time when rape is indeed treated by the public like any other assault.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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