The worst side of the news

Sydney Schanberg

April 22, 1991|By Sydney Schanberg

SHE GOT a lot of traffic tickets for speeding; I guess that means she was likely to have sex with strangers. An unidentified woman who knew her at the time said that in high school she was popular and "had a little wild streak" -- which I suppose indicates that she would naturally grow up to be a loose woman. Her mother may have been going out with her second husband when he was still married -- well (wink), we know what that tells us about the daughter.

More clues to the daughter's character: She didn't get terrific grades in school, she had a baby out of wedlock, she liked to visit bars and nightclubs in Palm Beach, Fla. That's it. The verdict is in. She was out looking for it and brought it on herself.

This "she" is the 29-year-old woman who has accused William Kennedy Smith, 30-year-old nephew of Sen. Edward Kennedy, of raping her at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach on March 30.

And the so-called clues to her character all come from a profile of her that appeared in The New York Times last week -- a profile that struck me as crafted to lead any reader to the suspicion, maybe even conclusion, that the woman who was charging rape had a checkered history and therefore quite possibly had led young Smith on.

I certainly don't profess to know the facts in the case, but haven't we heard all this before? Yes, we have, thousands of times. In virtually every rape case that gets as far as the lawyer stage, the defendant's lawyers and investigators try to prove that the complainant is a slut who not only consented to the sex but asked for it.

That is why so many woman still don't come forward to report rape -- because, already traumatized by the physical assault, they feel they couldn't cope with the vicious verbal assault that precedent says they are certain to face in court.

The Times also did something else in its profile of the woman: It published her name.

Most newspapers have an official policy of not naming rape victims, but sometimes it turns out to be a hypocritical position, quickly abandoned as soon as some other media organization prints the name. This is what the Times did, rationalizing its departure from policy on the grounds that "NBC's nationwide broadcast took the matter of her privacy out of (our) hands."

In its evening broadcast on Tuesday, NBC News identified the woman, seeming to justify this because a London tabloid had published the name and an American supermarket sheet had soon done the same.

Now, of course, most of the nation's press will follow suit and print the woman's name, and she will never have another moment's peace again.

My position on the issue is that, intellectually, the stigma attached to rape victims is heightened rather than eased by the tradition of shielding the victims' identities. In keeping the names secret, we make the victims seem darkened and tainted. But that's just intellectual theory.

In the non-theoretical world we inhabit, the taint is very real and very substantial. And we in the press do not have the right to inflict it on another person; only that person can decide to brave the consequences of going public.

The part I thought tawdriest in the Times' story -- apart from naming the woman -- was the description of the relationship that produced her daughter. ". . . In 1989," the story said, "she had a brief affair with . . . the son of a once-prosperous family that owned a lumber company. The company has since declared bankruptcy. (He) was the father of her child, friends say. It is unclear why the couple did not marry."

The story, hundreds of words earlier, had already stated that she had had a baby "by a local man she did not marry," so what was the purpose of all this extra information? Is she supposed to be a bad person because she didn't marry the father? Is the Times suggesting that for nice girls, marriage is the only proper option? When well-known, unmarried male entertainers and athletes are slapped with paternity suits, do we write sentences like: "It is unclear why the couple did not marry"? No, of course not. The stigma falls entirely on the woman.

This Palm Beach story is all about the worst side of the news business, the side driven solely by pack competition, defended by phony rationalizations and devoid of professional standards. Three cheers for the First Amendment!

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.