Sex crimes, the media and trial by public opinion

ROGER SIMON ^

March 04, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Who are the women who accuse Sen. Brock Adams of harassing, molesting, and, in one case, raping them?

Could their stories stand up under cross-examination? Would a jury believe them?

We will never know. Brock Adams was not brought to justice in a court of law. He was brought to justice in the court of public opinion.

And that court has its own rules.

In that court you do not get to face your accusers. You do not even get to know their names.

Adams, a Democrat from Washington, was accused by eight unidentified women one day and dropped out of his re-election race the next.

Am I sorry for Brock Adams? Of course not. He appears to be despicable.

Do I think these women are lying? How could I? Eight women with similar stories? Where there is smoke there is fire, right?

Because that's how the court of public opinion operates.

If one person accuses Brock Adams of molesting her, as one woman did in 1987, it might not be true. And a prosecutor found that those allegations did not warrant prosecution.

But eight women? C'mon. That can't be a lie.

Which was the case against William Kennedy Smith when he was accused of rape last year, as I recall.

The prosecution produced three women besides the woman who brought charges and they accused Smith of similar attacks.

But the judge would not allow their testimony, deciding it was irrelevant to the case.

And Smith went on to be found not guilty.

Which created a bit of a problem for the press.

Smith's accuser was given anonymity by the press before and during the trial. Sort of.

NBC used her name. And so did the New York Times in a profile of her.

But this profile became hugely controversial at the Times because, essentially, it treated the alleged victim in the same manner it treated the alleged attacker: It was an unblinking look into her background and personality.

And some felt alleged victims should be protected from investigation by the press while alleged attackers should not be.

l Further, the victims of sex crimes routinely do not have their names used in the press because the nature of the crime is thought to be stigmatizing. (In other words, a woman who is stabbed will have her name used; a woman who is molested will not.)

The New York Times stopped using the alleged victim's name and most of the press never started.

Which was fine until Smith was found not guilty.

Now what was the press to do? There was no longer a reason to give the accuser anonymity because she was no longer an alleged victim. A jury had not believed her.

But the press continued to protect her, anyway. The press makes up its own rules.

And so the secret was kept. Until the woman decided to go on ABC's "PrimeTime Live" with Diane Sawyer. As "part of the healing process", the woman's mother said.

Mike Tyson raped a beauty queen in Indiana and the press kept her identity a secret, too. A jury found Tyson guilty so there was no problem keeping her identity a secret forever.

Until she managed to get her name and picture on the cover of People magazine and then went on "20/20" with Barbara Walters.

What is the rule at work here?

The rule appears to be that when the alleged crime is a sex crime and the alleged victim is a woman, she gets to make the rules.

Not everyone is pleased with this.

Geneva Overholser, editor of the Des Moines Register, said recently that "If American newspapers were edited by sources' choices . . . they would make Swiss cheese look solid. . . .

"We have this notion that we must make sure that no one suffers. That is not the newspaper editor's role. . . . It is to make sure that the truth is told, that the word goes out, that the whole picture is presented."

That is not happening today.

Today, the press wants to be "sensitive."

Instead, the press should start being sensible.

And fair.

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