Fairness is forgotten when a story's at stake

MIKE ROYKO

January 08, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

It may be true that Kgosie Matthews is an arrogant jerk. He's been widely reported to be one. But even a jerk should have the right to confront his accusers.

If you follow politics, you probably know that Kgosie Matthews was Carol Moseley Braun's campaign manager. Now they appear to be significant others, or some such things.

Matthews has also achieved prominence by being the target of accusations that he sexually harassed two or three women who worked in Braun's campaign.

This became big news because Braun is a senator as a direct result of the most notorious case of alleged sexual harassment of our time: the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy.

Sen. Al Dixon (D-Ill.) voted to confirm Thomas for the Supreme Court, women became furious with him, and the unknown Braun jumped into the race. She was the beneficiary of all that female fury, and the rest is history.

Now Braun has a campaign manager/boyfriend who is accused of sexual harassment. Just like Clarence Thomas.

What a yuck. That's known as irony. And those of us in the news business love the ironic story.

The only problem with this story is that, while it reeks of irony, it reeks even more of unfairness.

As I said in the beginning, it is part of our legal system that the accused be permitted to confront his accusers.

If you want to sue someone, you can't tell the lawyer: "Yes, file the suit, I want to get every dollar he has. But by the way, keep my name out of it."

If you go to the police and say you want to sign a complaint !! against someone for a criminal act, you can't say: "Arrest him, but I don't want to get involved."

It doesn't work that way, and it shouldn't. At least it doesn't in the world of law.

But in journalism, the rules are different. Actually, there are no binding rules. The rules are whatever an editor says they are.

And in the case of Kgosie Matthews, he stands accused of sexual harassment by . . . by whom? Damned if I know. Two or three women whose names have never appeared in any newspaper or on any radio or TV station.

Their allegations have been printed and broadcast, although not in any true detail. They say that he tried to date them. When they turned him down, he treated them coldly or rudely or something.

None said that he groped, pinched, goosed or tried to bestow an unwanted kiss. He didn't chase them around a desk or leap out from behind a water cooler in a state of nudity. Or if he did, they haven't said so.

The reason their names have not appeared in these stories is that the reporters who listened to them agreed to their demand that they not be named or identified in any way. Those were the terms of their deal for telling their stories.

Now, there are sometimes valid reasons why a news source's name is protected.

Someone once tipped me off that the crime syndicate had taken over a private golf club. I checked it out, did the story and put the club out of business. Had I used the source's name, he would have slept with the fishes.

Government whistle-blowers sometimes tell reporters about government corruption. If their names are used, they can be exposed to professional or even physical danger.

Most news organizations don't use the names of rape victims. That's because many people still wrongly believe that rape is a sex crime, rather than a crime of violence, and the victim is stigmatized.

But in the case of Kgosie Matthews, we're not talking about rape. If it was rape, the women should have gone to the cops, which they haven't done.

Do they fear for their lives if they're identified? If so, again they should be talking to cops, not reporters.

No, what we have here is a one-way street. They get to tell their story, with few specifics, and Kgosie Matthews is muddied up in the press with headlines about "sexual harassment."

They remain anonymous.

Much of the mud that hits Matthews splatters Braun. So she has to go before the cameras, face a barrage of questions from reporters and try to defend herself and Matthews.

I haven't seen any of the accusers sitting in front of the cameras and answering questions.

Why should they answer questions? Because fairness demands it. If they are going to accuse a person of something that opens him to public contempt, they should be required to step right up there and provide specifics.

Just tossing out the phrase "sexual harassment" shouldn't be and isn't enough. And the media can't hide behind the excuse that they will print the facts -- or some of them -- and let the public decide if these women should or shouldn't be believed. The public hasn't been given a chance to make up its mind because it hasn't heard one word directly from these women. All it has to go on is a reporter's sketchy version of what these nameless people say. That's not enough.

I'm sure Kgosie Matthews is embarrassed by these stories. And so is Braun.

But the people who should really be embarrassed are those who work in my trade.

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