Trial by Media Circus

CARL ROWAN

August 18, 1993|By CARL ROWAN

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Three celebrated cases of death and alleged deceit during the last several months have driven me to a harsh judgment of my own profession.

I have watched and been a part of the media frenzy over the murder of James Jordan, father of Chicago Bulls basketball star Michael; the indictments of Robert A. Altman and his law partner and former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in the BCCI scandal, and the alleged suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. I now conclude:

* The media are coming to disregard, to a shameful, disturbing degree, the basic American assumption that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty.

* More than ever was the case in my 45 years as a journalist, the press is convicting people in the news columns and on TV newscasts, solely on the basis of leaks and propaganda by prosecutors -- or the competitors and personal enemies of the accused.

* We are seeing an expansion of the number of supermarket and financially desperate tabloids, and TV exposes, that destroy the reputations of laudable people by printing and broadcasting unfounded rumors and salacious gossip.

A New York jury of eight women and four men has declared lawyer Robert A. Altman not guilty of fraud and filing false documents in connection with the takeover of First American Bankshares Inc. by the now-notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The jury's forewoman said she was ''insulted'' by the weak case presented by lawyers prosecuting on orders of Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau. Other jurors said Mr. Altman should never have been indicted or brought to trial.

Some surprise for the press! When Mr. Morgenthau and his aides got through trying in the media the case against Mr. Altman and his celebrated partner Mr. Clifford a year or so ago, there was hardly an editor, columnist, TV news director or anyone else in America who didn't think that the feds probably had caught Messrs. Altman and Clifford in crooked acts of self-enriching influence peddling.

Now, after what the aged, ailing Mr. Clifford calls ''a two-and-a-half-year nightmare,'' we see that Mr. Altman is cleared of all charges, and the likelihood is that the flimsy similar charges against Mr. Clifford will never be pursued.

The media's performance in the murder of James Jordan is disgusting in other ways. Last week some talk shows and newspapers erupted with ugly innuendoes or huge headlines suggesting that someone who was owed gambling money by Chicago Bulls star Michael had slain James Jordan. Others suggested that the murder victim himself had some shady, death-inviting business dealings. Even the most ''responsible'' newspapers dredged up every story they could find about the faults and mistakes of James Jordan -- and printed them.

It turns out to be not a sinister case of underworld or business partner revenge, but a dismaying episode of two stupid Carolina hoodlums killing the daddy of a universal celebrity in a random robbery.

How could my profession rush to taint James Jordan with surmised links to deadly gangsters, or shady business dealings, without giving readers any substantiating facts?

I have written before in this column about the utter irresponsibility of some journals in the Vince Foster case. All kinds of imaginary sexual scandals were sucked out of the hot and wet Potomac air to explain this personal tragedy.

I reflect on these three cases and am revolted into asking, ''What office, what mechanism of self-policing, do we media people have to drag us back to assumptions of innocence until someone's guilt is proven? Or to a fair and responsible rejection of salacious gossip?''

What we have seen in these three cases surely imperils our free press.

Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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