Guilty until Proven Innocent

January 29, 1994

Singer Michael Jackson is paying out a multi-million dollar settlement to the teen-ager who sued him for alleged child molestation. That confirms what we knew long ago: that the entertainer was guilty as sin.

As for figure skater Tonya Harding, of course she was behind the plot to injure opponent Nancy Kerrigan. What is the U.S. Olympic Committee waiting for? Take a poll and toss her off the team already.

Regarding John Merzbacher Jr., the former parochial and public school teacher accused of a long history of sexually molesting students, let's go right to the sentencing phase.

Of course, we are being facetious. We have become uneasy about the tone, if not the zealousness, of the rush to judgment on people -- including celebrities who are public figures -- for supposed criminal acts.

In some cases, mere accusation, much less indictment, is taken as conviction.

Coverage of the Jackson case raised concern from the start. The New York Times refused at first to report on the matter. (The Sun played most of the early stories on the allegations inside the paper, although stories on his canceling his tour because of the controversy made page one.)

Closer to home, the Merzbacher case is an especially prickly one. Charges of child abuse, in fact, are a fairly new quagmire for the media because it is a crime that was ignored or swept under the rug until recently.

Cut-throat competition in this age of the information superhighway, tabloid television and talk radio may be seen as the elements producing this combustion, but it is no excuse. Media feeding frenzies weren't born yesterday; one era's Lindbergh baby kidnapping press circus is another era's Bobbitt TV babble.

The public's respect for the judicial process was already dulled during the past year by the verdicts in Simi Valley and Los Angeles, as well as in the Bobbitt cases. The principles that undergird justice are going to be further corroded if elements of the media insist upon catering to prurience and instant justice.

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