The sport of media savagery

May 31, 1994|By Anthony Lewis

LAST November, Steven Cook filed a federal lawsuit claiming that he had been sexually abused as a teen-ager by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Roman Catholic prelate in Chicago. He asked for $10 million in damages.

The charge attracted enormous media attention. CNN, which had a documentary scheduled on sexual abuse by priests, put in a segment on the suit including an exclusive and tearful interview with Mr. Cook. It made highly emotional television.

It turned out that Mr. Cook had "recovered" memories of the supposed abuse under hypnosis by an unlicensed therapist trained on weekends at a school founded by a New Age guru. In February, Mr. Cook, saying his memory was not reliable, dropped the lawsuit.

The Bernardin episode raises acute ethical questions for lawyers and journalists. Here was a lawsuit without a whisper of credible evidence to support it.

Yet the suit, and the media treatment of it, resulted in a devastating assault on the character of a public man of high reputation.

The questions were explored the other day at a conference put on by Northwestern University. It was called "Guilt by Allegation," and it suggested some lessons for not only the press and the legal profession but the American public.

The first is that a civil lawsuit has no inherent claim to credibility. It is just a piece of paper. All that Mr. Cook's lawyer, Stephen Rubino, had to do to bring this case was to pay a $120 filing fee.

Before a criminal charge is brought, it has been considered by prosecutors who may ethically proceed only if they truly believe they have evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There are no such checks on bringing a civil action. The penalties for filing worthless civil claims are virtually non-existent.

Yet the press will often ignore some outrageous claim if made at a press conference but cover the same charge if it is in a lawsuit. Indeed, one journalist at the Chicago conference said she was merely "reporting about a lawsuit" in the Bernardin case, and it was "irrelevant" whether or not she believed Steven Cook.

That view of press responsibility sounds like Tom Lehrer's song:

"Once the rockets are up,

Who cares where they come down?

It's not my department,"

Says Wernher von Braun.

Responsible journalism is not stenography. It always requires judgment on the credibility of sources and claims. The press learned that in the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy -- learned that it was not honest to keep reporting his scurrilous charges without putting them in the context of his record. The Bernardin case suggests that the lesson must be constantly re-learned.

In fact a number of reporters, both print and broadcast, quickly began investigating the charges against the cardinal and raising tough questions about his accuser's credibility. But the impact of the lawsuit and its original coverage was still severe.

Why should any credence have been given to a shocking charge so flimsily based? It is a fact that many charges of sexual abuse by priests have proved correct, and neither lawyers nor the press should brush them off. But here it appears that a charge based on dubious claims of therapeutically recovered memory was played up because it was aimed at a person of high rank.

This kind of stuff used to be left to supermarket tabloids. But we are in an age of tabloidization, when it is harder and harder for serious journalism to ignore the tawdry.

Prof. Cass R. Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School wrote in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review of a press ethic "that places a premium on scandalous gossip or on assessments of nominees as hateful, demonic or corrupt."

He was reviewing Stephen L. Carter's "The Confirmation Mess." jTC But attacks on nominees are only part of a general tendency to assume the worst about people in public life.

The profound national reaction to the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis showed how much Americans admired her and how much we still care about the tragedy that marked her life and ours.

But it also showed, I believe, a certain nostalgia for a time when it was not a national sport to savage the great.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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