An issue with bite

September 29, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON -- I'd never even heard of Marv Albert. As a girl child, I had a V-chip installed in my brain that blocks out TV sports and their announcers.

This man dribbled his way on and off the national screen without leaving a single imprint, let alone toothmark, on my consciousness.

And if there's anything I know less about than professional basketball, it's that other indoor sport invariably referred to as kinky sex. Is that when you do it with the lights on?

But for the past week, the subject du jour and de la nuit was Marvin: the man, the teeth, the hairpiece, the garter belt, the guilty plea.

Even in our nation's capital where actual real live people talk about campaign finance reform over the dinner table, the daily TV reports from the Virginia courtroom where Mr. Albert was on trial bore no resemblance to the Congressional Quarterly.

The question before the court was whether the encounter between this man and woman was consensual. On Thursday, Mr. Albert pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor biting assault to avoid a charge of forcible sodomy. After this NBC career-ending injury, the only thing he's fit for is refereeing a Mike Tyson fight.

Still, in the wake of all the hype and headlines, the legacy of this case is a general unease about, of all things, media restraint.

After the "lurid" details are forgotten, there will still be concern about the media policy that named Mr. Albert, but not his accuser. The journalistic consensus that focused the lens on Marv and his toupee, but veiled the woman from the public eye.

Eventually, the victim may put her name and face out on the airwaves. But what does queasiness about privacy in this case suggest for the next?

The policy to protect the identity of an accuser in sex crimes was formed two decades ago with the best of intentions. Rape victims and their advocates forced editors to understand that sex crimes carried a unique stigma. A victim might be reluctant to prosecute if it meant revealing her identity.

There were many who always thought it was unfair to use the name of the accused but not the accuser. It implied her innocence and his guilt. Others thought that it perpetuated shame by treating a victim of sexual assault differently than other assault victims.

But a third group prevailed. We looked to the day when women could cry rape as coolly as they could cry thief. We agreed that women should be asked to reveal their names but not forced. We felt that privacy was a covered bridge women needed to get us to a post-shame society.

The William Kennedy Smith case in 1991 tested that consensus sorely. In the Palm Beach rape trial, the woman was outed by some papers, to a great uproar. She then appeared on TV with a blue blob in front of her face. Then, after Mr. Smith was acquitted, she outed herself.

Now we are even further along in the great cultural shift. For one woman, coming out as a rape victim is empowering. For another woman, being outed is re-victimizing. It is a very uneven time.

In the Albert case, the media protected the identity of the victim. But not of the second woman who cinched this case by describing a separate, similar encounter.

Double standard

The victim, who admitted to a 10-year relationship with Mr. Albert, had her name and face hidden from view. But the names of other celebrities she claimed to have "known" were indiscriminately printed.

Today we grant anonymity to an alleged victim in a criminal case, but print her name if she files a civil suit. And we haven't figured out whether an accuser should retain her privacy if she turns out to be a false accuser.

As the stigma lifts, the balance shifts. It tips back from the need to protect victims and prosecute criminals to the need to deal equally with the accuser and the accused.

I don't believe that the woman in this case required anonymity to press her case. In the end, ironically, Mr. Albert pleaded guilty to assault, not sodomy. No media policy I know of protects the privacy of victims of biting.

This is the problem: One policy does not fit all anymore. The one woman who wishes she could hide her identity now is Marv Albert's fiance.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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