Reporting rape & other follies

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Women are, as we all know, delicate creatures who cannot be exposed to the harsh glare of public scrutiny. Their main value lies in their unspoiled sexual purity. If this is lost, even against their will, and it becomes known, they are tainted for life.

Do you believe that?

I hope not. That kind of thinking supposedly went out with the Victorians who put booties on the legs of their dining room tables and referred to them as limbs.

Yet that is exactly how the media establishment continues to behave in rape cases. In the most astonishingly unfair practice in journalism today, when it comes to sexual assault cases, most institutions don’t name the accuser, just the accused.

That is journalism worthy of Stalin’s Russia. Whether out of misguided feminism or old-fashioned prudishness, every time an editor goes along with this ridiculous convention, he or she helps demean women — not to mention showing and helping to spread bias against the person accused of rape.

This is especially true when there is some doubt about the truth of the accusation. Which brings us to the most recent cause célèbre, that of Kobe Bryant, a 24-year-old basketball superstar.

Now, everyone not in a Peruvian mine shaft knows that the pride of the Los Angeles Lakers is charged with raping a woman identified as a 19-year-old who worked at a resort hotel in Colorado where he was staying. It seems clear that she gave him a tour of the resort, and then went to his room, where they had sex.

He says they both wanted to do it. She says he raped her, and the police have charged him with sexual assault. Most likely, there will be a media circus trial.

What seems clear is that even if he is found not guilty, the words “Kobe Bryant” and “rapist” will be forever linked, like “Nixon” and “Watergate.”

They already are, thanks to my wonderful profession. We like to pretend “innocent until proven guilty.” When it comes to crimes like these, and celebrities in general, the rule is “guilty even if found otherwise.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am in favor of harsh penalties for violent sexual offenses. I am not a basketball fan, and never heard of Kobe before this. (Isn’t Dick Vitale still playing?) I believe at the very least, Bryant, who has a drop-dead beautiful young wife and a baby, is a spoiled, self-indulgent horse’s ass. Apart from morality, for a rich, highly blackmail-prone man of his distinction to have sex with a teenager he met that same night in a hotel where she worked was beyond stupid.

However, he is being accused of what may be a career-ending crime. And if he is to be dragged through the media mud even before a preliminary hearing, we should also present the identity of his accuser. Yes, I know all the arguments against doing this, and they are all wrong. They say rape carries a stigma.

Well, by acting as if it did, gutless media help ensure that it will continue to do so. Incidentally, being black carries far more of a stigma. Everyone knows that white America’s darkest mythic fears include the image of a hulking black man forcing himself on a white woman. When there is talk that a white woman was violated by a black man there are those, even today, who long to sling a rope from a chestnut tree. So then why didn’t the media refuse to show pictures of Kobe Bryant?

Sigh. You know what will happen. Matter of fact, it has already started. Tom Leykis, a particularly vulgar syndicated radio talk-show host, has begun using her name on his broadcasts. Soon, one or another tabloid will mention it too. Then, as a dozen years ago in the William Kennedy Smith case, a weasel mainstream newspaper will write, “the woman, whose name is Jane Doe according to the Midnite Tattler,” or something to that effect, and the next day everyone will do it. When decent journalists abdicate their responsibilities, the field is left to the merchants of sleaze.

Yes, there ought to be exceptions to identifying alleged sexual assault victims. Minors, certainly. The mentally ill. Perhaps nuns snatched off the church steps at gunpoint, and a few other cases like that.

But when an adult accuses another adult, both names belong in the story. Making difficult decisions is what editors are supposed to do. That is why they are sometimes called gatekeepers.

So now, you be the judge. Which of these is harder to defend: naming the woman who went to Kobe Bryant’s hotel room — or showing pictures of the bloodied and grotesquely distorted bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons?

We didn’t just show them once; a few days later, we showed them again, after the army had played with them, dissected them, stuck putty in certain places, shaved them, etc., to make them look more like they did before they were ripped apart by bullets. Why, we even cut open one’s leg and pulled out a metal rod to help convince the skeptical this really was old Itchy or Scratchy, I forget which.

Never mind the shocking effect all this had on the Muslim world. Hussein’s sons weren’t accusing anyone of rape, and so the media could do whatever we wanted, thanks to the public’s right to know.

Moving out of the heath: We pause to note last week’s announced retirement, whether voluntary or otherwise, of Heath Meriwether, the Free Press publisher. Knight-Ridder sent him in as executive editor in time to preside over the JOA, which ended true newspaper competition in Detroit, and he then became publisher during the long strike that defeated the newspaper unions. During his tenure, his paper lost nearly half its subscribers. Last week he indicated his deep commitment to his adopted city by announcing he would move to upstate New York.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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