We want NPR to give us the big story. But when that story verges on prurience, or turns into a media circus, then we expect our public radio to exercise more than some restraint.
So how did NPR reporters and editors do in handling the sexual assault case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn?
There was no denying the story's importance, but it was shot through, too, with tawdriness and spectacle in the tabloids, on cable and—let's face it—around dinner tables, pushing us toward judgment in the case of the powerful Frenchman versus the chambermaid. I certainly was judgmental, and not in the Frenchman's favor.
Brian Harkin/Getty Images
The power of an image: Dominique Strauss-Kahn hardly looks innocent as New York police escort him in handcuffs to a police vehicle on May 15, 2011.
So, I went back to review the 38 transcripts on NPR's major news shows since the story broke seven weeks ago to see if we had been misled. I found that NPR acquitted itself well.
But on deeper introspection over this past Fourth of July weekend, I wondered if we all—the press, Americans in general—need to open the prosecutorial and media rules of the game for national discussion.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Here Strauss-Kahn exudes respectability as he leaves New York State Supreme Court with his wife Anne Sinclair on July 1, 2011, after being freed on bail.
Here Strauss-Kahn exudes respectability as he leaves New York State Supreme Court with his wife Anne Sinclair on July 1, 2011, after being freed on bail. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
These involve the "perp walk," jailhouse photos and other police displays of the accused for the news media. It also involves whether the authorities and the press should continue to withhold the names of accusers who allege rape.
The tone of NPR's coverage was mostly sober, true to its tradition. "Your biggest worry, the scariest thing, is that you report something that isn't true," Executive Editor Dick Meyer told me.
This was especially commendable given that the primary sources were normally skeptical police and prosecutors in New York who by all accounts believed the sympathetic chambermaid. Her story was supported by DNA, bruises and torn clothes.
A few NPR reports did flirt with breathlessness. Reporting on Morning Edition, legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg spoke with rhetorical flourish of Strauss-Kahn's arrest as "an amazing story—a tale that defies cynical expectations about the power of the privileged." But this was true, and she was careful to attribute all her facts to New York Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne and other official sources.
She and other NPR reporters hedged themselves with language like "alleged," or said – as host Michel Martin did on Tell Me More – that, "of course, it's important to say, you know, in the United States, you are innocent until proven guilty."
In recent days, as the story changed dramatically and the district attorney's office told the court and the media that newly uncovered facts raised questions about the accuser's credibility – she apparently wasn't gang-raped in Africa as she claimed in getting asylum, for example – most NPR reports stayed careful. Many noted, as her lawyer was often quoted as saying, "It is a fact here that the victim made some mistakes, but that doesn't mean that she is not a rape victim."
It's possible that the DA will drop the charges, if only because a jury may not look sympathetically on the woman. This doesn't exonerate Strauss-Kahn. Short of a confession by either of the two people involved, it only means that we will never know the full truth of what happened in that Sofitel Hotel room.
But if that is the case, is it fair that Strauss-Kahn was humiliated and made to look guilty by the pictures of him disheveled and handcuffed, and by his being paraded in front of the media cameras in shackles? Are NPR and the rest of the news media complicit in going along with the show? Some of the pictures ran on NPR.org.
As almost any cub reporter who has ever covered police can tell you, the police and prosecutors use this public humiliation to send a message to prospective criminals, to get publicity for themselves and to extract their pound of flesh before the court system might let their man off. That he might actually be innocent is beside the point.
We in the press are being used and should protest to end this practice unworthy of the Declaration of Independence we just celebrated.
But what of the protection we give alleged rape victims? That, too, stacks the deck against the accused, who is fair game for media investigation while the accuser – in most cases – is not. Alan M. Dershowitz, the renowned Harvard civil liberties law professor, argued this week in The Daily Beast that the press is "dead wrong" to protect the accuser. "It is absolutely critical that rape be treated like any other crime of violence," he wrote.
Geneva Overholser, a former editor of the Des Moines Register and current director of the University of Southern California's school of journalism, called the century-old tradition "patriarchal foolishness" and said in The Washington Post that "we in journalism are not in position to choose who deserves our protection."
The justification by the mainstream press has been that rape has a special social stigma and trauma compared to other crimes, and that victims might not come forward if their names are bandied publicly. "Under our policy, it takes extraordinary circumstances for us to name a rape victim," Meyer said.
But do those justifications still hold as sex becomes ever more open, and as the Internet ever more lowers the barriers around private lives? The French press widely published the chambermaid's name and photo, which also were readily available on the Internet. An argument can be made that it would be more empowering for a woman or a man who has been raped to publicly own it than hide it – at least in societies where the victim is not automatically blamed for supposedly encouraging the assault.
I personally am not ready to change the current standards. I have to admit that I have imagined horrible violence that I would want to bring down on any man if he sexually assaulted one of my two daughters.
Personal feelings aside, however, it seems to me that the balance in deciding justice between stigma and presumed innocence is shifting in American society. I don't sense that it has shifted enough for NPR and the serious press to drop the policy, but editors must be alert to changing mores. There is no magic line to cross, or foolproof measures to guide them. Any decision will necessarily be subjective and messy, but at least the public conversation must be started. Justice requires that the subject no longer be taboo to talk about.
In the meantime, we have just learned, once again, the obvious lesson about jumping to conclusions.