About

The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.

Categories

Tom Shales


January 2007 Archives

'60 Minutes' Should Name Name

January 13, 2007 1:09 PM

Virtually guaranteeing the show will be water-cooler fodder for the umpty-ump-umpth time, "60 Minutes" not only has a one-on-one with George W. Bush scheduled for this Sunday night's (Jan. 14) broadcast (it's always a "broadcast" at CBS News), but will also air a hot report on the Duke University lacrosse team's sexual assault case.

Herewith a plea: that the name of the alleged victim in the case, the stripper whose shaky allegations may already have ruined the lives of the young men charged, be spoken aloud as part of the report. Hewing to ancient practice, most media, perhaps all, have refrained from printing the woman's name, even though the young men's names have been included somewhere within the first few graphs of virtually every story on the quixotic case.
Something is very wrong with the rules when a lopsided discrepancy like this is allowed to prevail, six decades into the so-called sexual revolution. Women have rightfully demanded and received equal treatment in many, many areas, and though the glass ceiling still exists, it would be reckless to claim that progress has not been made.

But many rules, regulations and traditions left over from pre-liberation days still prevail.

Generally speaking, it sounds right and proper to refrain from printing the name of a victim of sexual assault. The person, if giving a truthful account of events, has already suffered unspeakably.

But what if it isn't a truthful account of events? What if it's a passle of crap? The media rule of never ever printing the name of the person making the charges assumes guilt on the part of the chargee and innocence on the part of the charger. In the Duke case, the alleged victim has changed her story more than once along the way and appears not to be -- based on descriptions that have circulated in broadcasting and print -- prim Sister Susie or the world's last surviving adult virgin.

Late in the week, the prosecutor in the case, a headline-grabbing district attorney, grabbed another one by asking in effect to be removed and proposing that a special prosecutor be assigned. This guy is running from a sinking ship that's also engulfed in flames.

"60 Minutes" is likely to have the gory details -- of the prosecutor's retreat, that is -- in its report. Why not make news by also naming the woman who has so far been allowed to make character-assassinating allegations from a safe haven of anonymity?

This does not necessarily mean changing the rule or throwing it out and declaring "every person for itself." Instead this is a plea for bending the rule when it clearly results in unjust treatment, even if it's not necessarily true that the accused boys are 99 and 44/100 percent pure, either.

Imbalance still reigns in courtrooms throughout America when male-female conflicts are litigated. A wife says her husband slapped her and, in many a state, the husband can be immediately thrown in jail, no questions asked, and his possible innocence deemed irrelevant. Nor does it matter if the man in the case is a 98-pound weakling and the wife a pro wrestler whose biceps bulge from daily workouts at the gym.

Reverse situation: Wife slaps husband in the kisser. Is she destined for a hurried trip to the slammer? Not even if the two most sexist male cops in the world show up at the scene of the "crime" and only if the wife has broken every bone in the man's body and hasn't a scratch on her.

In most sexual assault cases, the old rule of protecting the victim, an attempt to prevent further victimization, will still make sense and should stand. But when circumstances scream for suspension of the rule, that ought to happen. D.A's may persist in insisting they are "not going to try this case in the media," but let's not be naive; if it's juicy enough, that's where it will be tried anyway.

"Innocent until proven guilty" is a far more important principle than "never publish the name of a rape victim." Especially if there appears to be little proof and no corroboration that rape occurred in the first place -- and there is some question as to who "the victim" really is.