Jul 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In this summer of the self-referential, movies are about movies (either their special effects or the other movie they’re a sequel to) and the news is about the news. Last week’s big news-news was, of course, the furrowed-brow debate about whether to air photos of those notorious Saddamites Uday and Qusay after they had been shot to death in a huge gun battle with U.S. troops in Iraq.
But there was another and seemingly more substantial media debate over whether to identify a 19-year-old woman who has charged in court that beloved NBA superstar Kobe Bryant sexually molested her during a fateful encounter at a resort hotel. Do genteel old rules of journalism, fashioned decades ago, still apply in an era when women demand they be treated as men are-at least, most of the time? Out poured the experts and professional advocates, those who consider rape a crime worse than murder and those crying foul that a young man’s life and career can theoretically be destroyed by an accuser protected by anonymity.
In the matter of the Hussein boys, the journalistically and morally correct answer seemed simple enough: how the damn pictures, which all the networks, on their evening newscasts, did. Earlier that day, CNN and Fox News Channel popped those pictures on the screen as fast as they could downlink them from abroad, which these days is pretty fast. The pictures themselves were news because it was alleged that displaying them in Iraq and throughout the Mideast was a necessary step in convincing the various populaces that the brothers were indeed, like Monty Python’s famous parrot, “bleedin’ demised.”
They were no more, they had left this mortal coil, they had gone to meet their maker, they were stiff as carps-in the parrot sketch, the Python troop covered virtually every known euphemism for “dead,” that scariest of four-letter words.
It doesn’t matter that there appears to be a great deal of ingenuousness in the assertion that showing anybody a photo will automatically convince them of anything. True to form, disgruntled Iraqis-who hated Saddam but also, apparently, hate those who successfully unseated him-immediately pounced on the photos as shams, fakes and computer-manipulated forgeries. This is a culture where it is considered proper behavior to parade dead bodies of martyrs or enemies through the streets, but if the U.S. Army were to start parading dead bodies instead of just photographing them, what a howl that would bring from whatever friends America has left in the world.
Anyway, there they were, two bloated and bloodied faces that could well have been those of the previously alive Uday and Qusay, or Ulu and Grosbard, or Ebay and Gasbag. I’m sorry, but the names are funny. David Letterman could do a whole “Oprah-Uma” routine with them; on Thursday night’s show, incidentally, he reported that the brothers had just officially arrived in hell. Meanwhile, former NBC News President Reuven Frank asked the rhetorical question we may all have secretly wanted to ask: “Why did Saddam Hussein name his sons in pig-Latin?”
I was actually a little incredulous that there was even perfunctory debate about showing the photos, since there had been so much conjecture about whether the photos even existed, much less whether they “proved” that the sons of Saddam were really and entirely killed.
Etched in many American minds forever, meanwhile, are such painful visual memories as the sight of Robert F. Kennedy lying on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, a pool of blood forming a profane halo behind his head. If Americans can be shown that image, dammit, they can certainly be shown the faces of two men who by all accounts were shameless discredits to the human race.
Fox News Channel is, of course, so pro-administration that it might as well be called Bushnet. And so Fox anchors and commentators-and they’re interchangeable on that network from one minute to the next-took pains to portray the dead brothers as not just vile but unspeakably, hideously and incontestably vile. A woman identified as an “Iraqi exile” and interviewed on the day the photos were aired included among her allegations the charge that Uday, or maybe it was Qusay, personally raped “thousands” of women during his career of infamy. “Thousands.” Hmm.
But anyway, they’re dead. Or, as it is sung of a far nobler departed spirit in “Porgy and Bess,” they are “gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.”
The Kobe Bryant case is going to be very painful for everybody concerned; that much is clear already. Here is one professional athlete who has neither been an exhibitionist nor, to judge from his public persona, mistaken notoriety for fame in the Charles Barkley tradition. He is highly regarded. That makes public pressure all the more severe on the young woman who is his accuser of a deeply serious crime. Dan Rather announced on “The CBS Evening News” that the network would adhere to its policy of not identifying rape victims; but if the charge is false, if it is being brought capriciously or maliciously, who is the victim? Bryant, of course, and he has been identified a thousand million times.
By not naming the accusers in such cases, the media play the role of the accuser’s advocate in the proverbial court of public opinion. Bryant is no longer innocent until proven guilty; he is now considered guilty and must prove his innocence against an invisible attacker and the media portrayal of her. If there’s to be equality of the sexes, then the old rule has to be thrown out. There will be suffering on both sides; that is the unfortunate reality of a criminally unhappy predicament.