The Mundling Zone

Thoughts, rants, and raves from the desk of Michelle Mundling

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Trial by Media: The Right to Know vs The Right to Privacy

The latest news of accusations against Michael Jackson for child molestation is the latest in a series of public accusations against celebrities and/or sports figures. By now, I'm sure everyone who didn't know Kobe Bryant existed are now aware of who he is, what he does for a living, and which team he plays for.

Unless you are a law enforcement officer or a lawyer working on these cases, or the actual accused, all you know is what has been broadcast by the media. That might not be a bad thing except that for every grain of truth, there are 10 times as much speculation by so-called "experts" and "insiders." There is so much type about these two cases that real news is being overshadowed in favor of accusatory speculation.

CNN Crossfire's Tucker Carlson has a monthly column in Reader's Digest called "It's Outrageous." In that column a few months ago, he spoke about his book, "Politicians, Partisans and Parasites. " In that book, he talks about his own experience with being falsely accused of rape. He spent thousands of dollars trying to defend himself. His accuser lived in another state and claimed he raped her in a city in which he had never visited. While working to defend himself, it was discovered that his accuser had serious mental problems. Carlson used to think that there had to be a basis of truth to any sex scandal; he has since then changed his mind. Howard Kurtz of Washingtonpost.com has a similar article about Carlson that can be read here.

Wendy McElroy of Ifeminists.com recently had an article "False Rape Charges Hurt Real Victims." In it, she quoted a study that tracked reported rapes within a nine-year period. During that period, 41 percent of the rapes reported were false. Ms. McElroy goes on to clarify how lives can be destroyed from being falsely accused.

It's easy to be accused, especially of child molestation.

I know a lot of people are already rushing to judgment about Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant. Personally, I do not know if either are innocent or guilty. I do know that the public spotlight being shined on them in the accusatory manner that it has been is not journalistically ethical. Michael Jackson is being portrayed as a self-made freak while Kobe Bryant is being portrayed as a deceitful, unfaithful man.

Despite how you feel about either one of them, for the sake of the argument, consider these two distinct possibilities: What if Michael Jackson IS innocent? What if Kobe Bryant IS innocent? With the way the media is portraying them, their reputations are forever ruined even if they are later acquitted. People will forever remember that these two were publicly accused of these crimes. It's been nearly 19 years since Vanessa Williams' nude photos in Penthouse caused her to lose her Miss America crown, and it's still in the back of everyone's mind ever time her name is mentioned. People don't forget stuff like that.

Put yourself in this place: Let's say you've been accused of molesting a teen, but you know you're innocent. Think about all the people who claim to be your (former) friends or confidantes coming forward for their fifteen minutes of fame saying things about you that may or may not be true, just to feed the media's lust for dirty laundry. Does any of it need to be printed in magazines or broadcast on the news and tabloid shows? Now, you might argue, "I don't do the outrageous stuff like he does; my behavior is not the one coming into question. " That doesn't matter. All it takes is one public accusation. The more popular (or unpopular) you are, the more likely the accusation will take on a life of its own.

Consider the case of Richard Jewell. He was a private citizen working as a security guard during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. On the night the bomb went off in Centennial Park, he was working to keep people away from a suspicious duffel bag he noticed minutes before the bomb detonated. Later, he worked to comfort victims of that bomb. He was regarded as a hero.

One week later, he was accused of being the Centennial Park bomber. For four months, Jewell and his mother were subjected to the media hounding them and recording their every move. Former employers and so-called acquaintences came forward to denounce Jewell as an insecure and sub-standard employee. The media jumped on the "trash Jewell" campaign with anything they could get their hands on, even making comments like, "... and he lives with his mother...." as if something was wrong with him for that (as someone who is currently living with her parents AND paying rent, I especially take serious offense with the media about that remark.).

It was not until October 1996 that the FBI begrudgingly acknowledged that they made a mistake targeting Richard Jewell in their investigations. Richard Jewell later made a public statement that day about the hell the FBI and the media put him through for something he did not do. He didn't stop there. He proceeded to file lawsuits against various media companies for their statements about him ... and won.

Some accusations come right out of the blue, and some you can see coming. A few years ago, I had a cousin who brought her son with her to Waycross to escape what she claimed was an abusive boyfriend. We had an aunt who took her and her son in and let her stay in one of her rental apartments. As time went on, my cousin started getting restless and homesick (understandable feelings). From the first night she arrived, some of the things she was telling me didn't seem kosher, but I promised not to say anything to anyone else. The longer she stayed, the more outrageous her stories got. Then I noticed that some of those claims turned toward child abuse. Then it became sexual child abuse. I was becoming more uncomfortable around her.

The final straw was when she took a statement I made and twisted it around to make it look like I was the one making the claim. I finally called my aunt and asked her to come over to the house so she and I could have a talk. I told her everything. I also warned my aunt not to be with my cousin's son by herself because she might get accused of child abuse if my cousin became angry with her.My cousin and I haven't spoken since. I still love and care about her, but she needs help, and until she gets that help, I can't have anything to do with her.

The bottom line is this: despite how you perceive someone who is accused of a crime, there are three sides to every story: the accuser's version, the accused's version, and the truth. Regardless of who the accused is, there are some things we the public do not need to know and do not need to have broadcast to us. In this country, the accused is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, not trial by media. We need to start keeping that in mind the next time the media broadcasts, "Coming up next ...Michael Jackson goes to the bathroom. How will this affect the investigation? Film at 11."