September 8, 2003
The arrest of pro basketball star Kobe Bryant on a charge of sexual assault has revived a wrenching controversy within the news media: whether to publish the names of alleged rape victims.
Rarely have U.S. media done that. The most notable recent instance was in 1991, when NBC News identified and The New York Times profiled the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her outside the Kennedy mansion in Palm Beach. (Smith was acquitted.)
Now the traditional restraint is under unusual pressure. Bryant’s celebrity has combined with the explosion of web sites to bring his 19-year-old accuser intense scrutiny and draw hordes of jock-lovers off their La-Zy-Boys to fulminate online about her motives and sexual back-story.
Respected voices too are wondering whether the taboo has outlived its time. They argue that the Internet has made it ineffective, and that secrecy does little but strengthen the archaic stigma that rape victims have something to be ashamed of, as Geneva Overholser, who led the Des Moines Register to a Pulitzer for a series on a raped woman’s recovery, argued on the influential Poynter Institute website.
“It’s time to liberate rape victims from any residual societal embarrassment by treating them as we treat the adult victims of every other crime,” wrote David Shaw, media critic with The Los Angeles Times.
Plus, Shaw reasoned, fairness compels that if the accused is named so should the accuser.
But they’re wrong. And pressure from overheated Internet sites makes it even more important that legitimate news media do what’s right.
First, understand that media routinely withhold news. Even among the tiny fraction of newsworthy occurrences that the media choose to cover are many that they report only gingerly. They try not to cause needless pain or exploit the vulnerable. They don’t show corpses much. Children’s names are often held back.
Reformers argue that a rape victim has no more reason for shame than somebody who’s robbed. She should denounce her assailant proudly and publicly, and submit to whatever publicity — and scrutiny — might follow.
But the rape stigma doesn’t arise from some presumption that the woman must have been “asking for it.” Withholding her name isn’t to keep her from being suspected of smoldering promiscuity.
It’s because she has been degraded and humiliated, in the most invasive and detestable way, and nobody wants such degradation made public.
Would a man who was beaten, held down and raped want his name published? Would we tell him to stand up and be counted, in the name of social progress?
Then there’s the argument that publishing only the suspect’s name is unfair. In a legal sense, that notion of equivalence is bogus, and radically miscasts the nature of a sexual assault charge. This isn’t a private dispute. It’s a criminal case, not a lawsuit.
It represents what’s supposed to be the considered conclusion of police and prosecutorial agents that a serious offense against the community has likely taken place. The victim’s accusation is a big factor, but only one. Technically, she’s a witness. There may be others, along with corroborating evidence in the form of semen and wounds. What if she was left comatose and can’t testify? Do we name her anyway?
Besides, does fairness require the media generally to hang the names of witnesses in criminal cases before the public?
Testifying against someone accused of a violent crime is already an act of heroism. Victim advocates say that even now only a tiny fraction of sexual assaults are reported. Imagine if media scrutiny was one of the rewards of stepping forward to denounce your assailant.
The scariest element of Overholser’s argument involves the shift of informational power toward the Internet, which renders the embargo by established media futile. “Newspapers are not — as they once were — the gatekeepers of such information,” she writes. “The culture has changed. Details about the Kobe Bryant accuser are being bandied about by shock jocks and on the Net netherworld.”
She is, of course, right: The media cannot control information as they once could. Bryant’s accuser is widely known to the small Colorado town where she lives and to the huge Kobe fan base.
But what is known is still different from what is public. That’s part of the vital distinction between gossip and news. An Internet site can post facts, but it can’t legitimate them as an appropriate part of a community’s knowledge of itself. That’s why it didn’t matter that images of the Wall Street Journal reporter’s beheading and of Princess Diana’s gruesome wounds body were available online.
The power to coarsen and cheapen the public discourse remains in the hands of the news media. That job requires judgment, and the media will continue to command respect to the degree that they understand the need for compassion and restraint.