News media as an arm of the prosecutorial state

The arrest of a leading French statesman and politician, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on charges of sexually assaulting a New York hotel chambermaid became a transatlantic media spectacle when he was photographed—manacled and miserable—being led from a Manhattan lockup. Publishing such pictures is illegal in France, and some commentators there were incensed by the photos of what U.S. reporters call the “perp walk” (“perp” for perpetrator). That’s when an accused person, if newsworthy, is deliberately marched to arraignment past the cameras.

Now Strauss-Kahn was no typical suspect. He was a European political star of the first magnitude, president of the International Monetary Fund, married to a well-known broadcaster, deeply rich, widely known and frequently profiled, until now a possible successor to Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. His arrest couldn’t fail to draw enormous coverage, overriding any qualms journalists might have about giving spectacular play to unproven charges.

Nevertheless, the outrage over the Strauss-Kahn photos raises important, and I think, long overdue questions about the routine ways in which U.S. media cover ordinary criminal suspects. The fact is, the media’s normal practices aren’t fair, aren’t right, harm innocent people needlessly, do little to hold the courts accountable—the professed goal—and may make it harder for the justice system to do what it’s supposed to do. Continue reading “News media as an arm of the prosecutorial state”