Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Will Media Learn Anything?

In the days ahead — and especially after New York prosecutors drop their increasingly pathetic case against former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as they surely will — you’ll see some media coverage of journalism’s role in this debacle. There will be a few notes about how everyone rushed to judgment.

But almost no one will be asking more basic questions about the way journalists go about their business in criminal cases. You will see little or no self-reflection about the way reporters work in concert with law enforcement in almost all such cases, in ways that are designed by the police and prosecutors to stack the deck against the accused.

It starts with the “perp walk” — the parading of the accused before cameras. Try this thought experiment. Imagine you’ve been arrested, and have spent a night in a filthy jail cell, getting maybe an hour of sleep in the clothes you were wearing the day before. Or, perhaps, you’ve been told to put on an orange jump suit that prisoners wear. Either way, now you’re shackled and frog-walked into a van that takes you to the courthouse. Then you’re manhandled out of the van and are frog-walked through a gauntlet of cameras and shouting reporters.

How do you imagine you’d look, whether or not you were innocent? You’d look guilty as hell, because the perp walk is designed to make you look guilty. (For more on perp walks, see this piece from the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins.)

The deck-stacking extends to the charges themselves. Charges are only accusations; they are not proof. Yet they are repeated verbatim by reporters in ways that make them sound like “this is what happened,” and putting “alleged” into the story doesn’t change that perception.

Then comes the tendency journalists to get on-the-record (can be published) material from people who refuse to attach their names to what they’re saying, often from law enforcement sources who are, again, working hard to ensure that any potential juror will assume guilt. I mentioned an example of this several weeks ago: a reprehensible story describing supposed details about what the alleged victim in the Strauss-Kahn case had told police and co-workers.

Look. I don’t know what happened in that hotel suite. Only two people know. One of them has an alleged record in France of being promiscuous and pushy with women (stories I tend to believe, in part because some of the women have gone public). The other, we have learned, has lied repeatedly to police and prosecutors, according to on-the-record statements from law enforcement people — though even now the anonymous sources continue to have a field day in supposedly responsible media outlets.

What’s blatantly obvious, based on what is known for sure, is that the woman is not a credible witness. Period. It is certainly possible that she was sexually assaulted in that suite. But “possible” is light-years away from the level of proof needed to send another person to jail for what would likely be the rest of his life.

What seems to have escaped most of the journalists covering this case, from the very beginning, is the same thing that the media ignore in almost all criminal cases: an actual presumption of innocence. If we believed in the presumption of innocence, we wouldn’t collaborate with the prosecutors and police on perp walks. We wouldn’t let ourselves be used to seed a presumption of guilt into the jury pool.

The defense you’ll hear is simple, and sounds compelling: The fact is that the most of the people arrested and prosecuted are in fact guilty. Law enforcement almost always operates in good faith, to get the bad guys.

But there are well-documented cases of bad faith. And even the best police and prosecutors make mistakes. That’s why a presumption of innocence is so essential — and why it’s shameful that journalists persist in mocking it.

New York Times’ Incoherent Honorifics

In the New York pages of today’s New York Times you’ll find a terrific story about a Cuban bicyclist named Damian Lopez Alfonso, who hasn’t let his handicaps (no arms) stop him from becoming a competitive racer. As the Times style requires, the story refers to him as Mr. Alfonso.

Had this story appeared in another logical location — the sports pages — the “Mr.” would have been removed. This is also a requirement of the Times’ style guide.

The Times mandates courtesy titles (Mr., Ms., etc.) only in news stories, though it drops them for some dead people and those it arbitrarily considers evil enough not to deserve them. For example, Osama Bin Laden lost his Mr. after US forces killed him in May. But Saddam Hussein was recently still being called Mr. Hussein, as Slate notes.

Entertainers get honorifics in the Times, so you’ll read stories about the Rolling Stones you’ll see references to Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards. (The Times reviewer of this Meat Loaf concert apparently couldn’t bring himself to writing the laugh-out-loud “Mr. Loaf,” and just used “Meat Loaf” throughout.)

Athletes — at least those deemed newsworthy by the Times — are entertainers, too. The make lots of money. They take lots of drugs. They get arrested. Oh, they perform. But no honorifics for them.

The Wall Street Journal used to be consistent. But in a recent move that was semi-lampooned even by its own columnist, it opted to drop the honorifics for stories in the sports section. The logic for the move? None, apart from the notion that it somehow sounded better, or at least less ridiculous, to just go with last names.

These policies aren’t just inconsistent. They’re incoherent.

They’re also a quaint vestige of a dying era, when the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the vanishingly small number of other papers that do this actually believed they were showing respect for the people they covered. (Except for supremely evil people and athletes, who obviously deserve none.) Did the papers self-enforced civility (except for athletes and people deemed supremely evil) may actually have had an impact on the journalists’ work, or on the perception of the newspapers that had this policy?

But respect is in short enough supply in our society. There’s nothing wrong with honorifics, if they’re used consistently. The incoherent policies at the Times and Journal don’t demonstrate respect for the people they cover when they deliberately omit courtesy titles for a single class of people in specific pages; rather, they demonstrate disrespect.

Anonymous Sources and Fairness

You don’t have to be a supporter of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief who’s been charged with sex crimes in New York City, to be appalled at some of the journalism about this case. Sadly, you can find a prime example on the website of the normally high-minded Center for Public Integrity, a totally damning piece by John Solomon based on lurid new allegations from two unnamed sources “familiar with the investigation.”

The sources insisted on anonymity, Solomon reports, “because of the ongoing investigation….” What in the world does that mean? Nothing: It’s an empty non-excuse for refusing to stand behind their own words.

Here’s my take. These sources are almost certainly in law enforcement. I believe they are almost certainly trying to solidify the public perception of Strauss-Kahn as a criminal scumbag, and do this so thoroughly that almost anyone serving on any jury will come into the trial with a predisposition to find him guilty — and that his defense lawyers, knowing that this is the case, will go with a plea bargain.

I don’t doubt that Solomon has reported faithfully what he was told. That doesn’t make any of it true. Nor do I doubt that Solomon and his editors trust these sources. There’s no reason why you should, since they won’t stand behind their own words.

I’m no fan of Strauss-Kahn, nor of the French media’s habit of glossing over ugly behavior among the people — almost all men — who rule government and business. He may well have done this crime. But I’m sticking with innocent until proved guilty.

I’ve been a longtime fan of, and have contributed to, the Center for Public Integrity. That won’t change. But as I’ve said privately to a friend in the organization, I believe this piece was way below the center’s standards.