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Naming the Accuser

August 8, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: In the case of Kobe versus his alleged victim, loss of anonymity is just a few keystrokes away.

The name of the young woman who alleges that NBA star Kobe Bryant raped her at this Colorado resort has been revealed by tabloid newspapers, a radio shock jock, and now can be found on personal Internet sites, along with her address, her e-mail address, phone number, even the name of another young woman who was first mistakenly identified as the victim and later went on television to deny the allegation.

When Bryant appeared briefly in court Wednesday, it was all over cable and the network news.

JUDGE FREDERICK GANNETT, Eagle County Court: Mr. Bryant, you’re entitled to a hearing, and you’ve requested a hearing. The rule requires that if you request, that hearing be held within 30 days. Any objection to that being waived?

KOBE BRYANT: No, sir.

TERENCE SMITH: There were banner headlines in the tabloids and prominent coverage in the broadsheets. But virtually all of mainstream news organizations withheld the name of Bryant’s accuser, as is their standard practice in sexual assault cases.

The exhaustive coverage has reignited an old debate about the media practice of shielding alleged rape victims. Does it protect them from stigmatization, as some contend, or unfairly focus publicity on the accused, as others argue?

Similar questions were asked in 1991, when the New York Times, following the lead of NBC News and the Globe supermarket tabloid, published the name of the accuser in the William Kennedy Smith rape case.

TERENCE SMITH: In the current case, the trial judge took the unusual step of calling on reporters not to identify Bryant’s accuser.

He threatened to deny any who do a seat in his courtroom when the trial gets under way.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are Geneva Overholser, who was editor of the Des Moines Register when it won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of a rape victim’s story in which the victim was named with permission. She is now a professor at the University of Missouri; and Catherine Crier, an anchor and executive editor at Court TV and a former district court judge in Texas.

Welcome to you both.

Geneva, for years, news organizations have withheld the names of accusers in rape cases on the grounds that it would avoid further embarrassment and encourage women to come forward to make those accusations. Is that a flawed concept today?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, it is clear why people have done it, Terry, because this is a particularly brutal and cruel and invasive crime. So newspaper editors, for years, have done this very unusual thing.

I say the word “unusual” because I think it’s important to remember, in answer to your question, that the journalistic issue is we do name names. It’s central to our fairness. It’s central to our credibility. It’s not fair to name the accused and not name the accuser. And in no other crime involving adults we do that.

We have a special responsibility to children. But it’s not fair and it’s also not credible. We do name names. And there is no question that it is easier not to. The public often would prefer that people be shielded, individuals often don’t want to be in the media. But I think when we get on the dangerous ground of doing social work as oppose to sticking with journalistic principle, we often create problems.

TERENCE SMITH: So you would argue that news organizations name the accusers?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Indeed I would.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Catherine Crier, you have served on both sides of the bench on this, as judge and journalist. What is your view?

CATHERINE CRIER: Well, just the opposite. The age of the Internet, the names are going to get out. There is no question about it.

But it is very different for people to have to go look up something on the Internet to find this information versus television stations broadcasting for the world to see pictures and names of the accuser. Now, this individual… we’ve seen the DA in this case already receive threats.

So it is not just the humiliation and indignity unfortunately inherent in a sexual crime such as rape, but it’s also safety issues that you need to be concerned about, particularly in a high-profile case like this.

The names are going to get out. It is simply trying to hold back the onslaught as much as it is entirely prevented.

TERENCE SMITH: But to what end, Catherine Crier?

CATHERINE CRIER: Well, because we’d like to think of rape as a crime of violence, but it is not just that. It is terribly degrading and humiliating to the accuser, to the alleged victim. And she is going to have to come forward, obviously now in the preliminary hearing.

I anticipate the defense will call her October 9. She has to take a public stand.

But in the interim, during the course of the investigation, let the authorities, let the defense counsel, those that need to be privy to that, have all the access they need, but we do not need to be climbing in her bedroom window.

TERENCE SMITH: Geneva, that phrase “climbing in her bedroom window,” even before her name was revealed, there was all kinds of detailed reporting on this woman and of course the people in the area knew who it was.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Exactly.

TERENCE SMITH: So what is protected here?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think that is an important question, and I respect Catherine’s views on this. The fact is, as you say, the people who know her know her name. That is really the people for whom it is most painful, usually for the victim or the accuser to have know.

Her information is being bandied about. There are important journalistic responsibilities. I would say not climbing in her bedroom window, not, as we’ve seen in your lead-in, misnaming and someone else becoming tarred with this, as we say, lamentable charge.

The fact is, it is better to do what we do in all adult cases: Name the woman, respect her privacy beyond that, not have these scurrilous charges.

The Orange County Register had a story talking about her and having all kinds of slurs and things that might affect what goes on in the courtroom. But then said, I must say, intoning rather self-righteously, but we will not be naming her because of the difficult nature of the crime.

That is not protection. I really think we are at a place where…

CATHERINE CRIER: With all due respect, what is journalistically accomplished by simply leaving out the name only? We are reporting all of this other information.

We are certainly following the leads and sometimes they’re false reporting that anyway. All you are doing is simply avoiding putting out the picture and the name of the individual in a major national, if not international broadcast. All of the background facts are still there.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I guess I’d turn that around and ask what is accomplished by withholding the name, which I think is the more important question here.

CATHERINE CRIER: It’s like degree of decorum.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: The rule in journalism generally is to name. We have not been accomplishing protecting her privacy by not naming. Indeed, I think you could argue, and this isn’t why I say name, I say name because it’s the journalistic principle.

You could argue we’ve thrown fuel on the flames for the people like the shock jock who got to look like a hero because he stood up land said we’re naming her name.

TERENCE SMITH: Catherine Crier —

CATHERINE CRIER: But imagine the difference with her picture and name on ABC, NBC, CBS, and all of the cable channels versus the onslaught right now would be magnified tremendously.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: It will be. As you noted, it will be on them eventually.

TERENCE SMITH: Catherine Crier, let me ask you this. Is this a double standard here when applied to the accuser and to the accused? In this case, of course, a very prominent celebrity, since of course the charges have not been proven?

CATHERINE CRIER: Well, certainly not, in the sense that once you have filed a charge, we have public courts. We have a public system here. You cannot have a star chamber where you charge someone in private. So as much as it may be painful for the accused, there are also imminent protections that go along with this occurring in the public arena and not the private.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: But some states have attempted to do what I think is clearly unconstitutional and that is to keep the name of the accuser off the public records, while the name of the accused is on the public records. And I think that’s patently unfair and participates in this same problem.

TERENCE SMITH: Catherine Crier, what is your view of the judge’s directive to the reporters covering the trial not to name the accuser and even, you know, a threat of sanctions if they do?

CATHERINE CRIER: Well, the judge is omnipotent to an extent in his or her court, and he certainly has the right to deny entrance to an individual that violates a particular instruction. I think it is a bit for naught. You are not going to have a contempt sanction over some reporter, but access is his privilege.

TERENCE SMITH: But he is clearly expressing his view on this issue.

CATHERINE CRIER: Yeah, and he has gone as far as to criticize those of us who have tongue in cheek referred to the basketball court versus the court of law and he doesn’t like the various, you know, allegations that we have made in terms of alliteration and journalistic license with our wording. So, he has chastised us for that as well. It is his privilege.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: It may be his privilege but it is prior restraint. We should not be sitting still for it or sitting still for these laws, which I think are clearly unconstitutional.

CATHERINE CRIER: But it’s not prior restraint. They can go out and name it all they want. All he is saying is you are not going to sit on a pew in my courtroom, if you do it, but you can write all you want.

TERENCE SMITH: Geneva, how far would you pursue this notion of openness and identification? You said you would protect juveniles. Where is the line?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, the line is clear. And that’s why I think this is an important thing to note. This is the only aberration, Terry, in the case of adult victims of crime.

We do name others accused and accuser because it is fair, because it’s credible and only in this case do we not — juveniles, yes. I think all of us in the press do acknowledge that we have a responsibility to protect them. That’s a form of social work, which is not generally well-advised for journalists. We are not really wise enough to pick generally I must say.

But among children, of course, it is fair to protect them. But that’s the only exception, I believe.

TERENCE SMITH: Catherine, what was the lesson in your view of the William Kennedy Smith case when the accuser was identified by NBC and The New York Times and others? What impact did it have on the case?

CATHERINE CRIER: Well, it was interesting. I went to Harvard and debated Michael Garner over that issue back at the time. What is the impact? We all decided at that point in time we didn’t want to go along with that.

We were going to learn her identity during the course of the trial. It wasn’t necessary to come out beforehand in a public forum and I think most organizations said no, we don’t want that to be part of our legacy in a rape trial. In fact, we are going to respect the rape shield law.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. That will have to be the last word. Catherine Crier and Geneva Overholser, thank you both very much.

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