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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: NTK on DSK Accuser, Good Question but No Answer

A viewer in Williamsburg, Va., wrote this week to offer some criticism about a segment on the weekly public affairs program Need to Know. It was a relatively brief, six-minute portion within the hour-long program. It dealt with the aftermath of the highly-publicized case in New York City involving the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund and would-be candidate for president of France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and a 32-year-old African immigrant chambermaid who accused him of sexual assault and attempted rape. In the segment, veteran correspondent Maria Hinojosa interviewed former criminal defense attorney and journalist Jami Floyd.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Here's the letter:

I was dismayed and disappointed by Maria Hinojosa's Need to Know program about Dominique Strauss-Kahn and featuring former criminal defense lawyer, Jami Floyd. I sensed the tone of the program discounted the view of the accuser in the case and made the assumption that Strauss-Kahn was a "victim" of unfair accusations by prosecutors and the media. Where was the voice for the alleged victim on the program? Was there not DNA proof and other evidence that a sexual encounter did indeed happen? Is it reasonable that in the short period of time the maid was in the room that the encounter was by mutual consent? Notwithstanding the dredged up information about the accuser's credibility, could not a rape have indeed happened? I am surprised at the lack of usual objective journalistic integrity in presenting this show. You have in essence judged the alleged rape victim without a trial. Where was the balancing voice in the discussion? Where was the objectivity? A sad day for all women who have to face the difficult prospect of seeking justice after a rape. A very disappointing day for PBS journalistic integrity, too.

Executive Producer Shelley Lewis Responds:

Thanks for your thoughtful comments regarding the Need to Know discussion about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Our focus for the segment was to talk about the case as a media phenomenon, which ran the gamut from presupposing (in the media) that he was guilty, to concluding that perhaps there'd been a rush to judgment because the accuser was found by the prosecution to have made some false statements. It was not meant to be a discussion of the merits of her accusations, or to try to determine what did or didn't happen. Having said that, I do wish we'd had the time to include more of the discussion about the accuser's rights to be heard in court. Maria Hinojosa did ask that question in the portion aired, but there was also a follow up question which was not included because of time constraints. So your point is well taken, although, again, our goal was to discuss news coverage, and the lessons to be learned from the "trial by media," rather than the case itself.

My Thoughts

I think the viewer raised good questions and Lewis provided a candid response. I didn't come away from this segment feeling, as the viewer suggested, that the interviewer and guest had "judged the alleged rape victim without a trial." But I did think that the viewer raised important points and that the segment missed an important opportunity to focus on a crucial and still unanswered question: What did happen in that hotel room?

Hinojosa actually started down that road, as Lewis points out, and raised that precise question, and Floyd concurred about it being central to the case. Here's the key exchange:

MARIA HINOJOSA: . . . And you know, there are a lotta people who say something happened in that hotel room. What about giving the woman, the alleged victim, the accuser, what about her day in court, just throwing it all out just like that?

JAMI FLOYD: So, the specifics of what they're talking about behind closed doors go directly to the heart of the case. What exactly happened at the moment in time that is at the heart of what a criminal trial would be all about? You have to think about the fact that we're talking about all of this very early on in what would really be a year-long investigation — maybe more.

But then both participants raced past that focus to other points and never returned. Rather, there was a lot of discussion about the media's role, about which there has been endless discussion elsewhere, but not at all enough reporting and analysis about the lingering question of what kind of encounter took place in that room and what at least the respective lawyers are saying about it. The program missed a chance to refocus the spotlight on this ultimately more important aspect and remind viewers that a central question remains, perhaps involving criminality, no matter what the credibility of the hotel worker on other matters.

As for the media generally, in a high-profile case like this one, they are going to report everything that prosecutors say publicly or privately.

On Naming Rape Victims

A New York City viewer wrote to me questioning another aspect of the segment: an opinion volunteered by Floyd — and that surprised Hinojosa — that rape victims should be named in media accounts, something that is normally forbidden by major news organizations.

Here's the exchange:

MARIA HINOJOSA: You actually believe — that victims of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence should be named by the media?

JAMI FLOYD: I do because I think we infantilize women when we don't name them. I think women, as any other crime victim — women who have been raped, can stand up and name their accuser in court. They can — own the crime. Rape is not a crime of sex or sexuality, it's a crime of violence and we should call it out as such, and not shame these women further by protecting their identity.

Here's the letter from the New York viewer:

I love PBS, and Need to Know, but was taken aback by Jami Floyd's opinion that we should release the names of rape victims in the media; a reverse thought process that it would somehow even out the playing field? As a rape victim who didn't even press charges out of fear of my own exposure and further victimization, I could not disagree more with her. Rape makes you even more aware of gender imbalance of power in our world. Please think it through again. One "uncredible" witness does not make rape less ghastly. Nor does it mean it didn't happen. Surely, as a lawyer, you don't believe that the truth comes out in court? It is, sadly, just the best we can do in our society. Many innocents get convicted, many guilty get set free, as you know.

We sent this letter to Floyd, via Need to Know, for a response. But we got this sort of non-response from her:

"As you can imagine, I receive an extraordinary amount of mail, given the nature of the topics I cover. If I respond to some, but not all of the comments I receive, that might be perceived as valuing some opinions more than others. I cannot possibly handle all the mail, especially given that I have no staff. So, I make it a policy not to respond to any. I hope you understand. If, however, you or your ombudsperson would like to discuss the matter, I am happy to do so. And of course, the network is free to respond, in general terms, to this woman, or any other, that the views expressed, were mine and not those of 'Need to Know,' WNET or PBS."