Shoptalk/Commentary: Trigger-Happy Reporting
Posted: 2/20/2013 | By: Jeff Helmreich
As soon as the story about a Yeshiva University teacher accused of sexual abuse hit newsstands last month, his life changed forever. His employer saw it (he was suspended from his current job almost as soon as the ink dried); his friends, family, and associates would soon learn of it; and anyone who searches the Web could now forever find it. His fate was sealed.
What did it take for the newspapers to render such an ultimate and irreparable sentence? How much evidence or corroboration? Check the articles that broke the story, and you’ll find the startling answer: one accuser. That’s right — a single claim appears to be all that was required to print the rabbi’s name, photograph, and the repugnant details of the allegation, even reporting it in one paragraph as fact, without qualifications such as “the former student claimed.”
This is not a defense of the rabbi. Neither is it a denial of the accuser’s claim, nor his sincerity. The former YU educator may be guilty, and it is an unspeakably horrible crime — as is any attempt to cover it up. Indeed, if he is found guilty, the victim has a right to immediate and immeasurable redress. Nothing here should be understood to say otherwise.
The present point, rather, is about the standard of evidence used to support such a public charge, one that is as damning as any courtroom verdict. Criminal verdicts require much more evidence than this, because if we irretrievably deprive someone of his place in society, we had better get ironclad proof, beyond a reasonable doubt. It should take nothing less to destroy someone.
No similar standard has ever been applied to the press, however. One reason, perhaps, is that reported claims, unlike courtroom verdicts, are not final — they can be challenged in the same court of public opinion. Except here. In the special case of sexual abuse of minors, the first appearance of the accusation will finish someone, tainting him forever. Would you hire or associate with an accused sex offender? Would you give him the benefit of the doubt? The revulsion — the instinctual disgust — evoked by the crime itself spreads beyond mere allegation, and to the name of anyone accused of it. Publication becomes the ultimate sentence.
That is not to say news stories should carry the same burden of proof as criminal conviction. It is only to suggest that there should be some standard of evidence, rather than — as in the YU teacher’s case — the lowest standard imaginable: a single anonymous accuser. The accused’s name and picture were splayed in prominent black and white, and subsequent reports lumped him with more proven offenders with phrases such as “teachers abused students over the years.” Nobody even called attention to the scandalously thin evidence used to ruin him.
It wasn’t always this way. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have campaigned vigorously for the rights of accused sex offenders to a fair hearing. Veteran civil rights activists recall the mid- 1980s, when a nationwide panic about child molestation led to unjust arrests of innocents in places such as Manhattan Beach, Calif. and Great Neck, Long Island. The nationwide lynch mob mentality provoked a backlash, with scores of liberal activists, including attorneys, clamoring to hold both press and legal authorities to at least minimal standards of evidence.
But you won’t find those activist voices in the present drama. Why? I can think of one answer, and it isn’t pretty: The accused is unattractive to civil rights activists. Men associated with insular, conservative institutions are not the sort of people we like to defend. The lesson is clear: If you work for an organization like Yeshiva University or Satmar (or their Christian and Muslim counterparts), don’t even get accused of touching someone inappropriately. One accuser reaches the reporter, and you’re done. The ACLU won’t defend you, and nobody will try to corroborate your accuser’s account.
Despite the fanfare, the recent exposé will probably have little impact on how sex abuse is treated in the Orthodox community. But the articles have already made at least one difference: They have helped lower the bar on what it takes to smear someone publicly and permanently with a charge of sex abuse. Orthodox educators may have been the targets of the day, and they may have been guilty for all we know. But under the new one-source-and-you’re-it standard of proof, the innocent will be sure to suffer the same fate.
Jeff Helmreich is a fellow at Harvard Law School, a former associate editor of this paper, and a current contributing editor. This editorial originally ran in the Jan. 11-17, 2013 edition of the Long Island Jewish World and has been edited for space.