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The rush to publish

I wonder if I am alone in worrying about a side effect of our two most recent public discussions of sexual abuse. I mean of course the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the latest abuse scandal in the church. My concern is that the media, sensing an appetite for stories of this kind and a willingness to credit them, will be too quick to publish charges against innocent people.

Don’t get me wrong. The church crisis is a crisis because some bishops have not been consistently willing to act against abusive priests. And though I know Justice Kavanaugh well enough to say he is a good and decent man, it is right that the Senate investigated the claims against him. The accompanying media circus, on the other hand, was not good for anyone.

A woman who describes a history of abuse to her therapist or social worker should be believed. One who makes an allegation to a Title IX coordinator at her school, or the human resources department at her job, should be taken with the utmost seriousness. In both instances, the reported allegations need to be thoroughly investigated before declaring the accused guilty.

But we need to keep in mind that allegations of sexual abuse are also particularly harmful to people they are made against – even if they are unsubstantiated, indeed even if they are proven false. When Raymond J. Donovan, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of labor, was acquitted of larceny and fraud after an eight-month trial, he famously said, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”  

The taint of sex-crime allegations is much worse.  

We need to be especially careful before we broadcast such charges. There are people (bishops, the Senate Judiciary Committee, therapists, employers, law enforcement) who need to see and act with discretion on information that might be inconclusive. It’s different when the media publish salacious stories for the sake of attracting readers or viewers. It’s different still when those with no duty to act engage in watercooler gossip.

The New Yorker was once famous for the care of its fact-checking department. But it published a sexual allegation against Justice Kavanaugh by a woman who admitted to some uncertainty about the facts, despite lacking a second source to corroborate. The New York Times, acting on the same tip, refused to publish the story after failing to corroborate the charge. The New Yorker published it anyway.  

Likewise, the church’s scandal has generated whispering campaigns against some priests and bishops. It’s mostly word-of-mouth, but some allegations end up in print. 

The very real abuses that have come to light do not make all such tales true. When they are not true, someone is badly hurt. And the legal and cultural climate today encourages a rush to publish before we have all the facts.

Under New York Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment protects the media even for publishing false reports about “public figures” (like judges and bishops), unless they act with actual malice. The effect of this venerable precedent is multiplied by advances in technology that extend to the humblest blogger an enormous power to publicize things that might be true or false. 

Then there is the increasing politicization of news reporting. The Pew Research Center’s media polarization report rates The New Yorker’s audience as “consistently liberal.” Fox News is right of center. Aggregators like the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post deliver only right- or left-wing feeds, creating echo chambers not subject to the discipline of the market of ideas.

I don’t mean to deflect us from these issues – especially from those in the church, which we have only begun to address. I only want to sound a warning about the need for care and honesty in taking them up.

John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.

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