When (or if) To Name Names
THE press is in the midst of a new controversy about whether it should publish everything it knows. In this case, the debate revolves around whether a news organization should publish the name of a rape victim.
In the much-publicized case of the Central Park jogger, the woman banker who was assaulted and raped by a gang of teenage hoodlums, all the major news organizations knew who she was but cooperated in not publishing her name.
The feeling, I believe, was that she had suffered terrible tragedy; why add to it by blazoning her name across the country?
In the current case involving the Kennedy family, NBC News decided to publicize the name of the woman who claims she was raped at the Kennedys' Palm Beach compound.
The New York Times followed suit, and printed her name, arguing that the NBC decision had forced their hand.
Although I respect the Times as a newspaper that anguishes over ethical questions, I do not agree with their decision. Newspapers should not rush to print simply because another news organization has broken a taboo ahead of them. Newspapers should decide what to print on the basis of what is right.
So back to the initial decision of NBC News. Its president, Michael Gartner, who made the decision to air the name of the alleged rape victim, is former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, a man who feels deeply about the responsibility of news organizations to inform their readers and viewers.
He is an absolutist. He has taken on the United States Information Agency for its refusal to disseminate at home the materials it spreads abroad - although the government agency is expressly barred by Congress from so doing. He shook up his fellow editors by suggesting they all publish their annual tax returns.
He belongs, in short, to the school of editing that believes it is in the public interest for news organizations to tell more, more, more, of what they know rather than less, less, less.
It is an arguable position, for there are governments, and corporations, and individuals, who seek to hide mistakes and misdemeanors that should rightfully be in the public domain. If guilty of wrongdoing, they need to be exposed.
A vigilant press can be a superbly corrective force.
There is, of course, another viewpoint among editors, equally arguable. It is that newspaper editors have a responsibility to withhold information from their readers and viewers at certain times. Usually this information falls within the area of bad taste, or invasion of privacy, or even the compromising of national security.
When American hostages were held in Iran, a number of news organizations knew that some diplomats had avoided capture and were hiding in the homes of Canadian diplomats. They kept silent about it.
When an American embassy official was taken hostage in Beirut, some news organizations became aware that he was the CIA station chief. Because they were unsure whether his captors knew of his CIA connection, they did not publish the fact. (Eventually his captors murdered him brutally).
In these two instances the decision was clear-cut and, in my view, the news organizations which withheld their information from their readers did exactly the right thing.
Many of the critical ethical decisions a news organization has to make fall in much grayer, and complicated, areas. Different news organizations will handle them differently.
That is what is currently happening with the Kennedy rape case. Some major news organizations are in strong disagreement with NBC News and the New York Times.
My own view is that rape is such an ugly crime that its victims should be spared the further anguish of having their names spread across the newspapers and airwaves. Unless, that is, they specifically waive anonymity. In some cases, rape victims have become convinced that society would benefit by disclosure of their names and stories.
That should be their choice, not the news media's.