Profile of controversy

New York Times reporter defends story on Kennedy rape claimant

The New York Times has been deluged with criticism for its profile and identification of an alleged rape victim. The reporter whose byline appeared on that profile gives his side of the story.

By Terry Poulton

Terry Poulton, a former columnist for The Toronto Star, will be the new editor of FineLine. Poulton has extensive writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines in her native Canada.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 6 (June 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

“I was trained to think you’ve got to write what you find, warts and all, if you believe it to be accurate. But when I did that, it wasn’t too popular.”

The wry understatement comes from Fox Butterfield, The New York Times reporter who ignited a firestorm of criticism with his “wart”-laden profile of the Palm Beach woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her. His article also broke with mainstream press tradition by naming the alleged victim.

But the 21-year Times veteran and former Beijing bureau chief had a surprise for the hordes of colleagues who besieged him: He didn’t name her.

That was done by Times personnel at what Butterfield calls “a stratospheric level” of authority after they saw NBC News shatter the taboo. And they didn’t even tell Butterfield he was making media history vicariously.

“I had been instructed to leave her name out,” Butterfield recalls, “and I was still out of town.” So the man who’d soon be at the eye of a hurricane of journalistic and public debate had to learn what was published under his byline the same way everyone else did — by reading the paper.

How does Butterfield feel in retrospect? “I’m certainly upset that I got so many people upset. . . . But that [identifying her] was a decision that was entirely out of my hands. . . . I stand by the actual story I wrote because it’s factually accurate. Nobody I know of has criticized us for inaccuracy.”

But slams did come hard and fast for the facts Butterfield dug up from public records — the woman’s traffic tickets, scholastic records, mother’s marital status and, most of all, the illegitimacy of her 3-year-old daughter. Insult was added to injury in the views of many when the profile also included gossip about the woman’s drinking and dating habits and the now-famous “little wild streak” attributed to her by an unnamed high school acquaintance.

Typical of the critics is James Ledbetter, who termed the profile “vile” in his Village Voice column and, in an interview with FineLine, said his chief criticism was not the naming of the woman, but the nature of the details published about her. “That, to me, was far more damaging . . . and just shoddy, sexist journalism.”

Butterfield calls much of the collegial criticism “a lot of rot . . . from otherwise good reporters.” The accusation “that we threw in all the dirt we could get” irks him and the four other staffers who researched the profile. “There was far more potentially damaging material out there that didn’t get used,”he says, “because we couldn’t verify it until after deadline.”

Arguably the most sensational of this material was that the woman’s father was arrested for allegedly attempting to burn down a house while she and her mother were in it — an incident, Butterfield points out, that was printed by the Boston Herald three days earlier and provoked no response at all.

“The crucial difference,” he says, “seems to be that that paper didn’t name her.

“But a lot of what I [perceived] in all this angry reaction,” says Butterfield, “is that we shouldn’t have written about her because it wasn’t ‘politically correct.’ So if the facts — which, by the way, we gathered not by so-called peephole journalism but through public records and ordinary legwork —were taking us in the ‘wrong’ direction, we shouldn’t have written them.

“If this had been Gary Hart we were writing about, they’d have applauded us for finding out who he was. But because she was a woman who, unlike the Central Park jogger, was not [deemed to be] above reproach, we should have kept things such as her hanging around in bars or being an unwed mother out of the story.”

The most troubling aspect of the media feeding frenzy for the Boston-based Butterfield is what he calls “two canards. One is that I have an ‘in’ with the Kennedys and the other is that they spoon-fed us material to besmirch this woman. . . . I’m not a Kennedy insider. And if people only knew how much time and effort we put in, they’d . . . know that no one handed it to us.

“I have been hurt by [this] gossip . . . and by the fact that, in an effort to discredit my story, nobody called to confirm what was being said about me.”

Is there anything Butterfield would do differently with hindsight? “It might have been better if we had a paragraph like the one in our later Editor’s Note, saying explicitly that we hadn’t meant to imply the woman wasn’t raped. But I can’t help feeling that it would have stuck out like a sore thumb and an editor would just have taken it out.”

Would Butterfield have named the woman if the choice had been up to him? He says yes, adding both he and his wife, a journalist who was acquaintance-raped and wrote about it in Newsweek some ten years ago, believe that openness will eventually eliminate the stigma of shame.

For Butterfield, the bottom line remains that, “We were not setting out to paint an unpleasant portrait. . . . We really didn’t know when we started who we were looking for, but this was who emerged. I would have been delighted to have found somebody else. But this is who we found . . . [and so] we had to write it.”

As the Palm Beach story continues to unfold, however, other journalists are still debating: why, if the Times felt justified in naming the woman, it didn’t also print her photo; why the first headline, “Leap up Social Ladder for Woman in Rape Inquiry,” was later softened to “Woman in Florida Rape Inquiry Fought Adversity and Sought Acceptance”; why her name disappeared immediately following Butterfield’s piece, only to reappear erratically later; and why the accused, who was styled William Kennedy Smith in early articles, has been called William K. Smith in every Times story between May 10, when he was charged, and May 29, when his DNA results were reported. 

For another view, see “When public should remain private.”

For Butterfield’s response, see What the media all missed.”