What the media all missed

Times reporter finally sets record straight on Palm Beach rape profile

His controversial profile of the alleged rape victim turned out to be a Rorschach test of prevailing media attitudes.

By Fox Butterfield

Fox Butterfield, a 21-year New York Times veteran and former Beijing bureau chief, is now The Times’s Boston bureau chief.

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. 7 (July/August 1991), p. 5.

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.

 

As the main author of The New York Times profile of the woman who claims she was raped by William Kennedy Smith, I’ve spent a lot of time recently rethinking my role and trying to analyze the ethics of the situation. At a minimum, there are lessons here to be learned by all of us as journalists.

But I am disappointed that the [June] FineLine interview with me (see “Profile of controversy“), and the accompanying article by Deni Elliott (see When public should remain private“) — like myriad other publications’ accounts — did not completely (or in some cases, remotely) reflect my thinking about what happened.

In the interview with Terry Poulton, I tried to make three important points that I felt had not been reflected in the widespread criticism of our story.

First, I sought to explain why we felt a profile of the woman was justified. While covering the story, I rapidly discovered that the woman was pursuing an unusual course for a rape victim. She, or her wealthy stepfather, had hired two high-priced criminal defense lawyers to represent her. These men, David Roth and Douglas Duncan, were well known in Palm Beach for having defended a number of movie and rock stars in drug cases. I was curious what their role was in representing a rape victim, since presumably the police and the local prosecutor were doing that job.

I discovered that Roth, the main lawyer in the case, seemed to be spending much of his time making appearances on radio and TV talk shows on which he discussed the incident. On several occasions when I called his office, I was told he was out only to find him on, say, Larry King Live that night. When Roth finally did hold a brief press conference, he said that he’d met with lawyers for the Kennedys, insinuating they might be trying to reach a financial settlement. When asked specifically what the meeting was about, Roth responded that he wouldn’t answer “any factual questions.”

In other words, here was an alleged rape victim who appeared to be paying lawyers to court publicity. By doing so, it seemed to me, she had breached her right to anonymity. She could not seek publicity yet insist on anonymity at the same time.

The second point I sought to make was that the Palm Beach case raises an important ethical dilemma that has drawn little attention. That is: What should reporters do if, in investigating the background of a rape victim, they find that she has a less than impeccable record?

Clearly there was no outcry when newspapers published profiles of the Central Park jogger — a Wellesley College graduate and Wall Street investment banker. She fit the public image of a victim.

But it quickly became apparent to the five of us at The Times (of both sexes) who worked on the profile that the victim here had a very different background: she was a poor student, had never held a job for long, drove recklessly despite having been in a life-threatening car accident, spent many evenings hanging out in local bars, and had a baby but no husband.

None of this behavior, of course, is relevant to whether or not she was raped. Our story was not intended to prove or disprove the rape. But these were the facts, as best we could determine them, of the way she led her life. (Incidentally, none of this material was spoon-fed to us by the Kennedy family or its lawyers, as several major publications have alleged.)

So what should we as reporters have done with this information? Should we have suppressed it because it painted an unflattering portrait of a woman? Should we write profiles of women only if they fit the public perception of virtuous? Would we apply the same standard to men?

From the criticism we have received, it seems the majority of our colleagues think it would have been better to withhold the facts. If that is their view, then are they proposing a double standard? Isn’t this prudish, Puritanical and sexist? Do we really want to create a canon of political correctness for writing about women?

I don’t pretend to know all the answers to these questions. But I note that no one has challenged the accuracy of our reporting. In fact, several papers, including the Washington Post and the Boston Globe — despite pummeling The Times for our profile — have since printed at least as damaging information drawn from police affidavits: that the woman used cocaine, had numerous boyfriends and underwent several abortions. Aren’t these papers being hypocritical?

Thirdly, as a friend who teaches at Wellesley (and is herself a rape victim) points out, if Smith is found guilty, there might be a small positive outcome to this tragic incident. It will show that even a woman society doesn’t consider above reproach can be raped. But if we’d censored ourselves and not written candidly about her background, that point could not be made. Therein lies the danger of withholding information for political reasons.

One final word. Poulton did correctly state that I had no part in the decision to reveal the woman’s name in The Times. But she has incorrectly characterized my position, as well as that of my wife, Elizabeth Mehren, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, on naming rape victims. We both believe the best policy is to print a rape victim’s name only when she agrees to its publication.