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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Keeping quiet on Roethlisberger suit

Posted By on Thu, Jul 23, 2009 at 3:21 PM

One thing you won't find on the CP Web site is much commentary on the rape allegations made against Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Since I don't have the resources to head off to Tahoe, I'm just watching the same news broadcasts and reading the same stories that you are. 

Which is what this blog post is about: the way our media outlets are covering this case -- and how much they are divulging about Roethlisberger's accuser. 

Both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review are keeping the accuser's name under wraps, even though it is listed on the lawsuit itself. From what I can tell, meanwhile, our three local TV stations are reporting her name. At least one TV report I've seen, aired by KDKA's Andy Sheehan, has also shown her photograph. 

I think Sheehan's one of the best TV reporters in town, but showing that picture, at least, seems utterly gratuitous. Its news value is nill, and is guaranteed to prompt a lot of really shitty commentary about  the accuser's looks. That is, in fact, exactly what happened at the TMZ.com, which first published the photo -- and whose comments section gives you a pretty good illustration of why rape victims often want to be anonymous. (I'd provide you a link, but  a lot of that commentary will likely damage your faith in humanity, and I don't want that on my conscience.)

Disclosing the accuser's name? That's a trickier call.

Withholding the name of an alleged rape victim is a widely accepted journalistic practice, of course. But in a high-profile case like this one, its shortcomings become apparent pretty quickly.

For one thing, the name is already is all over the web -- a Google search for "Roethlisberger rape" produced it in the first news story. And the P-G's own forays into online media complicate matters as well: The paper posted a video of Roethlisberger denying the charges on its Web site, but blanked out the sound when Roethlisberger named his accuser. At some point, you wonder how far this thing should be carried: If you're going to tinker with the sound, why show the video at all? And if you're going to edit the audio, why not go the extra mile and pixilize Roethlisberger's face -- so lip-readers, too, will have to go somewhere else to find the name?

Another complicating factor: This is a civil case -- where the accuser is seeking monetary damages -- rather than a criminal complaint. And it seems pretty clear that no criminal complaint will be filed, given that the alleged rape happened more than a year ago. 

Some would say that it shouldn't make any difference whether the case is civil or criminal. The accuser, after all, says she feared her employer would retaliate against her if she went to the police. If that's true, a civil suit might be her only shot at justice.

But that assumes she really was raped, something none of us know, and that we're not very likely to ever find out for certain. Let's remember that the burden of proof in a civil court is much lower. In a criminal case, Roethlisberger would need to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- a very high standard. In a civil suit, the burden is a simple majority of the evidence. So even if there's a verdict against him, we couldn't have the same confidence in his guilt as we might otherwise.

The P-G, for one, wrestled with some of these questions a year ago, in a story that's worth a second look now. That story was about a woman who'd been raped in the Waterworks mall parking lot: She later sued the mall's owners on the grounds that they'd provided inadequate security. But in order to protect her own anonymity, she sued as a "Jane Doe" -- something the mall operator challenged in court.

The P-G's story presented a nuanced look at the issue from a variety of perspectives. It also quoted the paper's managing editor, Susan Smith, saying the paper "continue[s] to believe that more harm than good would come from routinely naming rape victims. It's a violent crime of a very personal nature and that puts its victims in a class by themselves." Indeed, the P-G refrained from naming the woman (who later settled her suit with the mall owner).

But the circumstances then were much different. For one thing, unlike in the Roethlisberger scenario, the woman was suing a third party, not the person accused of assaulting her. And in the Waterworks case, there was no question that the woman HAD been raped -- her attacker had already been found guilty in a criminal trial. In this case, the facts are much murkier: No criminal trial was held, nor is likely to be. And definitive evidence either way will likely be very difficult to come by.  

And what happens if the case is tossed out by a judge? Or proof emerges that the lawsuit was an attempt to extort money from Roethlisberger? Should journalists continue to protect someone's identity, even if there's no evidence that "a violent crime of a very personal nature" ever took place? And if they do, at what point does anonymity simply become a shield for one person to tear down the reputation of another? 

Steelers fans will recall that Jerome Bettis faced rape accusations back in 2002. In that case, no charges were ever filed: In fact, the district attorney pondered whether to charge Bettis' accuser. The DA told the P-G that "there was 'clear' evidence that the accuser's uncle planned to use the allegation to extort money from Bettis." Even then, though, the P-G did not name Bettis' accuser (though the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review did). The P-G spared the accuser the very shame and embarrassment her allegations inflicted on Bettis, perhaps for ulterior motives.

All that said, I think the right call here is to maintain the accuser's anonymity. 

Yes, Roethlisberger has been and will be harmed by the accusations, even if they are proven to be scurrilous lies. And yes, that would be deeply unfair. But how would that injustice be mitigated by stripping away the accuser's anonymity?

As we've seen, her anonymity has already been taken away, thanks to the folks at TMZ and our local news stations. She's a celebrity now too -- and she's probably come in for as much public abuse as the man she's accused. Still, I doubt Roethlisberger is taking much comfort in that fact. And her suit wasn't filed under "Jane Doe," so it's not as if she was counting on anonymity when she filed it. So far, at least, the Roethlisberger case is showing how little difference it makes to the defendent whether his accuser's name is known or not. 

There are, I know, people horrible enough to falsely cry rape, in hopes of enriching themselves or harming others. But if we're supposed to assume Roethlisberger is innocent until proven guilty, surely we should extend the same presumption to his accuser. And, moreover, to any other woman who comes forward with an allegation of rape.

The only consolation for Roethlisberger, I guess, is that until the accusations surfaced against him, I had forgotten all about the Bettis case. Everyone else seems to have forgotten about it too: The allegations obviously didn't keep him from doing a halftime show on NBC. I'm sure Roethlisberger doesn't think so right now, but you CAN get your reputation back.

Meanwhile, the name of Bettis' accuser hasn't been concealed, merely forgotten. I'm pretty sure that's as it should be. If Roethlisberger did nothing wrong -- which I'm fervently hoping is the case -- then the same thing will happen here.

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