Monday, July 18, 2011

"Guilty until proven innocent" says U.S. Law Professor of American journalism

By Patricia J. Williams, from The Nation, found on the NPR website, July 18, 2011
(Patricia J. Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University.)

Shortly after Dominique Strauss-Kahn was indicted on charges of attempted rape, his friend Bernard-Henri Levy wrote a defense of him that, among other wrongheaded assertions, denounced the American justice system as one where "anyone can come along and accuse another fellow of any crime — and it will be up to the accused to prove that the accusation is false and without basis in fact." What Levy actually described is a presumption of guilt, not the American presumption of innocence. In the United States, the prosecutor — whose responsibility extends not merely to the accuser but to the general interests of justice — has the burden of proof. The accused doesn't have to prove or disprove anything; indeed, the accused doesn't have to say a word, as per our Fifth Amendment.
Levy's offhand remark came closer to describing the global media than our courts. Journalistic values like accuracy, accountability and respect for human dignity have fallen by the wayside as entertainment and titillation have prevailed. The inescapable rush to judgment that pours forth in hi-def in seemingly every public space — from elevators to taxicabs to airports to bank lobbies — is a kind of civic poison.
It's because of the media that we find our democratic processes foundering in increasingly debased public discussion: Strauss-Kahn's accuser is driven to suing the New York Post for its unsubstantiated claims that she is a prostitute. Pundits mock the very principled prosecutor, Cyrus Vance Jr., as a sucker for having dutifully and appropriately revealed potentially exculpatory information. Radio jocks spend hours dumping on those who believe the accuser's history of lying has anything to do with Strauss-Kahn's "obvious" guilt. When HLN opinionator Nancy Grace's howling impersonation of blind Fury wins her more respect than the deliberation of an actual jury, as in the Casey Anthony murder trial, we worry for the safety of judges, defendants, accusers and jurors. We forget that the case against Anthony was circumstantial; as much as she lied to law enforcement — a crime for which she has been convicted — her child's body was so decomposed there was no way to prove either how she died or who did it.
Professor Williams is speaking, of course, of the U.S. where tabloid journalism, spawned by imitating the British tabloid press is funded by the same agents like Rupert Murdoch who funded and profited greatly from the British model. While we dutifully separate the Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch publication that provides the exception to the tabloid rule of "guilty until proven innocent," nevertheless the "gutter-gossip" of much of tabloid news is predicated on the valid premise that the public will purchase a story of a scandal, including the most circumstantial evidence of guilt, regardless of the veracity of the story or the tactics used to "gather" the information.
Just think of the last time you were in a conversation about an individual who was "in trouble with the law" and listen to the tape of that conversation. Did you not hear words like: "Well he'll have to spend several months in the slammer, now!" as though he was already convicted, even before a trial occurred?
It is the lowest form of human interraction and conversation to accuse another, to gloat about the accusation and to refrain from intervening to correct the premise of the conversation that the individual is "guilty until proven innocent".
I remember attending a church conference in a rather upscale resort, where I had breakfast with a female clergy. I was serving as vicar in a rural mission in that U.S. diocese and before lunch, the gossip that I was "sleeping with that female clergy" had found its way back to me before lunch on the same day. The story was unequivocally untrue.
Offended, profoundly angry and betrayed, I immediately left the conference, learning the lesson that there really are no limits to which people will go to start a scurrilous rumour, even if that rumour will potentially destroy the subject's personal, professional and private lives and reputation. And Christians are not only not immune to the "disease" of scurrilous innuendo and gossip; they revel in it, in a highly sanctimonious manner. After all, they are protecting the world from sinners, so they are "doing God's work" even if that work includes, in their misguided and libellous perceptions, making up stories that will negatively impact, accuse, convict and punish the innocent.
Seems as if the tabloids have taken a page from the "book" of those so-called christians.
And it will take more than a law professor from Columbia to eradicate such motivation and behaviour from North American society.



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