How DSK, Murdoch, and Nancy Grace Are Making A Mockery Of U.S. Justice
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Shortly after Dominique Strauss-Kahn was indicted on charges of attempted rape, his friend Bernard-Henri Lévy 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 Lévy 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.
Lévy’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.
We are swimming in a gloop of scuttlebutt and tittle-tattle, driven by “unnamed sources” who always represent themselves as “close to the investigation” yet who speak only “on condition of anonymity.” Those deceptively anodyne descriptors have moved us down an ethical spectrum from transparent reporting to stories that are “underwritten,” bribed, extorted or outright lies.
Consider, for example, the insidious model of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Fox News Channel is a subsidiary of the Fox Entertainment Group, which in turn is a subsidiary of Murdoch’s conglomerate News Corporation. It’s a perfect circle, a consciously structured looping between news and entertainment, a business model premised on positing the amorality of “anything goes” as the civic equivalent of “freedom of the press.”
In Britain, Murdoch’s devouring influence is finally being challenged with revelations that his employees compromised a murder investigation by hacking into the voicemail of the victim and erasing her last messages; tapped the phones of politicians with whom Murdoch took issue; and paid police officers and government officials “in the six figures” for information about ongoing investigations. It is perhaps only in America that any enterprise of Murdoch’s labeled “fair and balanced” is still received as anything but laughable. We know, too, that paying for information has become broad practice among American tabloids like the Post; but we seem inured to the concern that tabloid sensibility is not just unreliable but corrupting.