We have forgotten so much about the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that many people may not remember the deadly anthrax spores that were mailed to various prominent people in politics and in the media during that time.
None of the intended victims was killed by the anthrax but five other people were, including two postal workers, who apparently became victims because they handled the mail containing anthrax spores.
In the instant search for someone to blame, biologist Steven J. Hatfill was publicly named as "a person of interest" in the case by government officials. He became, in the media presentation, the villain du jour.
The government was eventually forced to issue a retraction and agreed to pay a settlement of more than $5 million. But retractions never catch up with the original charges, which will blight this man’s life the longest day he lives.
More recently, a federal investigation has focused on someone else who worked in the same scientific laboratory as Hatfill. This time the new suspect was about to be indicted, as distinguished from being tried in the media– and he committed suicide.
This may mark the end of the anthrax story but the reckless destruction of people’s reputations and the disrupting and blighting of their lives in the media is continuing on.
There is much to be said for the British practice of limiting what can be reported in the media about someone on trial until after that trial is over.
Once a charge has been made and publicized from coast to coast– if not internationally– later exoneration will never get the same publicity, so the damage cannot be undone. You cannot unring the bell.
A major part of what is reported in the media– especially the tabloid media, whether in print or broadcasts– consists of leaks, speculation and innuendo, all repeated around the clock, day in and day out, whether or not anything is ever proved.
What someone thinks is going to happen is not news. After it happens it is news.
The 24-hour news cycle may require that somebody be saying something on the air all the time. But that is the media’s problem– and it should not be solved at the expense of ruining other people’s lives.
The loss is not solely that of the particular individuals singled out for accusation or innuendo.
If an informed citizenry is the foundation of democratic government, then a misinformed citizenry is a danger.
Individuals who have never been smeared can also be affected. Highly qualified people, whose knowledge and judgment are much needed in high places, may turn down judicial nominations, for example, or decline other high-profile positions in government, if that means risking having outstanding reputations for integrity that they have built up over a lifetime be dragged through the mud in televised confirmation hearings conducted like Roman circuses.
Such top-level people can always be replaced by warm bodies, as Judge Robert Bork was replaced by Judge Anthony Kennedy, after the smearing of Judge Bork by the Senate Judiciary Committee defeated his nomination.
But the whole country continues to this day to pay dearly for having Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, making intellectually foppish decisions.
One of the perennial crusades of the media has been to have more government business televised. Their self-interest in this is obvious. But the benefits of televising government proceedings– if there are any benefits– must be weighed against the enormous harm that this can do not only to individuals but to the country.
Television conveys false information as readily as it conveys the truth. Congressional hearings are not glimpses of truth. They are staged events to perpetuate some political spin.
Televising these political shows only impedes Congress’ ability to get serious work done in private instead of spending time playing to the peanut gallery.
Both individuals and the country deserve more protection from publicity abuse than they usually get.