While flipping through a newspaper during lunch today I encountered a story about the Roy Moore allegations. I quickly noticed that they failed to consistently describe the allegations as such and part of the story portrayed parts of the accusations as confirmed fact. As a fervent supporter of the presumption of innocence, better to let ten guilty men go free than convict one innocent man, and privacy rights for accused individuals until convicted in a court of law, this developing trend in the news media deeply worries me. The same newspaper that did this “mistake” has previously shown themselves completely capable of protecting the identity of accused persons until convictions fell. I remember a case involving a dozen accusers against a well-known dancer. He wasn’t named until he was found guilty. Just as it should be.
To me society has lost in its struggle for justice if the process makes it impossible for those wrongly accused/found to be innocent have to suffer unrepairable harm. In our well connected, networked and linked society reputation is king. Any future employer, potential date, friends and the like will use search engines to look you up. If your name has been tarred and feathered for something you were found not to have done, you will suffer the consequences of lingering doubt. Did a predator escape justice? Did the police bungle the investigation? Merely being accused affixes a reputational scar to a person that can’t be gotten rid of.
The presumption of innocence is even more important now than it is during “normal times”. The flood of allegations regarding sexual misconduct in Hollywood, the media, politics and so on risks dragging the innocent along down into the maelstrom. There is no lack of cases of high profile false allegations, even during recent times. Almost everyone was completely convinced that the Duke Lacrosse Team were just the worst predators imaginable. The team suffered massive psychological trauma and a suspension of sport activity until the case blew over. Were they made whole again when the whole case collapsed? Hardly. What about UVA, Rolling Stone and the numerous “common” people suffering from verified false allegations from spouses, taxi passengers and the like? The justice system, the media and the courts will at most slap the wrist of the wrongdoers.
What really angers me is that the current media structure is that accusations of sexual impropriety have become a low cost, low risk method for attacking your adversaries and sneakily and underhandedly achieving your goals. Political accusations appear to be in the process of becoming more and more common. The media barely touches on the aspect of verifying claims. Looking at the Roy Moore situation as an example, there are numerous red flags regarding the accusations. They deserve to be mentioned together with the accusations. The newspaper I read earlier today didn’t mention anything about the questions regarding the so-called evidence apart from quoting Moore’s denial.
We might look down upon the “savages” of the past for their primitive forms of justice. But are we really any better now? The witch trials of a couple of centuries ago are a good example. People had all kinds of questionable motives for accusing someone they didn’t like. Disliked your neighbor? Witch! Wronged by a store owner? Witchcraft! Spurned by a spouse? Black magic! In fact, we saw the same thing happen during the early stages of the War on Terror. Hefty bounties were paid out for naming terrorists and militants. What did poor people in places like Afghanistan do? Namedrop people they didn’t like and collect hefty bounties. Many people ended up in Guantanamo as a result.
Shouldn’t we be expected to have learned from history by this point? Surely it isn’t too much to ask for to have the presumption of innocence be the standard. Sadly, the prospect of utilizing weaponized allegations have tempted people away from what separates us from lawless societies. I fear that the situation isn’t going to get better any time soon.