A New Kind Of Scarlet Letter

It is an age-old New England tradition to use the written word to uphold community standards and morals. Think of that scarlet "A" as a very short publication. Before the American Revolution, Boston pamphleteers published the names of colonists who violated the boycott on English goods. Now a newspaper in New Bedford, Mass - a gritty port city of 100,000 - has given this notion of public shaming a decidedly modern twist. And while city fathers are hailing the crusade, others are questioning both its ethics and its efficacy.

The newspaper is The Standard-Times, and at issue is a new feature entitled "Drug Watch." Five days a week, the paper aims to run photos of every person who shows up in district court in New Bedford on drug-related charges. The column has the look of a high-school yearbook for losers. "The idea was to try to do something to impress on the community how serious and widespread the scourge of drugs has become," says editor James Ragsdale. "I'm not so naive as to think it will end the drug problem. But if through our efforts we better comprehend the problem, we may be closer to a solution."

Since the inception of "Drug Watch" in November, The Standard-Times letters column and call-in line have been flooded with praise for the feature. New Bedford Police Chief Richard Benoit hails "Drug Watch" as a rare press effort that actually helps police morale. The city's mayor, John Bullard, finds himself in the unusual position of endorsing the local newspaper. "It may not be a normal feature, but then it's not a normal problem," says the mayor. "'Drug Watch' is an example of the kind of intolerance we must all show."

In New Bedford of late that intolerance has been catching. One merchant told Ragsdale that he posts the pictures in his office, presumably to help pinpoint suspicious customers. The city's Housing Authority uses "Drug Watch" to identify undesirable tenants for its 2,538 units of low-income housing. The agency has rejected prospective tenants and commenced eviction proceedings based on the newspaper photos. "We're not a criminal court so we don't need absolute proof," says Joseph Finnerty, executive director of the agency. "It's up to them to prove to us that they can be a good neighbor."

It is exactly that kind of pretrial presumption of guilt that many find troubling. Most newspapers try to avoid pictures of people accused of crimes, making exceptions only for major crimes. In New Bedford, however, a person charged with a minor drug offense can, between the arraignment and continuances, become a regular in the "Drug Watch" column before his case is adjudicated - each time surrounded by other alleged felons. "Drug Watch" may be protected by the First Amendment, says John Roberts, head of the state Civil Liberties Union, "but it isn't responsible journalism." Mark Jurkowitz, media critic for The Boston Phoenix, doesn't believe it's journalism at all. He dismisses it as public relations - the kind of flashy, no-substance effort that has characterized this nation's war on drugs.

Others scoff at the notion that "Drug Watch" deters drug activity. "If the idea of going to jail or getting AIDS isn't stopping people from using drugs," says Alan Zwirblis, chief public defender for the New Bedford court, "a picture in the newspaper sure isn't going to stop them."

Ragsdale dismisses the criticism as "folly." He has pursued more traditional journalistic avenues in covering drug problems, but nothing has approached the response to "Drug Watch." "Providing this information seems to give people a feeling of empowerment," he says. Nor does Ragsdale underestimate the power of public embarrassment. Five years ago a l9-year-old man was arrested in a drug raid. Ragsdale played the story on the front page. The headline read: EDITOR'S SON HELD ON DRUG CHARGES.