Remove That Blue Dot

Hers was the most compelling of courtroom allegations, yet you couldn't see her face and you didn't know her name. On television sets across the nation, it was a remarkable picture of journalistic hypocrisy.

In the William Kennedy Smith rape trial last week, it seemed that the defendant's every grimace, every smile, every gesture was on screen. As he sat in the dock, live from West Palm Beach, the courtroom camera couldn't keep its lens off him. In contrast, his accuser-whose credibility is just as much at issue as his-got no such attention. Even as she spent nearly 10 hours on the witness stand branding him a felon, the television censor concealed her identity. The accuser, it appeared, deserved respect; the accused, humiliation. She could very well be telling the whole truth, but doing so with a cloak of electronic anonymity granted by editors serves neither the ends of journalism nor criminal justice.

Protecting victims of rape, alleged or proven, has long been a press tradition. It's done with the best of intentions: given the unique obloquy of the crime, the woman shouldn't be made to endure more suffering. And why run the chance, however speculative, that future rape victims might not come forward if their names were publicized? That was the near-universal response of the major news organizations, NEWSWEEK included, when the Florida woman made her charge last Easter weekend. (The New York Times printed her name early on, then stopped.) The decision was wrong then and still is for several reasons.

The paternalism of not naming names reinforces the idea that rape is anything more than a terrible act of violence, that women should be shamed. Moreover, it gives a figure in the news the power to decide what the news is; only if a rape victim grants permission will the press include her name. We rightly don't tolerate judicial or legislative attempts to make unilateral editorial decisions. We shouldn't permit it in the individual context either. Worst of all, concealing identity casts the journalist as judge, long before any verdict is in: somehow the stigma suffered by an alleged rape victim is greater than that of the alleged rapist. We need not always be moral bystanders; it's simple enough to value life over death, health over disease, freedom over tyranny. But will this victim be more disgraced than this defendant if acquitted? That's hardly an easy call.

Until we change the conventions of our trade, unless we seriously consider the legitimate privacy interests of those other unfortunates we cover--the hostage, the plague carrier, the family of the plane-crash victim--fairness dictates consistency. What should the press do if Smith is acquitted? Do we report the name of the accuser? Or is the "former victim" still entitled to anonymity because the six jurors doubted her instead of concluding she was a liar? Such a layered Socratic inquiry is not what news judgment is about.

The fact that the Smith case (how else can anyone refer to it?) is now at trial and television's obsession with it magnify the wrong. Trials are the most public of governmental functions. Cameras, properly used, are a welcome addition to the courtroom, since they give viewers wide access to the judicial process. Indeed, CNN and Court TV say they are covering the full trial as a public service. And yet, cable operators have both bleeped out the accuser's name and electronically covered her face, even though the court in no way required it.

That means more than mere unfairness. The way to evaluate any witness is to watch as much as listen. Does she flinch on cross-examination? Is her demeanor in keeping with her words? Does she look believable? Sure, the jury gets to see her, but remember: the stated reason for the television cameras--for journalism here-was to give the public the opportunity to observe for itself. Does it make a difference? Imagine Anita Hill testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee with a blue or gray dot over her face. Would the fierceness of her claim and her poise under pressure have come through if you couldn't see those eyes?

CNN and Court TV are not alone. The wire services, the major dailies and two networks continued their practice of concealing identity. So, too, does NEWSWEEK-in this issue, with seven pages devoted to the story. Only NBC had the courage to broadcast her name, which it did without fanfare on the "Today" show and evening news, by neglect rather than calculation, the station failed to send its own equipment to West Palm Beach, so it couldn't air an unexpurgated picture.

In a perfect world, journalism would not have to choose between reporting news and causing pain. Rape would be just another crime and society wouldn't be so cruel to its victims. Perhaps our writing can educate and bring that day closer. But limiting the news and turning television coverage of a trial into an unfulfilling canvas of blurs and gaps isn't the answer. In the long run, the only way to get to the truth is through truth itself, ugly as it might be.