Sunday, January 09, 2005

Today's New York Times has an article about a suit filed by a Massachusetts judge, Ernest B. Murphy. Murphy says he was libeled when the right-wing, Murdoch-wannabe Boston Herald accused him of insensitivity toward a 14-year-old rape victim.

I'll confess I don't know the details of this case. I bring it up because the Times -- even as it points out a couple of rather glaring errors made by the principal Herald reporter on the story, Dave Wedge -- implicitly suggests that Wedge can't be held fully responsible for his own actions:

Complicating things for Mr. Wedge was his appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" on March 7, 2002, which Judge Murphy's lawyers say provided another example of libel. In recent years, newspaper reporters have appeared with growing frequency on television and radio programs to discuss and promote their articles, a trend that journalism experts say can lead to spontaneous statements that could become fodder for libel claims.

"Can lead to spontaneous statements that could become fodder for libel claims"? Excuse me?

What Pam Belluck, the Times reporter, seems to be saying here is that if a reporter goes on TV, libel or slander might just, you know, happen. It's like sneezing in a dusty room -- it's involuntary. It's not, you know, a deliberate act of dishonesty. You go on TV, you just might slip and utter a nasty and damning untruth about another person, something that could ruin the person's reputation. Hey, it happens. It's not your fault.

In yesterday's Times, Edward Wyatt said something similar. He was writing about Park Dietz, the psychiatrist who served as an expert witness for the prosecution in the Andrea Yates case. Dietz gave damning testimony under oath about Yates, suggesting that she'd gotten the idea for a way to commit premeditated multiple murder and get away with it from an episode of Law & Order (a show for which Dietz serves as a consultant) -- a completely erroneous assertion. Here's Wyatt's gloss:

The case, perhaps more than any other recent incident, shows how the lines between fact and fiction, life and art, can become confused in the minds of even the most rigorously trained experts.

Once again, a damning statement that's factually inaccurate simply couldn't be the fault of the person who utters it. The only possible explanation is that Dietz got into court and just couldn't help himself.

Here, by the way, is what Dietz said in court when asked about Law & Order episodes that might have influenced Yates, as quoted in "Are You There Alone?," a book on the case by Suzanne O'Malley:

"As a matter of fact," Dietz said, "there was a show of a woman with postpartum depression who drowned her children in the bathtub and was found insane, and it was aired shortly before this crime occurred."

Rather definitive, no? Dietz seems 100% certain that the details match the Yates case in several particulars (postpartum depression, drowning, more than one child, bathtub, recent air date). There's no hesitation whatsoever on his part. But to Wyatt at the Times, if you damn a person with a forthright statement that's completely untrue, it's just, well, an honest mistake, even if it's court testimony and court testimony is one of the main things you do for a living.

Why are Times reporters giving these guys the benefit of the doubt? Do they think Wedge and Dietz have no responsibility for their own utterances? And what does this say about how Times reporters feel about their own ability to get the facts straight?

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