I've carped before about the prevailing legal illiteracy of the media, and the various atrocities against accuracy it produces. There are bright islands in the dark sea — journalists who educated themselves about law before reporting on it, and who take the time to craft a story that accurately conveys complex legal issues. Those journalists are a pleasure to read, and I often learn things from them. But they are not the norm. The norm is a mix of willful ignorance and laziness.
The Polanski affair reveals that there is another element to this prevailing legal illiteracy: some journalists' unhealthy contempt for the intelligence of their audience. Patterico has pulled back the curtain to reveal a bit of this unbecoming contempt in the course of his dialogue with Washington Post blogger Anne Applebaum. Applebaum wrote a post on the Washington Post blog that made several mistakes about the case, and further said several things that were materially misleading. Among the mistakes and misleading statements: Applebaum said "there is evidence of judicial misconduct in the original trial" when there was no trial because Polanski entered a guilty plea. Applebaum wrote "there is evidence that Polanski did not know her real age," which may be true, but is grotesquely misleading for a journalist to write without also noting that Polanski admitted under oath during his guilty plea that he knew the girl was thirteen at the time. Applebaum writes of "Polanski's crime — statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl," but fails to note that Polanski was charged with both statutory rape and rape, that the girl's grand jury testimony made it clear that it was rape, and that even in her recent press statements she has maintained that she said no and Polanski ignored it. (Perhaps Applebaum, like Whoopi Goldberg, thinks it was not rape-rape.) And so on.
Patterico is an exceptionally able and dogged investigative blogger; I say that even though I frequently disagree with him on issues of substance. He has engaged in a dialogue with Applebaum culminating today in this post, in which Applebaum defends her inaccuracies in flat-out appalling terms.
I used the word “trial” in the layman’s sense – trial meaning a judicial investigation, court proceedings etc – and see no need to correct, as it would confuse the matter further.
The notion that a professional wordsmith can't convey the difference between a trial and a guilty plea without "confusing the matter" is sheer lunacy. The credible possibilities are (1) Applebaum didn't know it was a plea, because she didn't investigate adequately before writing, making her careless; (2) Applebaum didn't really grasp the difference between a trial or a plea, making her ignorant; or (3) Applebaum thought her readers couldn't grasp the difference between a trial and a plea, making her contemptuous, or (4) Applebaum thought that accurately describing the event as a guilty plea would not serve the argument she was trying to make, making her dishonest. Based on the "confuse the matter' language and general tone of her response to Patterico, I think the most likely explanation is #3: she thinks her audience is dumb.
Her defense of her statement about Polanski's knowledge of the victim's age is just as appalling:
Yes, there is “evidence” that Polanski did not know the girls age – or that he was told but did not believe it: He has told people since that, anyway. Pictures of her from the time show a girl who could be anywhere from 12-25. “There is evidence” is a broad expression and I see no need to correct that either, as again it would simply be confusing.
Either this is dishonest, or it reveals a paternalistic attitude towards readers. The most powerful evidence of whether or not Polanski knew that his victim was thirteen is his admission, under oath, that he knew. Saying that "there is evidence that he did not know" — without revealing that he admitted that he knew — is incredibly deceitful. If it's not intentionally deceitful, then it reveals Applebaum's attitude that, as a journalist, her role is to decide what facts are credible and what facts are not and present only the facts that she believes to her audience, even if that means concealing sworn testimony that contradicts her conclusion. Again, that suggests that she thinks that her audience is just too dumb to come to the correct conclusion themselves unless she sifts the evidence for them and presents it as an advocate.
Her big-picture conclusion is also revealing:
In any case, none of these particular issues has much to do with my main point, which were that this was a confusing story and that it’s very peculiar that the Swiss suddenly decided to arrest him now. I do not condone his original action in any way, and didn’t write that I did, either: However, I dislike the reduction of complicated stories to simple facts. And please don’t write back that “he drugged and raped a child” because that is not an accurate description of what happened.
But she unquestionably does like reducing complicated stories to simple facts. That's what she did, and it's clearly what she thinks it's her role to do. She asserts that it's not an accurate description to say that Polanski drugged and raped a child, yet that's exactly what the child in question testified that he did. A responsible journalist might carefully marshal all of the facts and lay out a case of why the evidence does not support the victim's grand jury testimony that Polanski gave her alcohol and a quaalude and then, over her repeated objections, penetrated her vaginally and anally. But that's not what Applebaum's doing, and not what she's saying. Applebaum's just saying that she has concluded that's not the real story, and so she wants to report that conclusion to her readers. It appears that she does so based upon the presumption that her readers cannot evaluate that themselves based on the facts — that the evaluation would be, in Applebaum's repeated words, "confusing."
Between Patterico and Applebaum, Patterico comes out of this looking far more like a competent and trustworthy journalist. And, again, I say that as someone who frequently disagrees with — and sometimes really dislikes — his opinions. Read the series of posts; they are a great dissection of journalistic practice.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- A Response To Marc: Institutions, Agendas, and the "Culture War" - January 13th, 2016
- Lawyering Is About Service, Not Self-Actualization - January 11th, 2016
- Lawsplainer: Was FAU Prof. James Tracy Fired in Violation of His First Amendment Rights? - January 7th, 2016
- Defy, Defy, Defy. - January 7th, 2016
- President Obama And The Rhetoric Of Rights - January 5th, 2016