Underexposed

From a letter in today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

Not to be overlooked in this stunning victory is the role of the investigative reporting done by The Washington Post. Despite constant excoriation by President Trump and the extremist Steve Bannon, the free and fair press exposed an alleged child molester. This played no small part in Roy Moore’s defeat.

The need to vigilantly support truth and accuracy in the media gets stronger every day.

ADAM STOLER, BRONX

Can you really expose an alleged child molester–as opposed to giving exposure to allegations of child molestation? To “expose” something is to reveal what had previously been hidden. But if someone’s status is alleged, what is said about him remains hidden. It makes no sense to say that you’ve exposed the hiddenness of what is hidden. But nonsense has now become par for the course on the subject of allegations.

I’m glad that Roy Moore was defeated. I’m not glad that we seem to have lost even a vestigial sense of the fact that an allegation is an assertion in need of proof, that people are innocent until proven guilty, and that proof is easier in the asserting than in the doing. But apparently we have, and solecisms like “exposed alleged child molester” are the result. The issue here isn’t Roy Moore per se, but the widespread loss of the skepticism required when allegations of wrongdoing are made, whether criminal or otherwise. (Incidentally, I for one wouldn’t celebrate at the thought that the only reason Moore was defeated was that he was alleged to be a child molester. Doesn’t that imply, pathetically, that had no such allegations been made, he would have won?) 

Believe it or not, I know someone who was “credibly” accused of child molestation but who was completely innocent of the charge. The person’s innocence didn’t matter to the police, to the prosecutors, or to public opinion. The police released a mug shot almost designed to make him look guilty: his name was then duly dragged through the mud, he spent time in jail, and once out, he spent a long time making his way through the world with the worst conceivable cloud over his head. But he was 100% innocent. Eventually, he was forced to move to a faraway place and start his life all over again–which he did. His case never went to trial. Obviously, he was never convicted. But people to this day believe that he was guilty, because, after all, “credible allegations” were made. Indeed, they were so credible that they rose to the level of probable cause! Yes, the “credible allegations” eventually collapsed like a fucking house of cards. But they were made. And that’s what counts.

A piece of advice to those still capable of thinking things through: don’t believe everything you’ve half-heard. A “credible accusation” is not a conviction, and shouldn’t necessarily produce conviction, either. But perhaps if more credulous believers spent more time in interrogation rooms and jail cells–or were more frequently shot at–they’d figure out why it’s a bad idea to play fast and loose with allegations.  You’d think we’d learned something from the Central Park Five, the Innocence Project, and the horrendous miscarriages of justice that grace the pages of just about every textbook of criminal procedure ever written (or even better, this book). But no.

“The need to vigilantly support truth and accuracy in the media gets stronger every day.”  No doubt.

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