Last month in the Stuff I Watched entry I talked about the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Fantastic Lies about the Duke lacrosse scandal of 2006. In case you didn't read that entry or you just forget, there was a party at a house outside of the Duke University campus in North Carolina. The lacrosse team hired a couple of strippers, one of whom accused them of rape. Once the media got the story they pretty much condemned the team long before the trial. Except then it turns out the stripper was lying and the DA's case was pure bullshit he was spinning to get himself re-elected. Eventually the prosecutor ended up in jail (for a day) and the stripper went on to murder a boyfriend and go to jail. Meanwhile the lacrosse players had been pariahs for almost a year and their coach had been fired.
A big problem in this is the way the media crucified the players based on sketchy evidence. With the 24-hour "news" cycle and papers owned by huge corporations, largely gone are the days where journalists carefully vet their stories and check their stories before they go to print or on the air. To feed the endless news cycle or to get the scoop to sell papers, you have to be fast. It's shoot first and apologize later if you hit the wrong person.
The problem is the apologies come too late, usually after anyone is paying attention. In the meantime, people have their lives ruined. Fortunately the Duke lacrosse players mostly came from money so they could afford the legal bills and still make a comfy life for themselves after that. That was also part of what made them perfect villains for the Nancy Grace types. Rich, white, lacrosse, Duke, and names like Reade vs. the poor black stripper trying to pay her way through a far lower college--it's a perfect movie script! And that's probably where it should have stayed, as a work of fiction.
Maybe it wasn't really the first but the OJ trial was really the first I can remember where you had so much coverage and just about everyone (except the jury) had already decided he was guilty. Not long after that you had the Clinton impeachment. Remember the Olympic bombing in 1996? The FBI fingered some guy and everyone thought he was guilty...until it turned out he wasn't. In the meantime he pretty much had to go into hiding. Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, Casey Anthony...all big cases where the media turned in one verdict and the jury another. It probably doesn't hurt celebrities as much, but for more ordinary people it can pretty much screw your whole life.
Spotlight was another movie I watched last month. That was about Catholic priests abusing kids. The Boston Globe handled that story the right way by carefully building their case against the priests and only printing it when they knew they had it right. It's too bad they doesn't happen more these days because when the media doesn't do that, they can ruin lives and it gives them as much credibility as The National Enquirer--if not less.
Fun Fact: In the 3rd and 4th Scarlet Knight books, Hazards of Love and Change of Heart I deal with this issue a little bit. In the third book Emma Earl was framed for murdering a bunch of people. At the end of the book, even though she's been proven innocent, she still loses her job because the publicity made her a pariah. At the start of the 4th book she can't get another job and she loses her apartment and winds up taking a dangerous job in Russia.