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Archive for Thursday, July 31, 2003

Is it time to name names?

July 31, 2003

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— It took me two Google clicks, and there she was -- name and photo -- under a charming caption identifying her as: The Lying Bitch.

So it's official. The woman who accused NBA star Kobe Bryant of sexual assault, a Colorado legalism for rape, has roughly the privacy of an exhibit in an online aquarium. Her image is just a surf away.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Back in the pre-Web 1970s, the media called a rare recess from First Amendment feistiness. They agreed to protect the identity of an accuser on the theory that exposure prevented too many women from going to the law.

Now fast-forward 30 years. The shield offers little more protection in rough weather than a mesh raincoat.

It isn't just the Wild West Web that has penetrated this shield. The supermarket tabloid, the Globe, made Bryant's accuser its cover girl with just a black stripe across her eyes. Radio shock jock Tom Leykis made a name for himself by naming her.

Meanwhile, the mainstream print and broadcast media have maintained a kind of technical virginity. They revealed the accuser's hometown and her college. They publicized her failed audition for "American Idol," a death of a girlfriend, a breakup with a boyfriend, an overdose at school. They quoted friends, current and former, saying either "she wouldn't lie" or she was joking about his private parts at a party. But they haven't -- so far -- used her name and face.

Now the question is, should we too put down the shield? Should we name names?

This is not the first time it's been asked. Thirty years have produced both changes and concerns about protecting identity: Should we protect the accuser but not the accused? Is the shield a cover for the sexist notion that a woman is weak and needs protection? Does it reinforce the idea that rape is indeed something for a woman to be ashamed of?

At times, the media seemed to worry more about privacy than the woman did. In 1989, no one used the name of the Central Park jogger. In 2003, she announced it on her book cover. In 1991, after a similar controversy, Patricia Bowman appeared on Court TV in the infamous Palm Beach rape case with a gray blob over her face. After the trial, she appeared with Diane Sawyer in prime time.

Now, in the Kobe Bryant case, some strange fellows are sharing a feminist platform bed. Tom Leykis, who regards men as a beleaguered species, claims he actually made a strike against female stereotypes: "It's not any more reason to be ashamed than being (robbed) behind a cash register at Denny's."

Meanwhile, many of my journalist colleagues are wondering out loud whether we have crossed the covered bridge to a postshame society. They are asking whether it's time to identify accusers.

I always assumed the shield was temporary. And I have always been uneasy with the idea that a falsely accused man could be exposed and a falsely accusing woman protected.

But if rape is the same as a mugging these days, how come no one talks about "consensual mugging"? And before I worry too much about false accusations, how about the false accusations of false accusations? Anybody notice that rape is still a widely underreported crime?

Hard cases make bad law. But celebrity cases make lousy policy. There may be more motive to accuse a superstar. Or more super power to crush an accuser. It is the high-profile cases that fill the Internet.

But if you take the lid off, where do you stop? Do you start naming teens and children who are victims of sexual assault? What if their names are on the Internet? Do we name the everyday victims who would never make the search engines rev up?

Our society hasn't changed as much as our technology. Many offline journalists who ask "isn't it time?" are uncomfortable when the Internet is giving "news" they withhold. I have long thought we should ask accusers if they want their name withheld rather than assuming they do. But I don't think it is time to out every woman and I don't think we should do it because, as we used to whine to mom, "all the other kids are doing it."

As for now, anyone who thinks we live in a liberated, postshame society ought to go back to the Web. A FreeKobe Web site -- motto: "Because We're Running Out Of Heroes" -- has an online store selling pro-Kobe clothes.

Not to worry though. To show their sensitivity, they've taken the thong out of production.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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