Guilty By Accusation?

On this Friday, Dec. 2, I am troubled.

Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty"?

I am troubled by the way in which the charges have been handled against Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky and the resulting impact on coach Joe Paterno and others at the university. Ditto on the charges against Syracuse coach Bernie Fine.

If they are guilty as charged, they should rightfully be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law; but only after the charges have been validated and not before.

What troubles me is how the public, via the media, have become judge, jury and executioner and have deemed these men guilty of gut-retching accusations that haven’t yet been proven to have enough merit to bring charges, let alone convict and sentence.

It troubles me that they were summarily fired from their long-standing positions on the basis of accusations. Why not suspended pending further investigation? What if these accusations turn out to be false? Are they going to un-fire them?

The sad fact is that no matter what the outcome, no matter what the facts, no matter whether the charges are true or false, the lives of all the accused and their families have been shattered and tainted forever.

It makes me wonder what part of “innocent until proven guilty” the media, the public and, for that matter, our legal system, collectively, do not understand. Has this basic tenant of our legal system bitten the dust?

It seems like that phrase has morphed into something more like, “guilty by accusation.” In reality, once someone is publicly accused of something, especially something as despicable as child abuse, the negative aura will hang over them forever, guilty or not.

I’ve seen this happen a lot. The situation with Herman Cain and the accusations of sexual harassment and infidelity is another recent case in point. It appears that Mr. Cain’s bid for the top elected spot in the nation has been thrown off track by accusations that may or may not even be factual.

Actually, this problem may not be a reflection of our court system as much as it is an indictment of our news media and, by extension, we the people.

Sadly, the free press that makes this nation so unique in the world is the same media that can ruin the lives of innocent people. With great power comes great responsibility; the media has the power to bring down presidents, but does it wield that power responsibly?

I think today’s news media have lost touch with their role in our system. They are supposed to report facts, not make judgments. Instead, the media have used their power to force accusations to become public before they should be, often creating more confusion in the process and too often leading to totally unsubstantiated rumors.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a firm believer in Article I of the Constitution and freedom of the press; I swore an oath to support and defend that right.

But when the media become part of the process, they begin to influence the facts rather than simply report them. I think there is an inherent conflict of interest.

The news media today are supported by advertising; to get advertisers you have to prove you have lots of viewers or readership; to get viewers or readership you have to give people what they want to read or see and hear.

And what people want in daily news is apparently the bad things that happen to people. The more negative, the more bizarre, the more graphic, the more sales. As the old news adage goes: If a dog bites a man, that’s not news, it happens every day; but if a man bites a dog, that’s news!

This drive for ratings has created such an environment of competition among news outlets that they will go to any lengths to find a “story,” and over time this has led to premature release of information that later turns out to be bogus.

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