Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lives are Ruined

Remember Richard Jewell? He was working as a private security guard at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, in 1996, when a bomb went off. He helped many of the spectators to safety. He was called a hero, briefly. He went from hero to suspect quickly. Suddenly, the Atlanta Journal Constitution printed a story saying that the FBI regarded Jewell, the “hero guard” as a suspect. This began a media firestorm, where Jewell was portrayed as a person who decided that this was going to be his 15 minutes of fame – so he would bomb the park, then claim to be a hero. Jewell was put on surveillance by the FBI, who conducted a public search of his apartment. All of this was brought right into our living rooms, on a daily basis.

It was weeks later that the FBI finally stated that Jewell was not a suspect in the bombing. He did not receive a public apology. The media didn’t cover his vindication with the same kind of zealousness with which they went after him. It was the equivalent of a retraction printed on page 29, in tiny print. Richard Jewell’s life was ruined by false accusations and media hysteria.

In May of 2001, Chandra Levy, an attractive young intern who worked for the Bureau of Prisons, in Washington, DC disappeared. As the weeks passed, we learned that Ms. Levy had a close relationship with US Congressman Gary Condit, from California. The Congressman was married, and it seemed likely that he had an affair with Ms. Levy. That was sufficient fuel to fire a media circus that lasted for the whole summer. The Congressman was found guilty on the pages of tabloids, newspapers, magazines, and in the monologues of late night comedians. He lost his bid for re-election. About a year later, Levy’s remains were found. Her death appears to be a homicide, though the case has never been solved. Her death was much like another death of a young woman that occurred around the same time. Condit was never arrested, but that didn’t matter. His life was ruined by false accusations and media persecution. He has successfully sued several publications, and writer Dominick Dunne for slander.

Canadian Maher Arar was accused of being a terrorist, shipped to Syria by the US, where he was imprisoned and tortured. Arar is perhaps the most visible victim of the US policy of “extraordinary rendition” which is a fancy way of saying sending suspected terrorists to other countries to be tortured without court approval. Arar was on his way home to Canada from Tunisia, when he was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York, in 2002. He was sent to Syria for interrogation by the US, who suspected he was a member of al-Qaeda. He spent nearly a year in Syria, where he claims he was beaten, whipped, and held in an underground cell. For a year, his family did not know where he was, he was simply disappeared. An investigation by Canadian authorities has found that Arar has committed no offense, and is not a threat to Canadian security. His life and the lives of his family were disrupted beyond imagining by a false accusation.

In the era of big media hoopla, where celebrity gossip passes for actual news, where innuendo and accusation can ruin lives in a matter of minutes, we the people have a responsibility. It is our responsibility to hold the media accountable. It is our duty to demand a higher quality of news and information. We can subscribe to publications that provide those higher standards, while letting the purveyors of sensationalism know that we aren’t going to support them. Lives are ruined by accusation – which means we should all proceed with caution.

We’ve seen some ugly accusations about a local man hit the paper recently. We’re seeing the beginnings of a political media circus with the accusations made against Ray Buckley, a well known Democrat from Manchester. For those who will leap to accuse me of partisan defense, understand that Ray Buckley and I are not friends, to put it mildly and politely. Mr. Buckley has been accused of viewing, or possessing child pornography a number of years ago, by the man who was his roommate at the time, State Representative Steve Vallaincourt. Vallaincourt wrote a letter to make the accusations, and delivered it to Governor Lynch, who turned the letter over to the state attorney general. I’ve always thought that when one suspected a crime had been committed, one went to the police, not to the governor. In fact, one wonders why Vallaincourt waited for years to report this alleged activity, and why he never did go to the police. With the new Democratic majority in the NH legislature, Rep. Vallaincourt did not get a committee chairmanship he felt he deserved, which he was quite publicly put out about. Seeing his old nemesis, Buckley, on the verge of becoming the NH Democratic Party chairman may well have pushed this rather unstable individual over the edge. Vallaincourt appears to be enjoying his extended period of fame in that well known outlet of the liberal media, the Union Leader.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a maxim we pay lip service to, even as we turn on the television set, or go to a blog where character assassination reigns supreme. Lives are ruined by false accusations. Let us at least wait for a guilty verdict and THEN pick up the torches and pitchforks.

“Hysteria trumps evidence.” Carol Tavris


Dave in Concord said...

Talk about double standards! You don't hesitate a moment to smear Steve Vaillancourt, engage in ad hominem name-calling, question his motives, and all-around deny him the dignity of "innocent until proven guilty".

You're essentially accusing Vaillancourt of providing false testimony to law enforcement officers, which is a crime. Funny how easily you find making criminal accusations. In Vaillancourt's case, press reports make it clear that he provided police with some sort of evidence. You have provided none whatsoever in your smear job -- just a bunch of invective and insinuations instead.

susanb said...

Dave - why didn't Vallaincourt go directly to the police? Why did he wait for years? And why, if Vallaincourt is such a rational individual, did he threaten Judy Reardon and Kathy Sullivan in the UL, saying they'd be next?

Anonymous said...

I think you misconstrued Vaillancourt's remarks about Kathy and Judy. My impression was that he was suggesting that they back off from their vigorous defense of Buckley, since the kimchi was about to hit the fan and a lot of people could be caught in the aftermath.

Let's not kid ourselves. The stories about Ray Buckley's extracurricular activities have been around for a long time. Vaillancourt's motives probably aren't pure, but I have always found him to be an honest guy.

susanb said...


According to the story in the UL, Vallaincourt said that Reardon and other should watch out, because he was looking at old videotapes for possible missteps they might have made. How is that NOT a threat?

pat said...

hey Sue B you got a good point, nailed the media spot on. The current nonstop coverage of the Duke case makes a good example, as every missing white woman/ distractions. Any way I really enjoy your writing. Meant to tell you way sooner. Enjoyed the election stuff immensly, great stuff

Anonymous said...

It's not like Gary Condit did not THREATEN Chandra at one point when he was heard to say "They will never find your body".

Give me a break!

Anonymous said...

Condit threatened her and said they'd never find her body. He bragged about being able to pull that off.

susanb said...

People say stuff all the time that they don't act on. Condit didn't kill her, did he?