Rape victims on trial

The alleged rape of a woman in New York by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, is giving news organizations fits by rekindling an old debate that once seemed settled: Should alleged rape victims be named? And how much should the news audience know about her?

The New York Times danced close to the name by identifying her race, her neighborhood and, apparently, her character.

That earned this rebuke from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

I don’t understand reporting like this. What is the point? Does it matter that she is friendly? Does it matter that she is a good person? Does it matter that she has never been a problem? Of course not. Rape is rape. The character of the victim is irrelevant. There’s one caveat to this idea: If reporters had discovered in the woman’s past a pattern of making false accusations in criminal matters, well, then there’s a plausible argument that information about her character should be reported. Otherwise, her mood, relative-friendliness or unfriendliness, shopping habits, dietary needs — all completely immaterial.

One more thing: Reporters should think twice about visiting the neighborhood of an alleged rape victim in order to ask questions about her life and character. The unintended consequence of such a visit is to publicize, in the place where she lives, her plight, and raise possibly-destructive questions about her situation. Newspapers withhold the names of alleged rape victims for a reason: to protect their privacy. But when reporters ask family, friends and neighbors superfluous questions about the alleged rape victim, they have outed her in the place that matters most.

French media has named the alleged victim.

On CBS this morning, the woman’s attorney, Jeffrey Shapiro, said the woman will tell her story when the time is right:

But it’s clear that this story is going to be much more than a single criminal case; it’s going to be all about how all alleged rape victims are treated in the court of public opinion.

On that score, commentator Ben Stein went off the rails yesterday in his defense of the IMF official, arguing that he couldn’t have raped anyone because that’s not what economists do.

In life, events tend to follow patterns. People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes? Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes? Is it likely that just by chance this hotel maid found the only one in this category? Maybe Mr. Strauss-Kahn is guilty but if so, he is one of a kind, and criminals are not usually one of a kind.

For a glimpse at the strife the case is causing in journalism circles, check out a live chat hosted by the Poynter Institute.