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Saturday, July 26, 2003

The Identity of Kobe's Accuser

No, I'm not revealing it, I'm just writing about whether it should be made public in the press, a hot topic of discussion the past few days. And I know, I'm far overdue for another Kobe post.

Howard Kurtz offers a good round-up of the discussion on the topic in his Media Notes column from yesterday. Kurtz himself seems to think the identity should not be publicized, harkening back to the "sorry" example of the outing of William Kennedy Smith's accuser in 1991. He presents the main argument, that withholding the name of the alleged victim encourages more victims to come forward, while also citing others who think naming Kobe and not his accuser is unfair.

This is a tough one because both claims seem to have some validity at first. We want to live in a society in which victims of crime feel comfortable enough to come forward, and we also want the legal matter to proceed in such a way as not to favor one side over the other.

But it seems that a lot of this kind of debate takes place in a vacuum, ignoring the extensive, boundary-testing (or -crossing, some might say) media coverage that already exists. The accuser's name is out there, posted on numerous web sites (which I won't link to) along with plenty of other personal info. If you want to know the identity of Kobe's accuser, you can. And the mainstream press has told us tons of details in the last week, from the fact that she tried out for American Idol to the news she overdosed on pills. Is knowing her name or seeing her picture really going to be that damaging on top of everything else?

For these reasons, I don't think the "reluctance to come forward" argument holds here because any other woman in the future who considers bringing a rape charge against a famous man will know that even if your name isn't on the nightly news, details of your personal life and damaging rumors will be everywhere in the media. Maybe the argument made sense years ago, before the Internet and 24-hour cable news, but it certainly doesn't today. Major media outlets may still feel uncomfortable saying her name, and I have no problem with editorial decisions on their part to withhold it. They just shouldn't feel like they're saving the justice system.

The other side of the coin is that naming Kobe and not his accuser really isn't an issue either. I think she has actually received worse press coverage than Kobe, perhaps because she is less well known than he, making rumors more difficult to refute. In any event, the revelations of her troubled past should be just as damaging to the prosecution's case as the publicity surrounding Kobe's family troubles. Both sides, named or nameless, are being dragged through the mud.

The judge in the case issued a gag order Thursday. It seems ridiculously late, given what has already been said, but also it brings into question the rationale for such an order at all, especially given the draconian controls that would be required to hold back today's ravenous coverage. A huge media bonanza like the Kobe Bryant case always eventually generates coverage of the coverge, a soul-searching exercise in which reporters examine their own role in the drama unfolding. I wonder whether we are all too pessimistic at times about the consequences of all of this, and whether the media overestimates its influence. In short, I want to believe the MSNBC (one of the better sources for Kobe case info, by the way) opinion piece by Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center:

"In truth, there's little that courts can do to stem the flow of prejudicial publicity. Yesterday, a judge limited what attorneys in the Bryant case can say to the press. But those orders don't--and shouldn't--apply to cable-television pundits and talk-show hosts. Judges can seal documents, but that can hide facts from public view and let rumors run wild.

"Yet for all the concern about media overkill and public fascination with these cases, justice really depends upon what happens inside the courtoom. No matter what they've read or heard outside, jurors are sworn to consider only the evidence they've seen in court and to deliver a fair and impartial verdict.

"In the end, the key to a fair trial rests where it always has: in the hands of a capable judge and a conscientious jury."