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Commentary: Turning papers into tabloids

by on February 15, 2014 10:19 AM

My absolute favorite tabloid newspaper headline ever appeared in something called the Weekly World News: “3-Breasted Gal Joins Clinton as His New Intern.” I still have a copy somewhere. Supposedly, the former president hired the “three-bosomed bombshell” after Hillary got caught cuddling with a space alien.

Alas, the more colorful supermarket tabloids are on the way out, victims of the Internet age, along with theoretically more serious publications like Vanity Fair and the New York Times. Titillating gossip about the sexual sins of movie stars, TV celebrities, athletes and politicians has been replaced by impassioned brawls about their moral fitness on social media.

Woody Allen, genius or pervert? Mia Farrow, mother of the century or virago? Dylan Farrow, victim then or victim now? And by whom? Almost everybody’s got an opinion, and it says here that nobody knows what they’re talking about. Sometimes it appears that the hardest words in the English language must be “I don’t know.”

Slate’s legal affairs correspondent Dahlia Lithwick put it best: “In the Court of Public Opinion there are no rules of evidence, no burdens of proof, no cross-examinations, and no standards of admissibility. There are no questions and also no answers ... (it’s) what we used to call villagers with flaming torches. It has no rules, no arbiter, no mechanism at all for separating truth from lies.”

WHAT'S THE POINT?

Journalism 101: Anybody can say anything about anybody else. That doesn’t mean it belongs in The New York Times. I question the professional ethics of Nicholas Kristof’s using his column to intervene in a friend’s brutal family dispute where he admittedly has no idea what happened. It’s a 20-year-old charge that was investigated and dropped. There’s no new evidence. The statute of limitations has run. Other than revenge, what’s the point?

It’s an online rite of Dionysian celebrity sacrifice; a 21st-century pagan ritual, although not without its entertainment value. Previous to the Internet, who’d have known how many seers, augurs, necromancers and mind-readers live among us? Innocent or guilty? Let’s get out the Ouija board, throw the I-Ching, and fetch the dunking stool from the barn. Bind the witch and throw him in the pond. If he floats, we’ll hang him.

Comment lines can be amazing. Show me an entry beginning “As a board certified child psychiatrist,” and it’s 20-to-1 what’s coming: a few hundred words of factually challenged speculation followed by an online diagnosis and a guilty verdict. Have Woody Allen’s films featured “a steady theme of a male protagonist finding love with a younger woman?” (Unlike, of course, Clint Eastwood’s.)

Very well then, he must be a pedophile.

News flash, gentlewomen of the jury: All straight men find nubile 19-year-old women desirable. They just don’t want to make fools of themselves.

I once knew a business tycoon in his 50s who dated a teenager. What on earth did they talk about, asked an incredulous friend?

“High school football,” he said.

None of which makes it OK to run off with your lover’s adopted daughter at any age. Out in the boondocks where I live, people get shot for that stuff.

In the abstract, there’s undeniable truth on both sides. The sexual victimization of children is far more common than many wish to believe, and victims are too often silenced. However, purely false or imaginary abuse charges have become the tactical nuclear weapons of divorce and custody fights everywhere. If Mia Farrow expected to win new converts, she should have left out the bit about Frank Sinatra fathering Woody Allen’s legal son — the one he’s been paying child support for all along.

Floated in Vanity Fair, the story generated headlines, but not credibility. And no, that’s not “mansplaining,” “slut-shaming,” or any of the other cant terms used to silence skeptics. Even in the Court of Public Opinion, it’s inadvisable to admit falsifying something so elemental. Could Farrow really imagine that would lend support to her allegations against the creep?

Or would it merely strengthen the conclusions of the investigators at the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of the Yale-New Haven Hospital?

“Dylan’s statements were not true but were made up by an emotionally vulnerable child who was caught up in a disturbed family,” or “that (she) was coached or influenced by her mother.”

INCALCULABLE HARM

“Disturbed family” is putting it gently. I wouldn’t let those two adopt a kitten. To me, the most affecting part of the whole thing was Kristof’s description of the now 28-year-old woman “curled up in a ball on her bed, crying hysterically” when she heard of Woody Allen being given a Golden Globe award. Somebody should give her Elizabeth Smart’s terrific book on healing from sexual trauma. Whatever happened to Dylan at age 7, obsessive dwelling on it has done her incalculable harm.

Meanwhile, regardless of good intentions, we feuding voyeurs and sadists are only making everything worse.



Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin's Press, 2000). His column is distributed by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.
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