NASA, Richard Jewell, Haditha–once guilty, always guilty in court of public opinion

September 3, 2007

I’m back from a weeklong cruise to Alaska aboard Holland America–best cruise line in the world as far as I am concerned. While onboard we got the New York Times Digest and while I didn’t take the time to blog, one thing struck me hard reviewing some of the stories of last week. I have long said that a key difference between the court of law and the court of public opinion is that in the court of law, you are innocent until proven guilty and in the court of public opinion  you are guilty until proven innocent. The three stories referenced above prove that is not the case. Once you have been proven guilty in the court of public opinion–which is what happens with the initial news stories that are highly negative–you are always guilty. You never escape the cloud that you have been placed under.

Witness Richard Jewell, who died this past week at age 44. A security guard in Atlanta during the Olympics, he was first hailed as a hero who saved lives during the bombing, then, for reasons I don’t recall, the media determined that he was a suspect. The hero became a villain. Subsequent events proved these reports were wrong, but Mr Jewell never got out from under that cloud. The hero spent the rest of his short life trying to clear his name. Once accused, always guilty.

The reports were widespread and numerous about astronauts partying and drinking before space flights. Wow, what great juicy headlines, what a way to build ratings and sell papers. Now, the investigation launched after these reports show that they were false. Why? Did someone have it in for someone? Did someone have an agenda here? Is this just plain mean-spirited rumor mongering? We don’t know, do we. What we do know–if you read the back page or deep inside of the newspaper, is the reports were false. Does this mean NASA doesn’t have to worry about this issue any more? Not for a moment, because no one will ever ever wipe away the image of drunk astronauts that exists in the minds of everyone who read those reports or watched it on the news. Once accused, always guilty.

What about Haditha? I don’t have the reports in front of me, so I may have the name and details wrong, but the soldiers whose wanton murder of innocent Iraqis was very very very widely reported, are now facing trial. Seems the prosecution has a problem. No evidence. No evidence of violation of military code. Again, I read this on the inside of the paper–not the front page. But the news organizations who used this story to attract audiences don’t have the same evidentiary rules. They can say what they want, report what they want. Their job is not to determine if there is any validity to an accusation, their job is to report that an accusation was made. I’m very glad, if it is indeed true that these soldiers are not guilty, that there is a process in place to exonerate them, and I hope also there is a process in place to deal with those who made false accusations. But, we can not look for this kind of justice from the media. They have done their job–even if the outcome is forever ruining the lives of those who have been falsely accused. Once accused, always guilty.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating for a change in our system, for more controls, for laws that restrict the media, for applying the same evidentiary rules on reporters as in the court of law. I aim these kinds of comments at two audiences–one, the consumer of media (new and mainstream) with the appeal that judgment be withheld until there is a preponderance of evidence. And two, the person or organization who may find themselves accused. These people are my primary concern because my business is reputation protection and crisis communication. To these people I say, remember, remember, remember: Once accused, always guilty.

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