'Guilty until proven innocent' is a dangerous bylaw

'Guilty until proven innocent' is a dangerous bylaw
© Stefani Reynolds

This past week I was reminded of the story of poor Wen Ho Lee. He’s the Taiwanese-American scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was framed by the FBI and our government as being the spy responsible for stealing our most sensitive nuclear secrets and giving them to China.

That happened in 1999.

ADVERTISEMENT
As a reporter for CBS News at the time, I’d just broken the story that China had obtained the design plans for our W88 thermonuclear warhead. But I knew from my inside sources that the government had no viable suspect.

Much to my surprise, after I broke the news and the New York Times and others followed suit, the government suddenly announced it had a suspect: Wen Ho Lee. Again, I knew from my sources that Lee was being used as a scapegoat so that the government could say it had gotten its man. Lee was even put in solitary confinement in prison while he awaited trial.

Soon, I broke the outrageous news that the FBI had lied about Lee’s polygraph results. FBI agents had claimed he failed when he actually passed the lie detector test with flying colors. I had obtained copies of the polygraph itself as proof. (Come to think of it, this was my first brush with the notion that any FBI agents would falsify evidence, lie or frame someone.)

The judge in the case ultimately released Lee and admonished the FBI. There were congressional investigations into the FBI’s conduct — my reporting was cited — and President Clinton apologized to Lee; Lee sued the big players in the national news media, which paid settlements. (CBS alone was not sued because I knew better than to name Lee as a legitimate suspect.)

Today, I can find no record of punishment for the FBI agents who falsified Lee’s polygraph.

ADVERTISEMENT
Since Lee, there have been many other cases, big and small, where we in the news media jumped to conclusions and failed to maintain the proper skepticism of prevailing narratives.

Hapless security guard Richard Jewell was fingered by law enforcement and, consequently, by the news media for the Atlanta Olympic Games bombing in 1996. It turns out he actually had been a hero attempting to move people away from a suspicious backpack before it exploded. The media coverage hounded him and destroyed his life.

Unlucky Steven Hatfill also was destroyed after being wrongly blamed by the FBI for a rash of deadly anthrax letters in 2001. Many in the news media blindly accepted the FBI’s background insistences that Hatfill was guilty. I briefly reported on the story for CBS, filling in for the regular correspondent on the beat, and personally spoke to Hatfill and his attorney on the phone. After examining the available evidence, I carefully avoided implying Hatfill was guilty. Ultimately, the Justice Department used $4.6 million of our tax dollars to settle a defamation lawsuit filed by Hatfill.

In 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson was summarily destroyed in the press after he shot and killed a suspect who happened to be black: Michael Brown. The media jumped on the unsupported narrative that Wilson had executed Brown for being black, as he stood with his hands raised, begging, “Don’t shoot.” That inflammatory notion started riots and movements. Some in the media even raised their hands in symbolic support of Brown in a horrific racial crime that — as it turned out — never happened. Today, I’ll bet a lot of people probably aren’t aware that an Obama Justice Department investigation ultimately determined the entire “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” scenario was likely fabricated, and that the shooting by Wilson was justified.

It’s as if we can’t learn our lessons even when they stare us in the face, year after year.

More recently, there’s Covington Catholic.

Many rushed to conclusions against the Kentucky school's boys, based on snippets of video. Nobody can prevent social media firestorms, often orchestrated by organized actors in the smear industry. And we can’t stop people from jumping on board the rush-to-judgment train.

ADVERTISEMENT
But we in the news media can — and certainly should — show more judicious restraint when it comes to reporting news of these events. After all, we are supposed to be trained reporters of fact. That requires professional neutrality amid attempts to spin, condemn and rush to judgment.

Of all people, we in the news media should know well that people may be falsely accused, even by government and law enforcement, at times. Initial accounts are not always what they seem. Eyewitnesses can be conflicted or mistaken. Video and photos can be manipulated — a very real concern these days. Information may be presented out of context. We may have no idea what happened before and after the camera’s recordings. And if it’s so easy to mislead or fool the public and news media with images, imagine how much easier it is to fool us with information such as claims from anonymous sources.

In my experience, no matter how clear an outrageous event or violation appears to be, there’s frequently far more to the story. In fact, it’s not rare that the whole story changes entirely once the whole story is known.

There’s a saying — “innocent until proven guilty.” While we still accept that idea in a general sense, too often we in the news media have determined the guilt for all kinds of people almost in real time, with our news opinions a sliding scale based on emerging information that inevitably shades, disproves or contradicts what we first thought.

The most cursory look at recent history shows the absolute necessity of the news media putting some distance between ourselves and the hysterical rushes to judgment that are circulated on social media and in talking points.

That is, if we’re interested in getting the facts straight.

Sharyl Attkisson is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers "The Smear" and "Stonewalled," and host of Sinclair's Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.” Follow her on Twitter @SharylAttkisson.