COLUMN ONE : NEWS ANALYSIS : Where Was Skepticism in Media? : Pack journalism and hysteria marked early coverage of the McMartin case. Few journalists stopped to question the believability of the prosecution’s charges.
Judge William Pounders smiled when he saw the small story in the newspaper:
“A five-man, seven-woman jury . . . was impaneled Wednesday . . . in the McMartin Pre-School case. . . . “
For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 03, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 3, 1990 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 3 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
McMartin Case--A series of stories Jan. 19-22 about media coverage of the McMartin Pre-School Molestation case quoted Barbara Palermo, one of the reporters who covered McMartin for the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley. The stories should have noted that Palermo no longer works for the paper, having left in July, 1987, to teach and write for other publications.
No. The jury that Pounders had impaneled the previous day, June 24, 1987, in his Los Angeles County Superior Courtroom included five women and seven men, not five men and seven women.
The mistake was just what Pounders was looking for. He clipped the story and took it to court with him.
Pounders isn’t generally critical of the news media. In fact, he has arranged for the jurors to receive copies of the trial coverage--newspaper clippings and broadcast cassettes--after the case is over. But while the case was on, he told the jury that day, they couldn’t rely on what they would see in the media, “not even on something so routine and obvious as their own sex.”
“I told them that’s why they shouldn’t read or look at anything the media might say about McMartin,” Pounders recalled recently. “They should pay attention only to what they would hear in the courtroom.”
The mistake Pounders cited to the jury was relatively minor--and it would ultimately prove downright irrelevant; half the original jurors would be replaced by alternates before their deliberations would finally begin more than two years later. But coming on the very eve of the trial, the error seemed symbolic, in a sense, of the pivotal and sometimes distorting role the media had come to play (and would continue to play) in this remarkably complex and controversial case.
From the day the McMartin Pre-School molestation story broke on KABC-TV, on Feb. 2, 1984, the media have been major players in the story, influencing events as well as chronicling them, both by the stories they have published and broadcast and by the stories they haven’t.
That is the conclusion of a three-month Times investigation completed and, except for a few relatively minor changes, written before the jury verdicts were announced Thursday. The inquiry included interviews with more than 70 people involved in the case--prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, parents, defendants, journalists and friends and supporters on both sides--as well as a review of almost 2,000 stories in print and on the air and more than 10,000 pages of documents, including transcripts of courtroom testimony and official interviews with children who said they had been molested.
Media feeding frenzies have become almost commonplace in recent years, as Gary Hart, Oliver North, Vice President Dan Quayle and Speaker of the House Jim Wright, among many others, could readily attest. But in McMartin, the media seemed especially zealous--in large part because of the monstrous, bizarre and seemingly incredible nature of the original accusations.
More than most big stories, McMartin at times exposed basic flaws in the way the contemporary news organizations function. Pack journalism. Laziness. Superficiality. Cozy relationships with prosecutors. A competitive zeal that sends reporters off in a frantic search to be first with the latest shocking allegation, responsible journalism be damned. A tradition that often discourages reporters from raising key questions if they aren’t first brought up by the principals in a story.
In the early months of the case in particular, reporters and editors often abandoned two of their most cherished and widely trumpeted traditions--fairness and skepticism. As most reporters now sheepishly admit--and as the record clearly shows--the media frequently plunged into hysteria, sensationalism and what one editor calls “a lynch mob syndrome.” On so volatile an issue in an election year, defense attorneys maintain, that helped make it all but inevitable that the case would be prosecuted on a scale greater than the actual evidence warranted.
Acted in a Pack
There were stories about child prostitution and massive child pornography rings, stories about children being exchanged between preschools for sexual purposes, stories about a connection between alleged molestation at McMartin and a murder eight years earlier. None of these charges was ultimately proved, but the media largely acted in a pack, as it so often does on big events, and reporters’ stories, in print and on the air, fed on one another, creating an echo chamber of horrors.
Robert Entman, associate director of the Duke University Center for the Study of Communications and Journalism, was commissioned by the defense to study pretrial coverage as part of an unsuccessful motion for a change of venue in the trial, and he concluded the same thing: “The early coverage of the defendants . . . was overwhelmingly negative.”
One reason for this is that the defense, for the most part, refused to talk to the press in the early stages of the case. That does not excuse the media, of course. Not only did media coverage--The Times’ included--seem to assume the defendants were guilty, but many South Bay residents who were never formally charged with any crime were identified by name and had their photographs printed and broadcast simply because the prosecution said they were “uncharged suspects” or because their homes were searched in a sweeping and fruitless quest for evidence.
Later in the case, as events unfolded, skepticism and doubt gradually began to creep into most reporters’ minds--and into some stories.
“It’s a story about which no one felt dispassionate,” says Linda Deutsch, longtime court reporter for the Associated Press. Indeed, one Los Angeles Times reporter grew so angry with what he saw as the paper’s “biased” coverage of McMartin--charges the paper’s editors deny--that he finally quit in frustration.
Prosecutors and parents in the case think the media ultimately became almost as biased against them as virtually everyone now concedes the media was once biased against the defendants.
Perhaps “biased” isn’t precisely the right word for the early media coverage; it suggests a conscious, deliberate prejudgment. What seems to have animated most reporters in those first months was not so much a judgment as an assumption--an unquestioning assumption that responsible authorities just wouldn’t charge people with such horrendous acts if the suspects were not indisputably guilty.
Besides, if the mainstream press has a bias on any given story, it is less likely to be in favor one side or another and more likely to be in favor of a riveting story--and wild, bizarre charges of child sexual abuse at a respected preschool made an especially riveting story.
Law enforcement authorities did their best to promote the story, and as the case developed, they were criticized even more than the media. The case, which dragged on for six years and cost county taxpayers more than $15 million, came to be seen as “a painful and abysmal failure of the criminal justice system” itself, in the words of Steven White, assistant state attorney general.
Marcia Chambers, who covered much of the case for the New York Times, says she was so “astonished when I discovered how McMartin had been handled” that she decided she should write about the case herself. Her astonishment about prosecution shortcomings soon gave way to similar feelings about the media.
“The press corps tried to do a good job,” she said, “but they weren’t terribly aggressive about trying to examine the prosecution’s case.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Many critics, both in and out of the media, lament the lack of enterprise reporting on the case, the almost total absence of any critical early examination of how the prosecution’s case was developed and filed. Such reporting, Chambers and others said, might have raised questions about what Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner later conceded was “incredibly weak” evidence in the case. Posing those questions early might have helped force prosecutors to examine their case more rigorously in the beginning.
Would that have prevented the prosecution of most of the seven defendants--none of whom were convicted of anything? Would it have prevented the filing of most of the almost 200 charges which were either dismissed or on which the defendants were acquitted?
Defense attorneys and some reporters say yes. Stories exposing the weakness of the evidence might have “stopped the case a lot sooner,” says Walter Urban, who represented Betty Raidor, one of the defendants against whom all charges were ultimately dropped.
If Urban and the others are right, not only might the defendants have avoided years of anguish, ostracism and staggering legal bills but the McMartin case itself would have been just another child-molestation case--heinous charges, without a doubt, but no different from many others. Instead, McMartin became the mind-boggling “case of the century,” with accusations that hundreds of children had been molested over more than a decade amid Satanic rituals, the slaughter of animals and scores of other charges that were soon echoed in similar cases across the country.
Chicago. Memphis. Honolulu. Miami. Early media coverage of the McMartin case ignited a nationwide panic about the sexual molestation of young children that remains to this day.
How Did It Begin?
Molestation, which should be “maybe about (No.) 500" on any list of concerns of preschool parents, is now their No. 1 concern, says Mary Emmons, director of the Children’s Institute International, where most of the McMartin children were first interviewed.
How did this panic begin?
With a six-minute news story on television.
More than 60 children, “some of them as young as 2 years of age . . . who were enrolled in the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, have now each told authorities that he or she had been keeping a grotesque secret of being sexually abused and made to appear in pornographic films while in the preschool’s care--and of having been forced to witness the mutilation and killing of animals to scare the kids into staying silent,” said KABC reporter Wayne Satz on the evening of Feb. 2, 1984.
“The allegations are being taken very seriously,” Satz reported. “Five parents have filed lawsuits against the school. The Manhattan Beach Police Department wrote a letter to parents, warning them of the possibility that their kids may have been molested. The grand jury has been asked to investigate, and one instructor at the school has even been arrested, though charges have not yet been filed against him.”
That story triggered a frenzy in the media. The media acted like a “lynch mob . . . running down the street with the torch and the rope . . . hot and heavy to string up the defendants,” says Bob Roe, editor of California magazine, which later published a lengthy, controversial excerpt from tape recordings made by a disaffected prosecutor in the case.
Early coverage was “extremely slanted to the prosecution,” says Michael Harris, who has covered McMartin for United Press International. “Everything they said we reported as gospel.”
Like Harris, many other journalists who wrote those early stories now admit, with some embarrassment, that they were “just a conduit for the prosecution,” in the words of Barbara Palermo, who covered the case for the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley.
“The prosecutor was really hyping the case . . . to the press and the press was buying it,” Palermo says. “I’m very sorry I didn’t ask more questions.”
Much later, during the trial, Judge Pounders would say that the case had “poisoned” everyone connected with it: Children and parents were traumatized; defendants were personally disgraced and financially ruined; the mother who filed the first molestation complaint died, apparently of an alcohol-related liver disease; a defense investigator committed suicide; an uncharged suspect died of a drug overdose; a prosecutor lost his job. Reporters were not immune to this scourge. At least one lost his job, others found themselves emotionally distressed and many ultimately felt professionally embarrassed by their early performance.
With a few significant exceptions, most reporters who covered the case for any length of time now lament their lack of skepticism and enterprise; even the prosecutors and many parents concede that their side got a free ride early on.
McMartin prosecutor Roger Gunson argues that “the pendulum . . . (later) swung the other way” in the media, toward belief in the defendants’ innocence, precisely because some reporters may have been trying to compensate for having initially “gone overboard in . . . reporting the prosecution side and not reporting the other side.”
As Robert Safian wrote in American Lawyer last October, “Amidst all the media attention were only the barest acknowledgements that the charges had yet to be proven.”
Sometimes even those “barest acknowledgements” were missing.
People magazine published a story about “California’s Nightmare Nursery.” A reporter in the Easy Reader, an alternative newspaper in the South Bay area, said flatly in one of his weekly “McMartin Watch” columns, “The first truth that must be faced is that, beyond any reasonable doubt (original emphasis), the molestations did occur.” The Times published a story under the headline “McMartin School Brutality Disclosed.” The Herald Examiner published a cartoon on its editorial page showing a nursery school, with the caption: “In Manhattan Beach, they already PREY (sic) in school.”
“Television, by our nature, made it seem more hysterical,” says Jess Marlow, news anchor at KNBC-TV, and in the early stages of McMartin, television coverage was certainly hysterical.
KABC, with new disclosures nightly and promises that the case--"a big deal now . . . would become ‘huger by far,’ "--played the major media role in this hysteria, but it was not alone.
KHJ-TV spoke of the case “growing like a cancer.” KNBC mentioned the “growing number of horrors” in the case. KCBS, where Marlow then worked, reported without qualification that the children had been “terrorized into silence” and, on another occasion, that “the horror story emerging from the McMartin Pre-School is all too believable.”
Several local stations interviewed child-abuse experts and asked them about the lasting damage of molestation, without any hint that these particular children may not actually have been molested. Stations also reported breathlessly on such phenomena as organized pedophiles and said there were “no known connections to McMartin, but those connections cannot be ruled out.”
National television coverage of McMartin was equally quick to assume the guilt of the defendants. On the “Today” show, Jane Pauley asked a child-abuse expert, “Are you . . . as sickened by this as we are?” and “What is the damage to these children? Are they damaged for life?”
Both “Nightline” and “20/20" broadcast stories that all but convicted the defendants. “Nightline” said, without qualification, that “something was terribly wrong” at McMartin and that “no one knew about the terrible secret that the children here (at McMartin) were afraid to tell” and “this is a story . . . about how even the very young children have to be listened to and believed, like the children at the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, Calif.”
The “20/20" program, broadcast about 10 weeks after the first McMartin story broke, included many “allegeds” and “allegedlys” and even reminded viewers that “the defendants in this case are innocent until proved guilty.” But the program concluded with this exchange between host Hugh Downs and correspondent Tom Jarriel:
Downs: “How deeply marked are these children, Tom? And will they ever recover from it?”
Jarriel: “Psychologically, perhaps never, Hugh. One little boy, for example, asked his mother, ‘Mommy, when I die, will the bad memories go away?’ ”
Downs: “My God. . . . “
Why did the media, which prides itself on being so skeptical--especially where government officials and law enforcement are concerned--almost universally accept the prosecution’s view that all the defendants were guilty? There are several answers.
Some reporters say their job is simply to report what others tell them--in this case, what prosecutors told them; if no one raises questions or objections about these matters, some reporters say, it’s inappropriate for journalists to raise the questions or objections themselves.
That is how most reporters operated in earlier generations, but over the last two decades or so, reporters have increasingly raised questions on their own--about Vietnam, about Watergate, about the Iran/Contra scandal, about the private behavior of public officials, among many, many other issues.
Why didn’t they ask questions about McMartin in the beginning? In part because the defendants and their attorneys--the people most likely to respond to such questions (or to raise them themselves)--weren’t talking. At least most of them weren’t talking. Not for quite a while anyway.
Norma Meyer of Copley News Service says that Danny Davis, attorney for suspect Ray Buckey, wouldn’t even tell her his name when she asked him for it in a courtroom shortly after his client was indicted.
“No comment,” was his only reply.
Many reporters assume, rightly or wrongly, that anyone who refuses to talk to them is afraid or ashamed of something, but Davis says his early “news media blackout” was “the conscious plan of a media litigator.” He was convinced, he says, that the press was not “rational” about the case then and that anything he said would be dismissed as self-serving propaganda offered by “an alter ego for a monster.”
Davis reasoned that the less he, his client and the other defendants said to “fuel the hysteria,” the sooner the hysteria might pass and the “essential intelligence of the news media” might assert itself and begin to question the legitimacy of the charges. Only when that happened, he says he felt, might his client have a chance for a fair hearing, both in the media and in the courtroom.
With events like McMartin, Davis says, it often takes a decade or more for the hysteria to subside sufficiently for the issues and the excesses to be dispassionately re-examined. That, he says, would be too late for his client.
What Davis hoped to do in McMartin was to prolong the legal process with various delaying tactics and “shrink” the period leading to a re-examination by avoiding the press. In that way, he hoped, the re-examination would take place before the verdict--in time to benefit his client.
Attorney Walter Urban made client Betty Raidor available to the press relatively early, and he thought Davis’ strategy was “a major mistake.” But Davis is shrewd, and the press ultimately did become skeptical of the prosecution’s case.
Moreover, even if the defense had talked early on, reporters “tend to look toward authorities more than they do individuals . . . particularly in a case of child-molestation,” says Chris Woodyard, who covered the first stages of the case for the Herald Examiner and now works for The Times.
The press has long had an especially cozy and symbiotic relationship with government prosecutors at every level; prosecutors give reporters good stories, and reporters give prosecutors good publicity--stories that show prosecutors out to protect the good guys by punishing the bad guys.
In the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles, the press room adjoins the district attorney’s office. Reporters and prosecutors see a lot of each other. They exchange information. Many come to like and trust each other. In a case such as McMartin, this natural alliance blossoms to the mutual advantage of the press and the prosecutors--and to the distinct disadvantage of the defendants.
Newspapers devote a great deal of time and space to covering the courts, but they often seem to forget that the district attorney is an elected politician, as well as a law enforcement official, and they rarely hold his feet to the journalistic fire.
On the McMartin story, most of the media didn’t light a match within three miles of the D.A.'s feet during the first year or two of the case.
Most of the original interviews with children in the case were done by social workers at Children’s Institute International, not by law enforcement investigators trained to obtain evidence usable in a criminal proceeding. When the case was taken to the grand jury, say prosecution sources, it was rushed in, without proper investigation or review.
Roger Gunson, one of the McMartin prosecutors, conceded that the district attorney’s office originally “vastly overstated” the case. But the media, he says, never asked any “real probing questions” about how the case was developed.
Thus, on March 28, 1984, big headlines and much television news was devoted to reporting that the district attorney had filed papers in court charging that “the primary purpose of the McMartin Pre-School was to solicit young children to commit lewd conduct with the proprietors of the school and also to procure young children for pornographic purposes.” Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Barrett said there were “millions of child pornography photographs and films” from McMartin.
Eight months later, McMartin parents offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who found any such photos. Again, big news.
But neither the district attorney nor the FBI nor the U.S. Customs Service nor any other law enforcement agency or independent bounty hunter ever found a single photograph. Did the media press the authorities on this?
“In hindsight,” says Ted Rohrlich, who co-authored The Times’ story on Barrett’s charges, the statements “seem patently ridiculous, and yet (they) were reported by me and others with a lack of skepticism and never corroborated. That’s troubling.”
“What always bothered me,” Rohrlich says, “was the background music that was playing in my head, which was, ‘Hey, these people are guilty.’ ”
Were there ever any photos?
“That’s a real legitimate question,” says Lael Rubin, lead prosecutor in the case. “Nobody (in the media) ever asked (me).”
(Rubin, who is careful to distance herself from Barrett’s allegations, thinks there were photos, but she’s convinced that Ray Buckey got rid of them before the searches took place.)
No One Asked
Similarly, Rubin says, when one of the child witnesses in the case testified during the preliminary hearing that he had seen Ray Buckey kill a horse with a baseball bat, “a legitimate question would have been . . , ‘Are you serious about this one?’ ”
As with the missing pornography, Rubin says she thinks she had a good answer to that, but “I have a very good memory (and) . . . I do not remember anybody ever asking me that question.”
Even if Rubin is wrong and some reporters did ask about either charge, it’s clear that the media did not aggressively pursue the point, in print or on the air.
In fairness, it must be said that McMartin has been an enormously complex case; the trial alone lasted 27 months, filled 60,000 pages of transcript and included 124 witnesses, 917 exhibits and nine weeks of jury deliberation. The case was so complex, Rubin says, that one of her own investigators worked on it for a year and said she didn’t really understand it until after Rubin completed her final argument in the trial last fall.
But the primary factor that inhibited skeptical press coverage was that reporters “all believed they (the defendants) were guilty,” says Nancy Hill-Holtzman, who covered much of the case for the Herald Examiner and now works for The Times. “I went in with the perspective that kids don’t lie. I didn’t look critically at the evidence.”
This attitude was not limited to local reporters.
Jay Mathews of the Washington Post also says that he could have been “more skeptical,” especially since he had previously written about child-molestation cases in which he was convinced that the defendants were innocent.
In McMartin, Mathews says, he spoke to a parent whom he had known and trusted as a “very fair-minded” individual and who had told him he was absolutely convinced that his daughter had been molested. That, combined with the medical evidence, persuaded Mathews that Ray Buckey was guilty.
“You go out and do (the story) straight,” Mathews says, “but it becomes less interesting. . . . Most criminal stories that you can really get excited about have that sort of notion of . . . people being unfairly accused. . . . The evidence seemed overwhelming that kids were molested. . . . “
But by the time charges were dismissed, defendants were dropped and verdicts were returned, McMartin did not turn out to be the “largest sexual molestation case in the nation’s history,” as Mathews (and virtually everyone else) had originally reported.
Almost 400 children were alleged to have been molested at McMartin, and 1,200 were alleged to have been molested throughout the South Bay; eight people were originally charged in McMartin, and one was charged at another South Bay preschool; there were more than 50 uncharged suspects and scores more were alleged to belong to a kiddie porn ring and/or Satanic cult. In the end, the case dwindled to two defendants and 11 children--and not one person was convicted of a single charge.
McMartin parents would argue that the case dwindled dramatically because the prosecution bungled the investigation and because the system was flawed--the youngest children were deemed too young to testify, the older children were beyond the statute of limitations and many of the other children were withdrawn because their parents didn’t want them to undergo the dual ordeal of confronting their accusers and facing days of grueling cross-examination by defense attorneys.
Reporters discussed most of these factors and several others when they first began to write about what had gone wrong with the prosecution’s case. But they almost invariably failed to discuss one other possibility--that the defendants were innocent (or, at least, that most of them were and that mass hysteria was the real culprit in the case).
“Even at the beginning, it seems to me there were some red flags” that should have alerted reporters to that possibility, says television newsman Marlow.
Marlow was one of the few journalists who did ask skeptical questions back in 1984 and 1985.
He asked why, over the years, none of the children had told anyone what had happened before the McMartin case broke. He also asked if it was unusual for women to be involved in child molestation--as indeed it is; studies show that about 97% of all child molestors are men.
But Marlow says that he, too, “was not sufficiently skeptical,” especially about the medical evidence, which--valid or not--represents such a new science that it should not have been automatically accepted “at face value,” Marlow and others now say.
There were many other “red flags” that the media largely ignored at the time, flags that should have made reporters think, “Well, OK, maybe some molestation did take place, but hundreds of kids? Involving all those teachers?”:
- The McMartin school had enjoyed an impeccable reputation for more than 25 years; a lone molestor, relatively new to the teaching staff, might have started preying on children, but was it reasonable to think that virtually the entire staff suddenly went from running a model school, the most prestigious in the South Bay, to running a den of molestation and terror involving virtually every child?
- As early as April 1, 1984, nine days after the indictment, a Herald Examiner story on the McMartin school said, “Perhaps the best recommendation the school had was that at the end of the day, nobody wanted to leave.” The story quoted “parent after parent” as saying of their children, “He just never wanted to come home.” Did that sound like a school in which there was widespread molestation, mutilation and terror?
- Molestation is almost always an individual act, done by a man; how could the seven original defendants, six of them women, have managed to learn of each other’s alleged perversions, entered into their alleged conspiracy and kept it all quiet for so long?
- Prosecutors said the children never told their parents about their abuse at McMartin because Ray Buckey had threatened to kill their parents if they did. But is it possible that children were molested, taken on airplane rides, forced to drink blood and watch animal mutilations, without one of them ever saying a word to any parent, friend, classmate, doctor, neighbor--anyone--and without one ever betraying symptoms far more severe than those the parents subsequently recalled?
- Molestation was alleged to have taken place not only at the school but at a number of public locations--a market, a car wash, a church. Was it logical that not one adult witness--not one parent or teacher or passer-by--ever saw anything untoward?
- Many of the charges were so bizarre that, in Marlow’s words, “to a rational mind, (they) would have been fantasy . . . beyond belief;” didn’t this suggest that some--not necessarily all, but some--of the basic charges might also be “beyond belief”?
- Social workers at Children’s Institute International said they interviewed 400 McMartin children and found 369 to have been molested; wasn’t that strikingly high ratio alone enough to raise questions about CII’s methods?
- The emotionally troubled mother who lodged the original molestation complaint against Ray Buckey said her 2 1/2-year-old son had been molested not only by Buckey but also by three witches, by a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education and by an AWOL Marine who also, she said, sodomized the family dog. She also said McMartin teachers put staples in the boy’s ears, nipples and tongue and scissors in his eyes, that he had encounters with a lion and an elephant and that he was involved in a ritual in which a human was sacrificed. The boy himself also accused his father of having molested him.
Shouldn’t all this have raised questions about the validity of some of the other charges in the case?
But for a long time, the media raised few if any of these questions.
Doug Conner of the Times editorial library assisted with the research for this story.