Advertisement

Media Skepticism Grew as McMartin Case Lingered : News Analysis

Share
TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Wallace wanted to interview Ray Buckey for “60 Minutes.”

Danny Davis, Buckey’s attorney, had instructed his client to refuse all interview requests since he’d been arrested almost three years earlier. But Davis said yes to Wallace. The prestige and exposure of the “60 Minutes” forum was too great to resist, especially at a time when Davis had concluded that the public might finally be ready to take a more “rational” look at the McMartin Pre-School molestation case than it had previously.

“We had passed what I considered to be the hysteria of classic witch hunts,” Davis says.

Advertisement

Wallace’s interview with Buckey (and five of the six other original McMartin defendants) was broadcast on Nov. 2, 1986. Although Wallace and his producer, Lowell Bergman, have insisted that their story was balanced and fair, it actually provided “the defense’s most compassionate argument to date,” as Ray Richmond wrote in the Herald Examiner at the time.

Richmond called the “60 Minutes” story “card-stacking at its most shameless.”

Even Davis said, happily, that the program was “one-sided . . . wholly sympathetic to the defense point of view.”

“I thought they were very gentle on him (Buckey). . . . . Mike Wallace didn’t go after him,” Davis says.

Wallace and “60 Minutes” enjoy being controversial and iconoclastic, but by late1986, they weren’t alone in their skepticism about the McMartin case The district attorney had dismissed all charges against five of the seven original defendants 10 months earlier, and several other events had combined to arouse skepticism among many reporters covering the case--even those initially convinced that all the defendants were guilty.

It is not uncommon, of course, for some in the media to develop a contrarian view on any major story after a time, if only out of boredom or annoyance with the conventional wisdom--or a desire to break from the pack. But a three-month Times investigation of McMartin coverage, completed before the verdicts were announced Thursday, shows that there was more involved in the growing McMartin skepticism than just the predictable next step in normal big-event coverage.

For one thing, this story had dragged on so long that reporters were eager for a new angle; others may have felt guilty about their early lack of skepticism and may have been eager to redeem themselves.

More important, several reporters say they began to seriously question the legitimacy of the prosecution’s case once they had actually interviewed one or more of the original defendants face-to-face.

Ross Becker of KCBS-TV and Norma Meyer, then with the Daily Breeze and now with Copley News Service, both said they thought defendants Betty Raidor and Mary Ann Jackson were innocent after interviewing them. Jess Marlow, then with KCBS and now with KNBC, says he felt the same way after interviewing Peggy Ann Buckey.

That raised questions in reporters’ minds about the guilt of other defendants as well.

Widespread journalistic skepticism developed more gradually, though, as events unfolded.

Several of these events came during the preliminary hearing, which ran from mid-1984 until early 1986. The testimony of the children on several bizarre allegations--Satanic rituals, animal sacrifices, visits to a cemetery, molestations in a car wash and a market--raised many journalistic eyebrows.

Suggestion of Guilt

At the beginning of the case, reports of such charges--the more bizarre the better--seemed to suggest that the defendants must be guilty; after all, who could (or would) invent such wild fantasies? By the end of the preliminary hearing, reports of these charges--which had become even more bizarre--seemed to suggest that the defendants must be innocent; after all, who could believe such wild fantasies?

Reportorial doubts were also aroused by the courtroom playing of taped interviews during which the children’s original accusations often seemed to be made in response to leading and suggestive questions asked by social workers at Children’s Institute International. (As it turned out, those interviews played perhaps the major role in influencing the jurors to acquit the final two defendants.)

Disclosures about the hurried, inadequate early investigation of the case under then-Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian, combined with the failure of the prosecution to produce a “smoking gun,” elicited even more doubt.

“I’d always assumed the smoking gun would be a photo,” Marlow says. “Porno gets passed around.”

But the preliminary hearing produced no photos, none of the secret tunnels or doors or rooms the children had mentioned, no adult witnesses who saw a child being molested, no defendant willing to condemn the others in exchange for leniency or immunity--no irrefutable evidence of any kind.

“You could see the coverage take a definite turn . . . toward the end” of the preliminary hearing, says Faye Fiore, who covered the hearing for the Daily Breeze and now works for The Times.

Then, in September, 1985, Fiore herself dropped a bombshell. She wrote that two of the three McMartin prosecutors thought charges should be dropped against five of the seven original defendants. Four months later, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner--who had defeated Philibosian at the polls--did just that.

“Reiner’s decision . . . certainly was a turning point,” says Gregory Mooney, an attorney who represented many McMartin parents in some legal proceedings. “Coverage started to get progressively negative” toward the prosecution after that, he says.

Prosecutors, parents and their other supporters agree.

Time magazine described the various charges in the case, then raised the “chilling possibility . . . that none of it had happened at all.” Newsweek said that, “increasingly, there have been questions whether the . . . case was anything more than a series of sensational headlines.”

Most local newspaper and television coverage was less judgmental than that, but skepticism was clearly afoot. Reporters who decided that most (or all) of the McMartin defendants were innocent insist they did not let their new views unfairly influence their stories; it just seemed that way to the prosecution, they say, because the prosecution was accustomed to having the media report its side, virtually unchallenged.

L.A. Magazine

For the most part, a reading of the coverage tends to confirm that view. But there were a number of exceptions, one of the most notable being a story in Los Angeles magazine last October.

The story was written by Mary A. Fischer, who--10 months earlier, in the same magazine--had been the first to chronicle the media’s growing skepticism about the case. Her basic thesis in the second article was that all the McMartin defendants were innocent, that the charges had been “trumped up,” that “there never was any case at all.”

Fischer says she knows “for sure” that there were no molestations at McMartin. She has written about the case for at least five publications and discussed it on television; it’s clear that vindication of the defendants became something of a crusade for her.

“I feel that most reporters on this case believe the defendants to be innocent,” Fischer says, “but they are hamstrung by the conventions, the techniques of accepted journalism practices. . . . For the sake of balance--get the defense side, get the prosecution side-- the truth wasn’t getting out. I wanted to risk the loss of some balance to get the truth out.”

(In the process of getting “the truth” out, Fischer violated one of Judge William Pounders’ primary concerns throughout the trial--safeguarding the privacy of the McMartin children. Although various media had inadvertently mentioned one or two of the children by his or her real first name--instead of “John Doe” or “Jane Doe,” as was usually the practice--Fischer’s story was accompanied by a chart that gave the first names of all 11 children involved in the trial; between the chart and the story, there was enough information to identify one child’s last name as well.)

As Fischer says, many other reporters did indeed come to believe that the defendants were innocent, and that was sometimes evident in their stories, too (although not nearly as evident or as widespread as reporters’ earlier feelings that the defendants were guilty).

Most reporters who covered the case on a daily basis said in interviews several weeks before the verdicts came in that if the press corps were the jury, the defendants would not be convicted. Virtually all said they thought Peggy McMartin Buckey was not guilty, and most thought Ray Buckey not guilty either.

This marked quite a turnaround from the early weeks and months of the case, when the media covered the case with “an absolute presumption of guilt” for all seven original defendants, in the words of Nancy Hill-Holtzman, who covered much of McMartin for the Herald Examiner and now works for The Times.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that there were a few--not many, but a few--attempts to treat the defendants as human beings, not monsters, early on.

The Herald Examiner, for example, published a lengthy excerpt from Virginia McMartin’s diary seven weeks after the case broke and published brief profiles on the defendants a month after that. The Herald Examiner editorial page was in the vanguard of the skeptics, raising questions as early as December, 1984, in an editorial headlined “A modern witch hunt?” (The Herald contributed its share to the hysteria and made its share of errors, too; the paper even misspelled the name of the judge in the preliminary hearing eight times in two weeks.)

A week after the Herald Examiner profiles, The Times published a lengthy Page 1 story on the defendants, based on interviews with 60 of their friends, relatives, acquaintances and attorneys. The picture that emerged from those interviews, the story said, was of “a group of people who shared not only a love of children but a morality that went beyond once-a-week churchgoing.”

Once the initial hysteria began to give way to more sober reporting, two other newspapers--both in the South Bay area--frequently provided noteworthy coverage.

The Daily Breeze, based in Torrance, is the local daily newspaper for those most directly involved in the McMartin case, so it is no surprise that the Breeze has published more than 700 stories on the case over the last six years, more than any other publication.

At first, the Breeze had been as caught up in the early hysteria as the rest of the media, displaying no skepticism about the sweeping nature of the charges and publishing the names of uncharged suspects. In addition, the Breeze published two stories by Faye Fiore on its front page in March, 1985, under the headline “In Search of Satan”; the stories linked McMartin (and other child molestation cases) to widespread satanic rituals and devil worship--charges never proved.

Norma Meyer, who covered the first six months of the case for the Breeze (and the last six months for Copley News Service), includes her own stories in her criticism that the press generally “became mouthpieces for the prosecution.”

But Forrest Latiner, the deputy public defender who represented Peggy Ann Buckey until all charges against her were dropped, says it was Fiore who “first began to sense there was something not quite kosher about what was going on.”

As a defense attorney, Latiner would be expected to praise a reporter whom the prosecution accuses of having been biased against them. Even Danny Davis, Ray Buckey’s attorney, says Fiore “wrote stories sympathetic to our side.” Many McMartin parents and their supporters agreed; they picketed the Breeze in December, 1984, to protest the paper’s “pro-defense” coverage.

In one story, Fiore wrote that “many reporters” saw continuing charges by parents of widespread child molestations in the South Bay as “one of several desperate attempts to keep alive in the media allegations that have died in the courtroom”--a premature judgment at best since the preliminary hearing wasn’t even over yet.

“I think Faye propagandized a fair amount,” says Wayne Satz, who broke the first McMartin story on KABC-TV.

Fiore concedes that she came to believe “the case . . . has no foundation,” but she insists her reporting remained fair and evenhanded. Several other reporters on the case--including Marcia Chambers, who covered parts of the case for the New York Times--praise Fiore’s work on McMartin.

“Faye Fiore is a very good reporter,” Chambers says.

Defendants’ Side Told

Good or biased--or a bit of both--it’s clear that Fiore’s skepticism led her to write some of the earliest stories giving the defendants’ side of the case. One of these, a Page 1 story published on Sept. 7, 1984--seven months after the case broke in the news but 2 1/2 years before the trial would begin--asked whether it was possible for the defendants to receive a fair trial.

“In one sense,” Fiore wrote, the teachers had “already been tried; the media were their courtroom, the public their jury and guilty is the verdict.”

Fiore quoted several of the defendants and their attorneys at length and spoke of the threats, ostracism and deprivation they had endured--including lengthy imprisonment without bail, “a constitutional right more commonly revoked in death penalty cases.”

Fiore and other Breeze reporters wrote more stories from the defendants’ perspective than reporters for any other daily paper, and that helped contribute to the impression in many quarters that they and their paper became biased in favor of the defendants.

The Breeze published early interviews with several of the defendants; a profile of Ray Buckey; stories showing the devastating financial and emotional toll the case had taken on the defendants, and a story on attempts by various political candidates to exploit the case for their electoral advantage.

The Breeze also published several major exclusives on McMartin, including one disclosing that the district attorney’s office had interviewed only one-third of the children before filing charges and another--one of the biggest stories in the entire case--revealing that two McMartin prosecutors had doubts about the case.

Moreover, unlike most of the media, the Breeze often followed its stories on various prosecution charges with stories that showed when those charges had not been substantiated.

Most of the media carried stories in early March, 1984, for example, saying that authorities armed with search warrants had visited 11 locations in three counties, looking for evidence linking the McMartin school to a child pornography ring. But the Breeze was the only news organization among the major players on McMartin that published a story the next day saying no such evidence had been found.

Similarly, while most of the media published and broadcast allegations that children at McMartin and the Manhattan Ranch Pre-School had been swapped for purposes of molestation, it was the Breeze that subsequently reported the courtroom exchange in which it was conceded that there was no evidence of a connection between the molestation cases at the two schools.

Such stories were favorable to the defense, of course, and it could be argued that that’s why the Breeze published them. But they were legitimate stories, and the reporters deny any bias.

Provocative Stories

In many ways, the most interesting--certainly the most provocative--coverage of the McMartin case has come not in a mainstream daily newspaper but in an alternative weekly, the Easy Reader, in Hermosa Beach.

Early stories in the Easy Reader were so strident in their presumption of guilt that Kevin Cody, the 40-year-old publisher of the paper, was besieged by angry friends of the defendants, demanding that he do something about John Jackson, the reporter/columnist covering the case.

“They said, ‘Kevin, you’ve lived in this town for 15 years. How could you possibly think that they were running trainloads of molested kids in and out of that school?’ ” Cody recalls.

Cody’s response was that Jackson was “the best reporter I’ve ever had, and he’s doing a great job . . . as far as I know.”

But when Jackson left the paper, and Cody began covering the case himself, he came to believe that the prosecution didn’t have “any case whatsoever.”

Given that view--and the very nature of alternative newspapers--it shouldn’t have shocked anyone that Cody’s stories began to take a very critical, at times crusading, look at the prosecution’s case. Cody even went so far as to compare Ray Buckey with Alfred Dreyfus, the French army officer wrongfully convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island in 1894.

But Cody also wrote a number of balanced, insightful stories--including the most detailed profile of Buckey and the best coverage in any publication of the complex, controversial, contradictory medical testimony in the case.

The medical testimony was the only real evidence in the case apart from the children’s testimony, but for most of it, no reporters were even in the courtroom. In fact, the courtroom was often empty of reporters at several stages of the trial; reporters--and their editors--seemingly grew weary of the case.

Cody probably spent more time in the courtroom during the trial than any other reporter, though, sitting in the last row of the spectator section, taking notes on his small, laptop computer, and many journalists--among them, Satz of KABC and Furnell Chatman of KNBC--praise his coverage.

Satz, who is widely perceived as having been pro-prosecution in his own coverage (a charge he vigorously denies), says Cody provided the “most thoroughgoing and careful observation of the trial.

“He’s trying to be fair in an exemplary way and, to a significant extent, he’s succeeded,” his “pro-defense tilt” notwithstanding, Satz says.

Both Satz and Chatman say Cody’s coverage is particularly noteworthy given the relatively meager resources of his newspaper.

Tellingly, however, some of the best individual stories on McMartin appeared in media far from Southern California. Perhaps that’s because publications outside the area, not burdened with having to cover the story virtually every day, had more perspective. Equally telling, most of the best McMartin stories were published relatively late in the case--perhaps, several local reporters suggest, because editors outside Southern California were neither too tired of the daily drone of McMartin coverage over the years nor too embarrassed by their early coverage to consider a fresh approach late in the proceedings.

Regardless, both Superior Court Judge William Pounders and former Dist. Atty. Philibosian praise, in particular, Robert Safian’s 8,400-word McMartin story that appeared last October in the American Lawyer, a New York-based magazine. Safian used the context of 10 days during the trial to sum up and analyze the entire case in an evenhanded but compelling manner. The story concluded by saying that, regardless of the verdict, “the McMartin mystery will remain.”

“How could so many children be sexually abused for so long without anyone noticing? On the other hand, how could so many children be convinced that such terrible things had happened to them if they hadn’t? There are too many inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case not to provide lingering doubts. Yet there is too much conviction and horror in the children’s stories of abuse not to look askance at Ray Buckey. The true believers of either side will hold firm, and make powerful arguments with compelling evidence. The rest of us will have to wonder.”

Cynthia Gorney of the Washington Post spent three months putting together a comprehensive, moving, two-part series on the case in the spring of 1988; when she was done, she, too, was still wondering.

Gorney ultimately decided that “something real and scary” had happened to the McMartin children; she generally agreed with one of three theories she presented in her story--that “some children were molested in Manhattan Beach, molested by preschool teachers or by others, and . . . the disclosing and spreading of those children’s reports took place in an atmosphere of such uncontainable and self-feeding alarm that both children and the adults listening to them lost the capacity to sort the imagined from the actual.”

A Quagmire

But Gorney said that almost any development in the case would not surprise her, and she called the McMartin story “a bigger enigma and a bigger quagmire than anything any reporter I know has ever gotten into. You lose any sense of what’s real and what’s not real. You become . . . disoriented and bewildered.

“I never in my life . . . wanted to get so far from a case as I did from that one,” she says. “I was a basket case while I was doing this thing.”

Shirley Downing of the Memphis Commercial Appeal said much the same thing after she and Tom Charlier spent seven months researching and writing a six-part series, later reprinted in a 26-page special section, analyzing child-molestation cases from Memphis to McMartin.

“This is probably the worst story I’ve ever had to work on,” Downing says. “Neither of us has wanted to write anything else on the subject since then.”

The series Downing and Charlier produced--titled “Justice Abused: A 1980s Witch-Hunt”--was among the most skeptical in any mainstream publication. They pointed out, among many other things, the large number of child molestation cases that had resulted in dismissals, acquittals and dropped charges and the startling number of similarities among many of the cases. Children in both the Memphis and McMartin cases, for example, told of druggings, of animal mutilations, of trips in vans, of bloody rituals, of sacrifices of babies and of being taken on airplanes that resembled those of Federal Express.

Downing says she had written about child sexual abuse before this series and “I really believe that the issue of child sexual abuse is a serious issue, that children are abused, that horrible things happen, that we have not only a right but an obligation to try to protect children.” But she came to believe that media coverage of many of these cases had thoroughly “contaminated” the process.

As good as all of these stories were, they were exceptions. No local media did enterprise stories on McMartin of the depth and breadth provided by the Memphis series, the American Lawyer article or Gorney’s Washington Post articles. Nor did the local media, with rare exception, do the stories it traditionally does on an event like McMartin.

On some big stories, there isn’t time for anything more than routine daily coverage and maybe an occasional analysis or human-interest feature. But McMartin dragged on for six years, often with little new happening for weeks at a time, and still the media seldom stepped back to take a comprehensive view or to write in broad terms about some of the major issues and individuals in the case.

Children’s Institute International originally said 369 children were molested at McMartin. Only 41 testified before the grand jury, and only nine testified at the trial. What happened to the other 300-plus children. Were they traumatized? In therapy? In another preschool? Did any recant?

Stories on these questions were hard to find. Nor were there many profiles of the principal players in the case--the judge and the lead attorneys. A search of media files before the verdicts wouldn’t turn up much on the crucial behind-the-scenes role played by screenwriter Abby Mann and his wife Myra either.

The Manns first interested “60 Minutes” in the case--most of the interviews for the 1986 program were filmed in the Manns’ living room--and they made a book and movie deal with Glenn Stevens, the former deputy district attorney who left his job under fire after he told reporters of his doubts about the prosecution’s case.

The tape-recorded interviews in which Stevens told the Manns of his misgivings about the case and in which he accused his former colleagues of prosecutorial misconduct became a major controversy during pretrial maneuvering in the case. As usual, the press covered the controversy. But the Manns were little more than an afterthought.

Doug Conner of The Times’ editorial library assisted with research for this story.

Advertisement