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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.

FIRST IN A SERIES. Next: The reporter who broke the McMartin story.

January 19, 1990|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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. . . . "

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."

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.

"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."

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