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.
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.
"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.