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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

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."

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.

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."

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