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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

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.

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.

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?

No.

"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.

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