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Times McMartin Coverage Was Biased, Critics Charge : News ANALYSIS

MCMARTIN AND THE MEDIA: Last in a series.

January 22, 1990|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two months to the day after Wayne Satz broke the story of the McMartin Pre-School molestation case on KABC in early 1984, the Los Angeles Times published a moving story about interviews with the McMartin children conducted by social workers at Children's Institute International.

The story ran on Page 1 under the headline "Puppets Help Children Shed Horrors of Abuse." The subhead beneath that said "Therapists at Institute Use Toys to Coax From Molestation Victims Secrets of Traumatized Lives." The story itself said, in part: "They have told their secrets, the little ones and the adolescents, of rape and sodomy and oral copulation and fondling, slaughtering of animals to scare them into silence and threats against them and their parents."

The story continued for almost 40 paragraphs and included such phrases as "young victims," "the assailant," "her abuse" and "tormented secrecy." None of these descriptions was qualified by "alleged" or "charged" or any similar language. Nor did the story include a single statement from a defendant or a defendant's lawyer denying guilt.

Reporter Cathleen Decker, who was barely involved in McMartin coverage (she wrote only one other bylined McMartin article), says she was simply trying in the April 2 story to relate the accounts of "awful torment" that the children were telling their parents and social workers, not to "make judgments as to the guilt or innocence of any particular person." That, she says, is why she didn't mention any defendants by name; in essence, she was telling the story through the children's eyes.

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.

Editors reflected that view, both in writing the headlines and in putting the story in the paper in that form.

But several critics say they were stunned by the implicit acceptance of the children's charges in the story and they cited it as one of the most egregious examples of the press' contributing to public outrage about the McMartin case.

Defense attorneys say emotional, uncritical coverage is the major reason that a poll they conducted before the trial showed that more than 90% of the public thought both Ray Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, were guilty. Both were acquitted by a jury last week on 52 counts of child molestation, although many jurors said they thought some molestation had occurred; the jury was unable to reach a verdict on 13 other counts.

Media Contributions

Most of the local media, print and broadcast--and some the national media as well--contributed to the public outrage about the case. But The Times is the largest and most influential news organization in the area where the McMartin case played out over six years, so its coverage of the case has been both more scrutinized and more criticized than any other.

What emerges from a careful examination of The Times' coverage and more than 70 interviews is a tale of sharply conflicting views. Editors at The Times strongly feel the coverage was, overall, fair and balanced. But, defense attorneys and supporters, rival reporters, two prosecutors and some critics inside The Times point to flaws, large and small, in Times coverage that they say add up to unfairness and imbalance.

Debate over The Times' coverage illustrates the pressures and pitfalls faced by any large newspaper covering a legal case so intricate and inflammatory that every word is scrutinized for any sign of favoritism that might intensify the suffering for one side or the other.

Because The Times plays such a strong role in shaping the agenda and, often, the perceptions of other media in the area, critics of the paper say its coverage contributed enormously to the general public furor over the case.

Nancy Hill-Holtzman, whose coverage of the case for the Herald Examiner was praised by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders as the best of any early trial coverage, said she became skeptical of the prosecution's charges over time but was often challenged by her editors because of what The Times reported on the same day.

"My editors and others would say, 'The L.A. Times says such-and-such; how come you have it different?' " says Hill-Holtzman, who now works for The Times.

Basic Charges

Criticism of Times coverage of the McMartin case is particularly widespread among journalists who covered the case and among supporters of the defense. In interviews conducted before the verdicts were returned last week, three basic charges emerged:

* That The Times published a number of stories, especially early in the case, that seemed to assume the charges were true.

* That The Times published many stories that were biased against the defense.

* That The Times never published major investigative stories examining the prosecution's case.

Noel Greenwood, deputy managing editor of The Times, vigorously denies that The Times was biased or unfair and attributes these charges to a "mean, malevolent campaign conducted by people . . . whose motives are highly suspect and who have behaved in a basically dishonest . . . and dishonorable way."

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