WASHINGTON — The debate over whether rape victims should be publicly identified intensified on Wednesday after NBC News and the New York Times disclosed the name of the woman who has charged that she was raped by William Kennedy Smith.
A growing number of journalists argue that by keeping victims' names private, the media are perpetuating a stigma that rape victims have something to be ashamed of.
But many journalists and legal scholars counter that focusing attention on the accuser can effectively put rape victims rather than assailants under suspicion, and that the decision over going public should remain with the victim.
Both sides, however, criticized the New York Times for its story published Wednesday morning, which described the woman as an unmarried mother who had "moved sharply up the economic scale" when her working-class mother married a rich man. In addition, the story quoted an unnamed source as saying that she had "a little wild streak" in the ninth grade, and described her now as "a fixture in Palm Beach's expensive bars and nightclubs."
"I could not justify using that story in my paper," said Irene Nolan, managing editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who is one of those journalists who believes that the names of rape victims should be made public.
"To anyone who thinks the days of stigmatizing rape victims are over, see Page A17 of the New York Times," said Susan Estrich, a law professor at USC who went public some years ago about her own rape.
"I am not sure how what we see in that story has any relevence to what happened on Easter night in Palm Beach . . . . Her mother's divorce? Her speeding tickets? All of this . . . is why we have needed a policy of not naming rape victims in the first place."
Joseph Lelyveld, New York Times managing editor, said he was surprised at the suggestion readers might be offended by the story's tone. "We just thought of ourselves as bringing out what we knew," he said.
In the aftermath of the disclosures, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Des Moines Register and Reuters news agency also identified the woman by name. But the great majority of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, are not publishing her identity.
The 29-year-old Florida woman has alleged that Smith, the nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), raped her in Palm Beach early Easter morning, after she met him in a bar and later agreed to go back with them to the Kennedy estate for a drink.
The woman has refused to be identified, and Florida law bans the media from naming rape victims. But on April 7, a London tabloid named the woman. A week later the supermarket tabloid the Globe, based in Boca Raton, Fla., also published the name and photograph under the headline "Kennedy Rape Gal Exposed."
Then on Tuesday, following a day of lengthy debate, NBC News aired her picture and name as well. "The more we tell our viewers, the better informed they will be in making up their own minds about the issues involved," read a statement by NBC News president Michael Gartner. The New York Times swiftly followed, publishing a profile of the woman that was already prepared and which insiders say it was considering running even without her name.
"We were content to go into infinity without naming the lady" until she was "named in a national newscast . . . ." Lelyveld said.
Lelyveld did acknowledge that competition was a factor in the New York Times' calculations. "We would not have done it first. But we saw no particular virtue in being 10th."
Several news organizations, including the New York Daily News and the Miami Herald, said they would have to reevaluate their policies in this case if the woman's name becomes more widely known. The Washington Post held a meeting of editors Wednesday but decided not to change its policy. Similar decisions were made at CBS and ABC.
At the Los Angeles Times, Managing Editor George Cotliar said: "We do not use the name of rape victims unless the victim gives permission." He added that in this case, "I would expect that The Times would be in the last ranks of those newspapers that would change their policy."
Perhaps ironically, one of the most ardent critics of the New York Times and NBC is the editor of the often sensational New York Post.
"Not identifying rape victims in press accounts is not why (the victims) were stigmatized," said Post Editor Jerry Nachman. "And identifying them won't destigmitize them."
Not all agree. The policy of protecting a rape victim's identity "is well worth re-examining," said Chicago Tribune Editor Jack Fuller, "but it is not something I want to change on the fly. In the Kennedy case . . . I see no compelling reason to go chasing off in a new direction without thinking it all the way through."
Some journalists also have strong misgivings about the media naming the woman against her will in this case when it observed the privacy last year of the so-called Central Park jogger--a white Wall Street professional who was attacked by a gang of black youths.