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Presumed guilty Cowboys cleared: Media will continue to report such news, but can't get carried away.

THOSE IN THE media should have learned something from the debacle involving Dallas Cowboys football players Michael Irvin and Erik Williams. Police now say the two were falsely accused of raping a woman at gunpoint.

Then again, people hoped for the same thing after the FBI apologized for having fed a ravenous media Richard Jewell, the security guard it wrongly alleged to have planted the bomb at Olympic Park in Atlanta.

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Perhaps tongues will cluck again pending the inquest into the murder of a child beauty queen in Colorado. For now, videos of the 6-year-old sashaying like a Vegas showgirl have given the public all the evidence it needs to frame a villain, namely the girl's parents.

Law enforcement agencies merit blame for prematurely floating their investigations in the media, to bask in the limelight or bait a suspect. The press, unfortunately, is often too eager to spin the scraps into prison garb. In the Cowboys' case, a New York Times columnist presumed "where there's smoke, there must be fire," and Sports Illustrated headlined Dallas' playoff loss as "justice," prior to the players being cleared. A rush to judgment in high-profile cases isn't new, but it seems more epidemic of late, driven by factors unique to the '90s.

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One is the explosion of tabloid journalism, which the mainstream press no longer can ignore. For every thousand Elvis sightings, there's one bizarre tale that turns out to be true, like Clinton political consultant Dick Morris and the prostitute. Journalists hate to get shut out of such a story.

Second is the explosion of information outlets. Seeds for news now sprout in many places, including cable TV and the Internet.

Third, in the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King cases, the public saw verdicts that appeared to bear no relevance to the evidence. The public and press may now believe that they can reach verdicts as sound as the courts without awaiting formal deliberations.

The media will continue to report allegations in newsworthy crimes or that involve celebrities, but it must not trample the tenet of innocence presumed. The press looks askance at the ethical quandaries of politicians or the destructive lifestyles of movie stars and wonders why these people can't control themselves; when it comes to accusatory stories, it must hold up a mirror and ask itself the same.

Pub Date: 1/18/97


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