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Public squeamishness, press orthodoxy hurt country, editor says

STANFORD -- If your teenage son committed suicide or your sister died of AIDS, newspaper editor Geneva Overholser would insist on including that information in the obituary, she told a Stanford audience on Oct. 29.

If you were raped, she probably wouldn't print your name, but she would have one of her staff reporters ask if you wanted your name included in the newspaper's account of the crime.

Her reason:

"What you don't know WILL hurt you. . . . Since you are part of a democracy - that is, a government that purports to be by the people, of the people, for the people - you ought to consider ignorance a great threat.

"Yet you, as a public, not only don't criticize the press for not printing something. You are one of the main reasons the press continues to keep you in the dark."

Too many editors, she said, "seem too ready to be social workers." They "succumb to the public's preference for what it sees to be kindness" - sparing the victims of tragedy or their relatives from publishing painful facts. She referred to this as "the press and public's know-nothing pact."

Overholser is editor of The Des Moines Register, which was awarded the Pulitzer gold medal for public service this year for a 1990 series of articles that raised the question of whether rape victims should be named in news stories. She was invited to Stanford to deliver the fourth annual John S. Knight Distinguished Lecture sponsored by the Knight Fellowships for professional journalists.

Overholser wrote a column that challenged the media's traditional refusal to use names of rape victims. She argued that the crime of rape needed to be demystified and the stigma removed from the victims. By treating rape differently than most crimes, the press contributed to the societal stigma surrounding rape, she said.

The column prompted an Iowa woman, Nancy Ziegenmeyer, to offer to tell her story to the Register. The subsequent stories by reporter Jane Schorer - which included the victim's name and photograph - described the rape and the victim's reactions and experiences with the legal system, touching off a national debate on the issue.

The series was powerful, Overholser told her Stanford audience, because "it put a face on a faceless crime.

"We had kept rape victims in the dark," she said. "And in the end, we being the human creatures that we are, there is very little difference between keeping rape victims in the dark and keeping rape in the dark. . . . Yet we repeat the mistake all the time. We repeat it with incest. We repeat it with battered women. We keep the victims - and, so, the crime - in the dark."

Publishing the causes of death in a community or the locations of burglaries may not be preferred by the grieving survivors or the crime victims, but it is part of the information people need to make intelligent judgments about what's going on in their society, she said.

"The obituaries that listed pneumonia as a cause of death for the 30-year-old man down the block were written inaccurately out of a sensitivity to the family -- a sensitivity which most of the public, I guarantee you, would approve of," Overholser said.

"Squeamishness about AIDS, she said, has contributed to the nation's delayed response to the disease.

Challenging questions

Overholser conceded that her speech might be unpopular and it was, at least with most of those in the Kresge Auditorium audience who rose to ask her questions afterward.

The 200-year-old First Amendment, she had said during her speech, guarantees every citizen's right to have information, as well as to speak. Yet public opinion polls suggest the amendment "probably wouldn't be ratified today."

Most questioners asked, in a variety of forms, why editors should have the right to decide what should be private information and what should be public?

A middle-aged man said his teen-aged stepson committed suicide two years earlier. He told Overholser he was grateful the local newspaper editors had not printed the cause of death. "My wife and other children are still grieving," he said.

Overholser agreed that "an editor is a powerful person" and said more of them should feel an obligation to explain their news decisions to their readers or listeners, but she refused to back down from her stance on publishing causes of death.

"The answer is not to decide not to offend people," she said.

After the lecture and question period, a young woman walked up to Overholser and thanked her for publishing suicides.

"There was a rash of teenage suicides locally the year that man's son died," the woman said. "All the kids in the local high schools were talking about it before anything appeared in the papers.

"Maybe his son wouldn't have died if the adults had known about it, too."

Sins of orthodoxy

Another clause in the know-nothing pact, Overholser said, is not based on the public's feelings about individual privacy. It is based on journalists' "misplaced pleasure at being on the inside," their "conventional thinking" and, sometimes, their "incompetence and laziness."

This category of sins "brought you Iran-Contra and the S & L scandal. It brought you the Gulf War with no pictures of the ground war. It has, over the years, beautifully served the nuclear priesthood, the medical priesthood, and all other powers that thrive on being unquestioned authorities," said Overholser, who once wrote editorials on international issues for The New York Times.

"Too many papers by far do not wish to offend major advertisers," she said.

"Almost any woman could have told any newspaper that asked before the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings that sexual harassment was everywhere. But newspapers were too busy finding $250,000-a-year women lawyers who had left the workplace to take care of a kid - a scenario that fit much more comfortably into the national orthodoxy."

Orthodoxy and homage to power also "bring you deadly dull political campaigns," she said, because of the current "national nervousness with debate."

As a nation, she said, "we are a cowardly people these days, fearful that our best days are behind us, even as the world becomes ever more welcoming of the ideas we stand for. . . . The spectrum of political discourse that is taken seriously is so narrow that it is hard to say anything at all."

Not enough reporters, she said, are pestering politicians to answer the questions people ask about the direction of the nation "in the privacy of their living rooms."



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