Part 3—Whatever turns journalists on: Of what does Roy Moore stand accused as tomorrow's election approaches?
Ever since November 10, the press corps has focused on charges about his alleged behavior from the late 1970s. His crazy public behavior is ignored as scribes thrill to this earlier era.
That said, of what does Moore stand accused?
Many journalists have had a very hard time answering that question. Last Friday, though, the analysts cheered! In her column for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg got it almost exactly right:
GOLDBERG (12/8/17): While Franken is on his way out of the Senate, Roy Moore, Republican of Alabama, may be on his way in. Moore stands credibly accused of molesting a 14-year-old whom he picked up outside her mother's custody hearing and of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old after offering her a ride home from her waitressing job.We agree with every word, although we'd add the word "violently" to the latter description.
Leigh Corfman has accused Moore of molesting her in 1979, when she was 14. Gloria Young Nelson has accused Moore of committing a violent sexual assault on her person in 1977, when she was 16.
Moore stands accused of molesting one teen and of sexually assaulting another. How hard is it to say that?
For many major journalists, it has been amazingly hard. Major scribes have stumbled about, attempting to describe the accusations.
Goldberg made the task look easy. But here's the way Kathleen Parker described the charges in yesterday's Washington Post:
PARKER (12/10/17): Moore, far from being a comedian, is known for his affection for the Ten Commandments. Clearly, there should have been an amendment to the commandment that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife: or his little girl, either. The former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court is alleged to have fondled or otherwise behaved in sexual ways with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.Say what? Parker has heard of Corfman's accusation. It isn't entirely clear that she has heard about Nelson's. Where Goldberg describes these charges with specificyty, Parker ends up offering this murky description:
Moore stands accused of "having behaved in sexual ways with teenage girls." Will readers have any clear idea what that means? From what post-Victorian usage manual has Parker cobbled this murky description?
The Washington Post launched this topic with a November 10 front-page report which was built around Corfman's accusation. From that day to this, we've been fascinated by the peculiar ways in which journalists have described the charges against Ol' Roy.
In part, we suspect the problem stems from the parochialism of our upper-end journalists. We'll guess it stems from their parochialism, but also from their self-involvement. That said, the problem tracks to that original November 10 report, in which the Post displayed a rather peculiar bit of editorial judgment.
We'll admit it! We're fascinated by the way the press corps has handled this matter. As we wait for the inevitable start of Mister Trump's War, we think this episode sheds a lot of light, anthropologially speaking, on the mental and moral habits and skills of our upper-end press.
What was journalistically strange about that initial Post report? As noted, the Post featured Corfman's accusation—her claim that Moore molested her when she was 14 years old.
So far, so good, although we thought there were a few points where the Post's journalism was spotty. But as a second part of its report, the Post featured statements by three other women. They claimed that Moore had dated them, or asked them out, during that same time period, when they too were teenagers.
In this way, it seemed that Moore stood "accused" of two "crimes." He stood accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl, which would seem to be a criminal act. He also stood "accused" of having dated two older teenagers—and of having dated them with their mothers cheering him on!
What was the logic of the implied connection between these two types of conduct? Did the fact that Moore dated Gloria Thacker Deason when she was 18, then 19 serve as supporting evidence for the claim that he molested Corfman when she was 14?
The Post made no attempt to explain the logic of this implied connection. From that day to this, people like Parker have stumbled and flailed as they try to describe the very serious crimes with which Moore does in fact stand accused.
Dating Deason wasn't a crime; if Moore violently assaulted Nelson, that rather plainly was. Still and all, people like Parker fumble about, seeming to understate the degree of offense with which Moore stands charged.
Can we talk? In their typical parochial way, our journalists sometimes seem to be more concerned about the dating than about the violent assault!
Behind that concern stands a list of domestic panics. First, we had the public concern about the missing "milk carton kids."
The practice of putting the faces of missing children on milk cartons started in the 1980s. It's credited with helping authorities locate some missing children in the years before better organized tracking systems existed.
On the downside, this campaign also led to wildly exaggerated claims about the number of missing children in the United States. Before the practice faded away, "psychologists, social service workers and other child advocates, including celebrated pediatricians T. Berry Brazelton and Benjamin Spock, [argued] that the onslaught of photos and publicity ha[d] evolved into a sort of hysteria, producing a new anxiety in young children." Or so reported the Post.
Was that a bit of a moral panic? We'll guess it possibly was—and not long after, something similar happened.
Before long, comedians were soon mocking the widespread placement of "Baby on board" signs in the rear windows of cars. These signs suggested that it was OK to rear-end a car if no baby was present.
Was that episode a moral panic? As a courtesy, we'll vote no, but a genuine panic was coming on fast, with disastrous consequences.
We refer to the wave of cases in the late 1980s and 1990s in which day care workers were falsely accused of abusing children. The leading authority on the phenomenon describes it as "Day-care sex-abuse hysteria." Innocent people went to prison as a full-blown, genuine moral panic swept across the land.
We rarely hear about these remarkable cases any more. Our guess would be that it's a point of journalistic and national embarrassment. For that reason, the episode is best ignored, in spite of the lessons the episode can teach.
In the May 1990 Harper's, Dorothy Rabinowitz produced a brilliant piece of journalism in which she confronted this deeply consequential moral panic. (We believe this is the full original text.) She wrote about the Wee Care Nursery School case in Maplewood, New Jersey, a Salem Village-level travesty in which a young woman, Kelly Michaels, was initially sentenced to 47 years in prison.
(After Michaels had served five years, her conviction was overturned. Among other things, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that "the interviews of the children were highly improper and utilized coercive and unduly suggestive methods." These travesties occurred in other cases as this panic occurred.)
Rabinowitz's piece appeared beneath this headline in Harper's: "From the Mouths of Babes to a Jail Cell." She described the lunacy which had sent Michaels to prison. Along the way, she said this:
RABINOWITZ (5/90): We are a society that, every fifty years or so, is afflicted by some paroxysm of virtue—an orgy of self-cleansing through which evil of one kind or another is cast out. From the witch-hunts of Salem to the communist hunts of the McCarthy era to the current shrill fixation on child abuse, there runs a common thread of moral hysteria. After the McCarthy era, people would ask: But how could it have happened? How could the presumption of innocence have been abandoned wholesale? How did large and powerful institutions acquiesce as congressional investigators ran roughshod over civil liberties—all in the name of a war on communists? How was it possible to believe that subversives lurked behind every library door, in every radio station, that every two-bit actor who had belonged to the wrong political organization posed a threat to the nation's security?A similar atmosphere exists in one or two of our current stampedes. Sadly, our upper-end journalists rarely display the requisite intellectual skills and moral perspectives which can help undermine such panics.
Years from now people doubtless will ask the same questions about our present era—a time when the most improbable charges of abuse find believers; when it is enough only to be accused by anonymous sources to be hauled off by investigators; a time when the hunt for child abusers has become a national pathology.
Concerning Roy Moore, we'll only say this. Based upon the ways they describe the accusations about Moore, many of our journalists seem more concerned about the dating than about the alleged assaults. We'll guess that this is related to a common human failing—to the interest in what might happen to one's own children or grandchildren, as opposed to what may have actually happened to somebody else.
The Post enabled this stampede with a rather peculiar initial report. From that day to this, journalists have often seemed to be more concerned with the idea that Moore dated teenagers than with the charge that he committed two criminal assaults. Somehow, Goldberg described both alleged assaults. Few other journalists, Parker included, have.
As with Patty Duke's famous hot dog, so too here—the thought that Ol' Roy dated teens has made them lose control! Inevitably, as part of their standard practice, our journalists took immediate steps to heighten the sense of outrage:
First, they barred use of the term "dated," substituting "pursued." The latter term sounds more menacing. It helps move the charge (and excitement) along.
Second, they adopted the use of term "pedophile." Have we learned nothing from Chuck Todd? By standard definitions, the term is inappropriate here, but it sounds extremely scary, so it's been widely used.
Their third move was most striking. Our journalists completely disappeared the mothers who had cheered Moore on. They didn't want the public to know that the mothers of the two teens in that first Post report hoped the dating might lead to marriage.
Just a guess! That isn't what they want for their own kids today, so they had to block the ugly thought. They had to take arms to defeat it.
Given the norms of the time and the place, the mothers of Gloria Thacker Deason and Debbie Wesson Gibson were thrilled that Moore was dating their teenage daughters, or so the women told the Washington Post.
It was right there in the Post's initial report. But from that day right through to this, we've never seen a single journalist mention that fact. As always happens in cases like this, this basic fact has been disappeared. Our "journalists" have all agreed that you must never hear it.
Why were those two Alabama mothers cheering Ol' Roy on? Tomorrow, we'll offer an information dump about dating and marriage practices during the era in question. For today, we'll only say these things:
Candidate Moore stands accused of two very serious crimes. Dating isn't one of those crimes. Just as a matter of fact, it wasn't a crime at all.
Goldberg had no trouble describing those alleged crimes. Two days later, Parker joined the long list of troubled practitioners who have had a very hard time explaining what Moore is accused of.
As scribes like Parker play this way, a basic fact remains—the mothers of those teenage girls were cheering Ol' Roy on as he dated their daughters way back when down there. Also this:
Elvis started dating Priscilla when she was 14 years old! Could that be some small part of this cultural tale, which took place long ago?
Tomorrow: Information dump! "The best love story, ever"