Not Fit to Print
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page A17
On the penultimate day of the merry month of May, Andrew Sullivan gave a rave review in the New York Times Book Review to "Father Joe," Tony Hendra's memoir about his friendship with a Benedictine monk. Sullivan called it an "extraordinary, luminescent, profound book," propelling it onto bestseller lists and making Hendra a prosperous man -- and very likely a very nervous one, too. He had to suspect his 39-year-old daughter would use his newfound fame to discredit him as a child molester.
This she promptly did. Initially she wrote an account of the alleged molestation as an op-ed piece and submitted it to the Times. It was forwarded to the news department, which assigned a reporter to interview her. The upshot was a lengthy (2,346 words) piece containing descriptions of alleged sex acts -- shocking to read in a daily newspaper and doubly repellent because it supposedly involved a man and a child, a father and his daughter.
It goes without saying that Hendra denied his daughter's charges and leveled some of his own. In essence, he called her a bit crazy. She herself had led the Times to two of her psychotherapists and admits to having suffered from anorexia -- a potentially fatal eating disorder and one often associated with sexual abuse. Still, as any psychotherapist can tell you, just because someone alleges sexual abuse -- just because someone firmly believes it happened -- does not mean that it occurred. The mind is a great practical joker.
Hendra is no household name. He has flown just under the celebrity radar -- a sometime actor (he was in the classic Rob Reiner movie "This Is Spinal Tap") and a full-time satirist. Had his book bombed, his ignominy -- the accusation alone amounts to that -- would have remained confined to a small circle. The greater the fame, the greater the scandal. Finally in his life, Hendra made People magazine -- for the wrong reason, though.
Responding in part to reader outrage, the Times's ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, wondered whether the paper should have published the allegations in the first place. After all, Hendra had never been charged with a crime and was not remotely in the sort of position where a public warning was warranted -- teacher, minister, etc. He was merely a writer, although his book was about moral salvation. Okrent confessed confusion. As an editor, he said, he probably would have published the story. As a reader, he said, "I wish the Times hadn't."
My take is somewhat different. I only wished that once the Times decided to proceed it did so with a proper awe for the power of graphic sexual accusations. They are unlike other allegations. Even in our sex-saturated culture, sex is different -- different from, say, embezzlement. We may prefer it otherwise and we may pretend to be terribly jaded, but my guess is that on a CAT scan or something like it, a portion of the brain lights up like Vegas at night when the image is of sex. It is our nature.
In Hendra's case the Times proffered a balance -- an accusation, a denial. But the accusation was so graphic -- descriptions and characterizations of at least two sexual episodes -- that no denial was really plausible. Once the mind's eye saw them, nothing Hendra could say afterward could erase them.
This is a cinematic power rarely bestowed on newspapers. Once something is seen -- whether on the screen or in the mind's eye -- it is experienced. This is why some newspapers and magazines -- Newsweek in particular -- initially shied away from revealing that Ken Starr was in effect investigating Bill Clinton's sex life. Once the details were known, it would no longer matter that they were allegations. Think about it: No one talks about Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich anymore. But bring up Monica Lewinsky and we're off once more to the races.
Newspapers have to be careful when dealing with sexually graphic material. It is naive to insist that fairness has been achieved simply because both sides have been heard from. To achieve that sort of balance, the Times would have had to forgo all of the sexual detail. But the Times, in an effort to be candid, with-it and determinedly not the New York Times of old, included stuff that I cannot quite get out of my head. It was, I suppose, news. But it was not fit to print.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company