The Compassionate Omission

When is a rape not a rape? When it becomes "assault" in the pages of the Miami Herald.

Clifton's explanation has not gone far toward placating the restless troops in the Herald newsroom. "I felt that this was a situation where the use of the word 'rape' was justified because that's what happened," says city editor Bill Grueskin. "I also understand [Clifton's] reasons. They were born out of compassion. But I felt that this was certainly a case where it was necessary to use theword 'rape.' There's a fundamental difference in readers' minds. I still feel comfortable with the way it was."

Clifton's note inspired several staffers to respond critically on the electronic bulletin board. In a long retort, urban affairs editor Justin Gillis, who had no part in editing the story, suggested that the Herald did a flagrant disservice to its readers by employing, as he called it, "the inaccurate term 'assaulted' as a euphemism for 'rape.'"

"I think the stated motives -- compassion and the desire to spare further pain -- are sincere and important," Gillis wrote. "But good intentions are not enough. People's wishes to be spared pain, embarrassment, and exposure in the newspaper are frequently inconsistent with what I believe to be a higher duty. Our fundamental mandate as journalists is to serve the broad public interest. That requires us to say rather often to people: We are sorry, but the news interest in this event requires us to publish it, fully and accurately."

Gillis also wrote that the events leading to Clifton's late-night edit illustrate an unusually cozy relationship between Miami's prominent citizens and Herald executives. "If this had been a typical case, the story in the next day's paper would have said 'rape'," he asserted in his electronic message. "But this was the rape of a woman married to one of the most influential people in Miami. With a phone call to the executive editor at home, her family set in motion a chain of events that led us to publish what I think was a misleading headline and story.

"True, the names of our executives are listed in the phone book, and anybody can call them. It rarely works that way in practice. The widespread perception among prominent people in Miami, in the last several years, has been that the way to deal with The Herald is to circumvent the reporting staff and talk to the top executives. In some instances, people who refuse to talk to our reporters at all are permitted to make their case to those executives at length, a practice that has undercut the capability of the staff to do complete work.

...To every case of special pleading," Gillis concluded, "I believe we have an obligation to the public to say: No."

Despite the fallout among his staff, Clifton stands by his decision, which he says wasn't motivated in any way by the fact that the rape victim was the wife of a leading citizen. "The caller gave me information that further clarified my thinking about identification and made a persuasive argument that you can de facto identify that woman to a circle of people who would have known who it was," he elaborates, adding that he didn't consult with any other editors or with Fleischman before ordering the copy desk to change the rape references. ("That," he notes, "is the pleasure of being the executive editor.")

When television news stations picked up the story of the attack that Wednesday, several didn't hesitate to describe it as rape, and at least one reported that the victim was the wife of a judge.

By the next day's Herald, Clifton's resolve had weakened and a reporter was permitted to describe the attack as a "rape" in a followup article. (The paper has still refrained from describing the woman as the wife of a judge.) "Everything changed," Clifton asserts. "The street on which the 80-year-old woman lived was lit up with knowledge. I subsequently had first-hand knowledge that everybody who lived on that block knew the woman had been raped. Every protection she had been afforded was gone.

"You know what?" Clifton continues. "I didn't lose any sleep over [the decision] and didn't feel I was letting down the integrity of this newspaper and this profession."

But heated discussion about Clifton's unusual action will continue, both within and outside the walls of the 1 Herald Plaza. "Every news organization should report this for what it is: a brutal rape," insists Roxcy Bolton, a respected women's rights advocate and Coral Gables civic activist. "A rape is a rape is a rape.

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