The Compassionate Omission

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

On Monday, August 1, a man broke into the Coral Gables home of an 80-year-old woman -- the wife of a federal judge -- and raped and robbed her.

Joan Fleischman, a veteran Miami Herald reporter and columnist, learned of the attack late the following day and quickly wrote a news story describing the incident. In accordance with the Herald's policy of not revealing the identities of rape victims, Fleischman says she withheld from her report the victim's name and address. In order to further ensure anonymity, Fleischman did not make mention of the woman's connection to the judicial system.

Drafts of the story were reviewed by at least two experienced editors: city editor Bill Grueskin and Gene Miller, the Herald's esteemed associate editor and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. According to Grueskin and Fleischman, both the headline and the lead sentence of the edited story included specific references to the nature of the crime. "The story I signed off on when I left the office that night was that the 80-year-old woman had been raped," the city editor recalls.

The next morning, however, readers of the paper saw a somewhat different account of the attack. The seven-paragraph Fleischman story that appeared at the bottom of page 2B contained no references to rape or, for that matter, any sort of sexual battery. Instead readers learned that an 80-year-old woman had been "assaulted."

Word quickly spread throughout the Herald and beyond its walls that executive editor Doug Clifton had watered down the story following a late-night plea by the victim's relatives not to publicize the rape. According to several Herald sources, news of Clifton's extraordinary decision has prompted considerable anger among much of the Herald news staff. Some say Clifton's decision complicates judgments about what is printable news and what is not. In addition, Herald readers are now left with uncertainty about the full truthfulness of what they see in print.

On the day of the story's publication, August 3, a query appeared on an electronic bulletin board within the Herald's internal computer system. Written by copy editor Steve Rothaus, it asked about the controversial editorial decision. "I understand the changes were made to protect the victim's feelings," the note read in part. "Is this an across-the-board policy for all future rape stories? If it is, that's fine. If it's not, then we should consider whether we are being fair to all other rape victims who have been or will be written about in The Herald."

Later that day another message appeared on the electronic bulletin board, this one written by Clifton himself. "When a person suffers the trauma of rape we believe they needn't also suffer the trauma of having it publicly known," Clifton's note read in part. "A news story can 'identify' a rape victim in many ways, name being but one of them. The victim of this crime was the wife of a federal judge. One of the early drafts of this story contained information that strongly hinted the victim's identity to the universe of people who knew her. The good and responsible editing of the story removed those references. I was satisfied with the story as written because I thought it sufficiently protected the identity of the 80-year-old victim.

"When I got home I got a call from a Miami lawyer who was the son-in-law of the victim. He said his mother-in-law was in a terrible state -- from the rape and from the fear that her identity would somehow be revealed in the paper -- and he begged us not to describe the crime as a sexual assault. Calling from the judge's home with the judge at his side he then asked that we not run the story at all. Everyone in the neighborhood knew his mother-in-law had been robbed and roughed up, but no one A he was sure A knew she had been raped. Report that an 80-year-old Coral Gables woman had been raped, he said, and you will tell the neighbors that the robbery was rape and, in the process, further shatter an already very shattered 80-year-old woman.

"I responded in all the ways you would expect. You're kidding yourself if you think the neighbors don't already know, I said. They do. It's our obligation to alert the people of Miami that a rapist is abroad and describe his M.O. so that others might protect themselves against him. The newspaper's credibility is at stake. To not fully report what we know to be true would be dishonest.

"I said that and I believe that -- as a journalist. But in the end, I was a father, a husband, a son, a grandson talking to the son-in-law of an 80-year-old victim who believed the only fate worse than being raped was having the neighbors read about it in her paper. What the hell, I said to myself, compassion has to count for something. I said goodnight to the son-in-law -- without telling him what I decided -- and asked the city desk to change all the 'rape' references to 'assault.'

"So what about all the rest of the rape victims who don't know my phone number or have the presence of mind to find it in the White Pages? We need to think about them and work extra hard to protect their identities too. Sometimes a more intimate understanding of the facts causes us to better apply the rules we decide to live with. Sometimes we come face to face with the people we report about and they can give us insights we would not otherwise have had. Sometimes we have to struggle to tell a fair and humane story without them -- and we make mistakes because of it. That has as much to do with hap as logic. But I feel pretty strongly that once you get as many of the pertinent facts as you can -- by whatever means -- we must factor compassion into our decision as much as we do journalistic rules. We put out a newspaper, after all, that is consumed by people who don't even know that journalistic rules exist and, for certain, don't live by them."

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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