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Will press follow own standard on abuse allegations?

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By Holly Audette
Columnist

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

How much of a person’s background should be researched and publicized when he or she runs for office or takes a job in public service? Should only their professional life be scrutinized, or should people know about someone’s personal life, too? Is it just convictions that are relevant, or are accusations relevant as well? Criminal convictions or civil settlements? Does the press have a responsibility to decide this for us?

The fallout from White House aide Rob Porter’s resignation continues, and the press is all over the “who knew what, when” narrative. Mr. Porter is accused by his two former wives of domestic abuse and at least one photo of wife number one, taken by her husband Rob, purports to show an obvious injury that the wife says came at Mr. Porter’s hand. The first marriage was in 2003 and the second was in 2009. The second wife successfully sought an order of protection. Both women claimed abuse was a consistent part of their marriages to Porter and the reason for their divorces, despite Mr. Porter’s denials he was not abusive. A long documented history that appears to support the allegations. So Mr. Porter is now both a former spouse and a former White House employee.

Roy Moore, who unsuccessfully sought a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, went through a number of statewide elections without allegations about his past dating habits. However, his ambitions for the Senate hit a brick wall when, in very short order and right before the election, a significant number of women came forward to complain about his preference for dating younger women, at least one of whom was not 18 years old. One of these women alleged a sexual assault, others inappropriate touching or persistent requests for a date. None pressed charges, asked for a restraining order or went public with their claims until 40-plus years later when Mr. Moore was running for the Senate. Many found these collective voices credible and the information from them, despite being decades old, valuable in deciding between candidates in the election.

Our local paper and many others ran editorials promoting the position that Roy Moore was an unfit candidate and should disqualify himself based on these four-decades-old allegations. Here is what some said: “The seriousness of these incidents cannot be overstated. They should not be parsed with talk of statutes of limitations or whether proof exists. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a consideration for the courtroom, not the ballot box. When choosing our representative before the rest of the world, character matters. Nor should these women's statements be diminished because the incidents are decades old. If readers objectively look at the reality of life for sex assault victims — at the public doubt and vitriol they face — they'll understand why girls and women do not come forward readily, or early.”

The Tuscaloosa News’ editorial, published here in our local paper, stated the following about Moore: “Even if the allegations that Moore had sexual contact with underage girls some 40 years ago are nothing more than trumped-up charges fueled by dirty politics, he should put the interests of the state ahead of his own and step aside. Even if he thinks himself a victim and his accusers as evil, Moore should end this today. Things are not going to get better between now and the election, not for Moore, not for the state’s Republican Party and absolutely not for Alabama.”

In an era of #MeToo, victims are empowered by their ability to talk openly about the significant impact of experiences like these. So the press standard today, including in our local press, is, if the subject is the abuse of women, no matter what the evidence or how old the accusations, the public should be informed to evaluate the worthiness of a candidate. It will not take long to see if the press that set today’s standards selectively changes the standards tomorrow for the upcoming election.

Holly Audette is a small-business owner active in political and civic causes.

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