Strauss-Kahn - Reuters - May 16, 2011
Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Photo by Reuters
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A few hours ago, former chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Strauss-Kahn (generally called DSK in France – and now in the international media) was released from a month-long house arrest following sexual assault charges.

The prosecution has found significant credibility issues with the chambermaid who claimed that he raped her on May 14th this year, first chasing her naked through the luxury suite he was occupying, then forcing her to have oral sex with him.

She is reported to have been repeatedly lying about several crucial facts, including a number of bank-accounts on which she has been receiving significant cash deposits, some of them from a man convicted of possession of 400 pounds of marijuana.

We do not know yet what the final verdict of the DSK case in New York will be. He may turn out to be guilty, even though the prosecution’s case seems to be teetering. But all of us should pause for a minute to realize that, beyond all rationalizations about the public’s right to know and the importance of a free press, we have primarily been privy to today’s version of the Roman Circus.

Ancient Rome’s wisdom was that the masses should be ruled by bread and circuses. Nowadays democracies no longer feed people to lions; but we still have our arenas. The new victims are those who are accused of criminal misconduct. The new arenas are newspapers, websites and TV stations, and the lions have been replaced by cameras. And while cameras don’t tear the flesh off their victims’ bones, the damage to their lives is often inflammatory and irremediable.

The coverage of the DSK affair had the strong taste of a gladiatorial event. It started with DSK’s so-called “perp walk” - the procedure in which defendants are walked through a public area that allows for the press to take pictures. Of course, DSK is not unique in his public humiliation, with anyone being liable to this treatment ever since Rudolph Giuliani liberalized the rules for this practice in New York.

The circus continued with lurid details of the accusations spread over every newspaper in the world, starting with the precise sexual act DSK supposedly forced the maid to perform and down to exactly where she had spit on the carpet.

It doesn’t get much juicier: one of the world’s most powerful men, the head of the IMF, is about to enter the race for the French presidency, with polls showing that he would trounce the incumbent Sarkozy. He is removed from an Air France plane about to depart from New York’s JFK airport. At first, he is held in custody for a few days, and then his (expensive and prominent) lawyers negotiate an exorbitant seven-figure bail to have him placed under house arrest.

The luxury conditions of the arrest were described in great detail: the loft he rented costs $50,000 a month, with the security costing an additional $200,000 a month. All of this was made possible by the wealth of his wife Anne Sinclair.

And once the story unfolds, previous allegations of sexual harassment surface. DSK resigns from his post at the IMF and his political career, poised to reach its pinnacle, seems to be over.

The punditry had a field day. You could pretty much predict the angles that were taken by looking at each group’s general orientation. Feminists lambasted the ways in which French alpha males are always allowed some extra grace in their sexual behavior. In France, the favorite theory was that DSK had been set up by his political rivals, while other conspiracy theories linked the setup to his activities at the IMF.

Then there were the friends who said that DSK certainly had a taste for women, but was incapable of rape. Feminists retorted that, of course, the coterie of powerful men would stick together.

Let us face the truth: even though DSK’s ordeal is terrible, he is privileged. If he is cleared of charges, or the prosecution decides to drop the case, this will be on the front pages of papers and websites around the world. Although the damage to his life and career cannot be mended, he will at least be publicly vindicated, and there is a good chance that, at least in France, his honor will be restored.

Not all victims of the press’s hunger for scandal are as lucky. Within the context of my psychological practice I have seen what happens to those sufficiently well-known to be of interest to the press when charges are pressed, but not famous enough to command interest in the long run.

I have seen from up close how the lives of such people have been ruined. They have been accused of embezzlement, fraud or sexual misconduct on the front pages. A few weeks later, their cases were dismissed - in some cases with the express statement by the court that charges should never have been pressed to begin with.

But this was of no interest to the press anymore. If the papers were forced to do so, there was a brief note, buried somewhere on the back pages, reporting that X had been cleared of all charges.

I saw how they suffered, when people on the street said, ‘Oh this is X, the corrupt bastard!’ obviously making their comment loud enough for X to hear them. Little did they know that charges had not even been pressed against him, because the papers who had carried the suspicions - of course making sure that they could not be sued for libel - had never bothered to clear X’s name in a spot even comparable in visibility of the original allegations.

I have witnessed people who were accused of rape, cases in which charges were not only dropped, but the court reprimanded the police for its carelessness in disregarding evidence in favor of the defendant. But, even years later, they felt that their image had forever been tainted, and unfortunately their feelings reflected reality. Such is human psychology that the memory stores salient negative information much better than the far less interesting fact that somebody turns out to be innocent.

Some of the wrongly accused never recover from the trauma they underwent and were unable to lead rich and productive lives. Their children were damaged for life because of their parent’s public humiliation their marriages fell apart, because the strain was too great to bear.

Let us have the intellectual and moral decency not to say that this is the price of having a free press. We should have the wherewithal to distinguish between the press’ essential democratic function and its provision of entertainment. Let us see reporting about the scandals of the famous and the not-so-famous for what it is: the modern day circus arena that feeds the insatiable human appetite for gossip, scandal and the Schadenfreude of seeing the mighty fall. Without this destructive joy, media wouldn’t have clients for this kind of material.

Of course we cannot know in advance who will turn out to be guilty and who will go free. In deciding to release the names of those indicted, we should always ask whether there is genuine public interest in releasing their identities. In many, many cases there is no genuine public interest except for the desire for entertainment and the media’s hunger for reporting it.

We must remember that many of those who are the victims of this thirst for entertainment after being falsely accused of crimes are harmed forever, for no other reason than that humans love seeing their fellow man torn to pieces. Maybe this will raise the question, once again, about whether privacy laws should be reconsidered - the human appetite for gossip is not a good enough justification for inflicting grievous, often irrevocable harm.