Thomas Sowell

We have forgotten so much about the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that many people may not remember the deadly anthrax spores that were mailed to various prominent people in politics and in the media during that time.

None of the intended victims was killed by the anthrax but five other people were, including two postal workers, who apparently became victims because they handled the mail containing anthrax spores.

In the instant search for someone to blame, biologist Steven J. Hatfill was publicly named as "a person of interest" in the case by government officials. He became, in the media presentation, the villain du jour.

The government was eventually forced to issue a retraction and agreed to pay a settlement of more than $5 million. But retractions never catch up with the original charges, which will blight this man's life the longest day he lives.

More recently, a federal investigation has focused on someone else who worked in the same scientific laboratory as Hatfill. This time the new suspect was about to be indicted, as distinguished from being tried in the media-- and he committed suicide.

This may mark the end of the anthrax story but the reckless destruction of people's reputations and the disrupting and blighting of their lives in the media is continuing on.

There is much to be said for the British practice of limiting what can be reported in the media about someone on trial until after that trial is over.

Once a charge has been made and publicized from coast to coast-- if not internationally-- later exoneration will never get the same publicity, so the damage cannot be undone. You cannot unring the bell.

A major part of what is reported in the media-- especially the tabloid media, whether in print or broadcasts-- consists of leaks, speculation and innuendo, all repeated around the clock, day in and day out, whether or not anything is ever proved.

What someone thinks is going to happen is not news. After it happens it is news.

The 24-hour news cycle may require that somebody be saying something on the air all the time. But that is the media's problem-- and it should not be solved at the expense of ruining other people's lives.

The loss is not solely that of the particular individuals singled out for accusation or innuendo.

If an informed citizenry is the foundation of democratic government, then a misinformed citizenry is a danger.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate