"The Journalism of Advocacy: Setting the Record Straight"


Dorothy Rabinowitz

The Wall Street Journal


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

February 23, 2004



I always cringe at advocacy journalism so if we could just dispense with that because I think of the advocates and I really don't want to be one of them. Its journalism where you have uncovered what people don't know and that it is necessary to know. And people have heard me say this before -- the thing about writing, its writing above all, writing and reporting, its writing that undoes a wrong and that takes a long time sometimes. When I think of what qualities attract Americans it's something that I have now learned from being what's called an "advocacy journalist" -- people write in and say "you're so persistent". It's not a very romantic kind of tribute but you realize that people value it. If you start from the premise that you can trust evidence when you see it, which is what I did in the cases I wrote about, I could read children's testimony and I could see that these children had been led to make false accusations. How could I see that? Children were questioned, and they said "nothing ever happened, nothing ever happened", and the teacher didn't touch me, nobody undressed me -- but you know, at the end of two months they said "yes, and she made me eat feces" and "she hit me in the wee-wee" and all this stuff -- how do you know something happened? You know because it's imprinted in front of you, and that the advocacy journalism that I was for was not to argue, I wanted to put before Americans what really happened, and it wasn't my opinion, what really happened. I wanted to show what the jury never saw and put the facts out and quote the transcripts. Most people would come to their own conclusions, and the right conclusions, about this thing.

So one feature of what you could call advocacy journalism -- I think it based on the fact that most people will listen to reason, and that is what happened in these cases. I would have to say that it was very hard, because accusations of child abuse -- and I pick on this subject only because it's the one I suppose I'm best known -- are very tough to fight against, and as I said they're viewed as sacrosanct and people tend to believe them and because people were punished by horrendous jail terms of 40 to 60 years and stuff like that, I think it takes a certain constitution and a certain opportunity to deal with these facts and to say, this is worth fighting for in the face of everything. And those of you who know, who write, or are trying to or are about to, confronting large odds can be very appealing.

I know it was, in some quiet way, one of the determining, sort of incentives to me that it was an impossible task to overturn a conviction. And the more impossible it seemed the more stubborn you become because you know an innocent person is sitting in prison. And if you only persist -- let me connect this to another thing though. I came from a certain generation, I came from a generation where I learned -- I grew up in the WWII era, where it was sort of imbued with the notion that persistence -- and if you try and try, we will defeat the axis, we're behind, but we will win because we deserve to win, because s they are evil, because justice must be done, and we will prevail. Very Churchillian stuff, all of this. I move forward now to a contemporary age where I get letters from people saying "ah, but that's the way it is. What can you do?" See, that is a great shift in culture, the notion that prosecutors have power, these terrible things happen, what can one person do? That was not the view with which I was imbued when I grew up. I had a sense of possibility, if only you tried. I also had the tools. I knew that I could write and I also had the most important thing any journalist could have, who knows, is anger -- is one of the great enriching fuels. It's one of the things that clears your mind, and it's one of the things that makes you lie in bed at night and say, there's an innocent person in prison, no one knows how she got there, no one knows the lies involved, and it's all up to you. And those are very powerful words. It's up to you. What if you say, I know, but what can I do? Can you walk around with this?

I remember thinking -- and I was very new at this -- I'll give you a brief introduction to just one of the ways I got into writing about false charges, and I looked up -- I'm sorry to repeat this for someone whose heard it -- I looked up at the screen and I saw a 26-year old woman, on a TV monitor, and I said what is she doing in prison, and all of charges were ridiculous and improbable and yet she had been convicted. And it was known as the most evil child molester in the history of New Jersey, etc, etc, and I went here and there asking about this case and nobody wanted to talk about, because, as the prosecutor said, the jury has spoken. Words you should always pay attention to. The jury has spoken? When prosecutors tell you that the jury has spoken, ah, yes, they speak in many ways. When I finally blackmailed the defense attorney into releasing the transcripts of the trial, which were restricted -- another suspicious item -- they wanted to keep the transcripts away from the press after the conviction? What are they hiding? But I was still very innocent. I thought maybe the prosecutor knows what he's talking about, and I remember when I went to see him and he greeted me very cordially because I was a known writer and a conservative writer, not some raging liberal from the Village Voice. I was a grown woman. And he confided in me; we have all of the evidence on this woman. And I actually felt my heart sinking. Oh my, could I have made a mistake in my suspicions?

That happens, when you're starting to write. You can be discouraged; it's something you should not listen to. You'll not be allowed to listen to in anyway because the forces of nature take over and patience prevails, but I went very depressed down the stairs of that prosecutor's office in New Jersey and said -- ok, so he's got I don't understand how one woman could tie up 25 children and smear peanut butter on them and stick them with knives and swords and leave no marks and turn them into mice as one of the pieces of testimony -- all of this and the jury said this happened? And none of the parents knew and the children went to school so happily every morning even though the children were stabbed and beaten and tormented into sexual acts beyond description, and everything that violates the laws of time and space and psychology and reasons, but he knows something I don't know. He didnÕt, as it turns out, but I wanted the transcript and then I read the first page and I saw the interrogators telling 4-year old children, "And then, Kelly did what?" "Nothing." "And then Kelly touched you?" "No, didn't touch me." And then you hear the interrogators say "If you tell me what Kelly did, you can play with my bracelet, and you'll be helping all of your little friends, and they've already told me what Kelly did. Don't you want to help your little friends?" And "are you afraid to help your little friends?"

Alright, so seven pages into the transcript the child is just about breaking down, but some of them kept saying, "nothing happened" and do you know at the end there would always be a note at the end of the transcript saying "You know, the child is in denial." The child is in denial? Yes, and the mothers would be told they should go a therapist to help them get past this denial. Well of course the therapist is working for the state -- all of this though, my point is, is on paper, so you don't have to say, did this happen, did this not happen? You know she's not, you know she could not have done these things. But she's in prison, and with a conviction and there's nothing harder to overturn. What are you left with as a writer? I have a story to tell you. Most important thing about all writing, not just this writing, is to have something to tell that others do not know, that is of some importance, and that will drive you, and that will keep you riding, that is the liquor and the force -- just let me tell this story.

You know the rhyme of the ancient mariner? Go and read it, I have a thing to tell you. And that's the passion to tell. Now you can be very modest and poor, I was not modest but I was poor, but you lie in bed at night and you say, if I don't do this, how will my life be, if I know someone is in prison and I don't get this published? So I did an enormous amount of self-torture to get the first piece of this published, but it was driven by these themes, by -- my first sight of someone in prison who I knew not to be guilty. She opened the door, a 25-year old, very educated young catholic woman, I knew she would survive this--she'd been sentenced to forty years -- and I almost fainted. I never faint, but IÕd entered the toughest woman's prison in America and it was like a hole in the ground and she was in solitary and I came away feeling quite weak-kneed.

Alright, fast forward. The ultimate aim was -- it did get published, she did get a lawyer, she did win on the first appeal, she was out pretty soon, and I say to myself, Ok, you now know something -- you don't say it consciously, but everything that is affected, everything that you write that makes a difference, becomes part of the armament of confidence so that when shortly thereafter I went to the Wall Street Journal, by that time I knew everything about the outlines of these accusations, I took up the case of this family in Boston, the Amaralts, an old woman, her husband, her son, I was a very different person calling the prosecutor. The prosecutor was not different because prosecutors always have the press on their side in these cases, the press believes in skepticism except when it comes to these sacrosanct charges of abuse so that when I called he thought it was another friend calling to congratulate him on the great work he'd done. The Amaralts had been in prison for eight years by then, a solid conviction, exactly the same charges for the family, and I asked him at the end of this rather cordial conversation, what would you think of the possibility of this case being overturned? Ah! Nonsense. I thought to myself, wait. Now that "wait" that I said to myself so confidently came from an experience, if you can overturn- I mean help to overturn -- on hard and fast prosecution, you think you can do it again, and you're right. Because you're onto the same thing -- it was the same distortion of leading children's witnesses and such.

So I am saying to you that it requires confidence and persistence to write and requires intellectual discrimination and it requires opportunity but of all of these, I think persistence is really a key factor. And willingness -- I mean there are people who didn't want to see me coming the magazine world -- and I knew everybody in the magazine world. I knew the editor of the New Yorker, Tina Brown gave me $10,000 to write the story about this woman for Vanity Fair, and then she sent me a very nice letter saying I'm really afraid to do this. Why are you afraid to do this? She said, I know what you're saying, but I have a 4-year old son -- you have no many times I heard "I have a child -- so does this mean somebody who was falsely accused and was sent away to languish in prison forever, should be imprisoned because you have a child. You know, maybe she's guilty? These are all the things that happen.

So, I don't want to overuse my time but I don't mean to be grim about all of this. There is a great deal, in addition to suffering, of exaltation to be found just in viewing the subjects about which you write and I say this about the survival of the Holocaust survivors, their survival in America. The survival of people that one comes to learn about, to see what they made of their lives. There were not lives more broken then the lives of people shunted off to prison as the most terrible of offenders in the 80s. All of these families broken, but when you saw how they endured, when the center of the family, when the father or the mother was sent away to prison. They clung together, they had weddings, they had funerals, and nobody ever abandoned anybody -- it was quite a wonderful thing to see. I look at Gerald Amaralt, who was the last of my cases in these -- who was about to leave prison after 17 years after a total piece of corrupt charge -- he was the only one that we couldn't get to overturn because prosecutors wanted to keep, and the Massachusetts court helped -- when I see that after 17 years he has come out a whole creature and his family has endured, there's something quite remarkable about all of this, and you get to watch it and to see it and you see also -- and itÕs the most important thing -- all of the WSJ readers for whom I wrote these stories who wrote to us and sent hundreds of thousands of dollars in, which was unheard of, that we should be running this unofficial charity, and they anonymously paid for the schooling of the Amarall children, they paid for their colleges, they didn't want the credit, and this has all gone on since I started to write about them in 1995, and you know what year it is now, and they're still paying for them, and it's their generosity, and you say -- not one of them asked me, are you sure these people are innocent? I knew that they knew. I knew that these were people with certain skepticisms. I knew that they'd read the evidence, the transcripts, they'd read the children's testimony and they'd come to their conclusions. Americans are an intelligent people -- you put the facts before them. We're talking about the same body that would rush to believe when a prosecutor says, hey, we know these people turned these children into frightened figures and they're slaughtering animals -- in America, the tyrant never sleeps very long.

That's the difference between us, I think, and them. Somebody is going to come along, and the courts in their grinding way -- this was not true in the Supreme Court in Massachusetts, but it was true everywhere else -- once the appeals went forward, once the evidence was brought, some judge, somewhere, was going to say, this is a crock, we've got to let this person out of prison. As soon as I wrote about the Amaralt case, the Boston case, in 1995, six months later their very long sentences were endowed -- two women in the case had their convictions reversed, and when we had this celebration in the Newburyport courthouse, and Judge Barton thundered about the wrong that had been done to these people because he'd read all these articles, and this reporter from NPR came up to me and said, how do you know? And I said, how do I know? Tell me that somebody put a five-inch butcher knife into the anus of a four-year-old child without hurting him or leaving a scar, that he mutilated bluebirds and squirrels, and made the children eat them. That a child had a sharp stick thrown into his anus and was tied up naked on a busy street while the whole school watched, and you don't think there's something that says to you something is wrong with this evidence? That's how I knew, why didn't you know? And, ok, so the women were out, and the press did turn and they changed.

About a year later they held a special hearing about these cases in Massachusetts and a very, very wonderful judge played some of the children's testimony, as there were tapes of the interrogations. And the same reporters, who had ten years earlier in the Globe and Herald, who had indicted these people as fiends, the Amaralts, sat there listening to the evidence tape, and I heard one reporter scream over and over, Oh my god, oh my god. What was the Oh my god about? It was, what am I listening to? This is the evidence? But of course the jury never heard that evidence. The reporters should have asked, how did the prosecutor get the evidence of this testimony, but nobody ever asks because the case had all of this moral weight -- we must protect the children. That's all that was important, was beat this devil, get these children -- the last things the prosecutors always said to the jurors, who might indeed have had a spark of skepticism but see how you would like it if a prosecutor looks at you and says, Are you going to tell me that these 4- and 5-year-olds, who have taken their lives in their hands, and at great pain to themselves in terror have come forward to tell you their story, are you going to disappoint them? Are you going to call them liars? Not a lot of people are going to resist that plea.

So, this was quite remarkable epic in American justice, this wave of abuse things, and I could say that it's all over, but that's not the point. The press has learned, it's very hard to get them to believe one of these stories now. If you want to bring a successful case of child sex abuse you need to be an angry wife, angry at your husband, that still works, juries still believe these charges, but it's never gonna reach the paper, and it's still the weapon of choice in divorces now, and they learned it from this wave of child abuse prosecutions. Not "he beat the children", but "he raped my daughter, he can't get custody." And itÕs a rather common thing. So, I wonder if I should stop now and entertain some questions of yours if you have them?





Copyright 2004 Dorothy Rabinowitz. All rights reserved.