Ethics Corner: New York Tabloids Had Their Verdict

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By: Allan Wolper

There had been no need to file any charges. The New York Post, New York’s Daily News, and The New York Sun, aided and abetted by their electronic brethren, had already convicted Peter Braunstein of last Halloween’s horrific sexual attack.

I’m sure the newspapers felt vindicated last Dec. 18 when the Manhattan District Attorney’s office finally charged Braunstein, 41, a former Women’s Wear Daily writer, with kidnapping, sexual abuse, burglary, and robbery in connection with what police say was a 13-hour long assault on a woman in her Chelsea apartment. Braunstein was scheduled to be extradited to New York from Memphis where he tried to stab himself to death before he was arrested by campus police at the University of Memphis.

But for more than a month before he was formally charged, the Daily News and the Post had inserted the words “alleged” and “allegedly” in their phony effort to be fair in their coverage, even as they prosecuted Braunstein on their front pages. The two Manhattan tabloids led the media witch hunt for the elusive Braunstein by reporting every piece of hearsay evidence the police leaked to them.

The two papers even sent reporters to Ohio, where U.S. Marshals convinced WKYC-TV, a Gannett-owned television station in Cleveland, to name Braunstein the Dec. 5 “Fugitive of the Week” on its Web site. “One of the most wanted men in the United States,” the WKYC story read. “He also hires drivers to take him around and even ran an ad for one in The Plain Dealer.”

But at the time, there were no “Wanted” posters with Braunstein’s picture on them in any post office. That’s because, contrary to whispers that were circulated to the media by New York police detectives, Braunstein had not been charged with anything. Yet readers had little choice but to believe he was undoubtedly the one who posed as a fireman to worm his way into the victim’s apartment last Oct. 31.

“There are no arrest warrants filed against Braunstein,” police spokesman Sgt. Reginald Watkins told me while the Post and the Daily News were busy referring to him as a “sicko” and a “sex fiend.”

“You can say he is a prime suspect in the Halloween case,” Sgt. Watkins added in early December. “But he has not been charged with anything.”

Meanwhile, “police sources” told their deputized news people that Braunstein bought leg shackles, chloroform, a gun, and a fireman’s outfit on eBay several days before the Halloween assault — all items the unidentified cops say were used to help commit the crime.

New York magazine outdid the Post and Daily News in its late-November cover story on the case by calling the Halloween assault “Braunstein’s crime” in a piece that was introduced as “the making of a tabloid monster” and read like it was written by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Newsday, however, never joined the posse. The paper reported one week after the assault that the man’s father and neighbors in Queens said the sketch the police were circulating of the phony fireman didn’t look anything like Braunstein. And the victim said her attacker wore a mask.

Braunstein, who is serving three years’ probation after pleading guilty to harassing his ex-girlfriend, may eventually be convicted of the Halloween assault. But no matter what happens, the media will have been found guilty of perpetrating the public impression that they are stenographers for the police department.

“What’s shocking about this case is that the police are using the media as a stalking horse to get information,” said Kathryn M. Kase, a co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Kase, a former Albany, N.Y., lawyer who is now a staff attorney in Houston with the Texas Defender Service, a group that fights capital punishment, was appalled by the media’s lap-dog approach to the case. “What this does is create a climate so that the readers believe that Braunstein is a bad person, which I find ethically troubling,” she said. “It seems to me the skepticism we want the media to bring to news coverage is absent here.”

Bill Bastone, editor of The Smoking Gun Web site, believes the story would not have had any traction in any other part of the country. “It’s big here because it deals with the publishing industry, New York media,” he said. “And it’s just a great tabloid story.”

It certainly is. But that doesn’t mean that the media should string up a suspect before he has been charged with anything. One thing New York City doesn’t need is one more story of how the media let their sources lie to them without checking them out.

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