(photo credit: Steve Clemons, The Washington Note)
(This article is appearing simultaneously at TheAtlantic.com)
According to reports, the accuser who worked at New York’s Hotel Sofitel has allegedly been engaged in money laundering activities and has had substantial contact with an incarcerated drug dealer. Strauss-Kahn’s bails and terms of detention are reportedly going to be lightened today — and others are suggesting that felony charges may be dropped against him.
Maybe he did harass this woman — but it is also possible that he did not. That’s what the system of justice is for — to presume innocence until guilt is determined. That no longer sounds likely in this case.
But this week, former French Finance Minister Christine Legarde was named Strauss-Kahn’s successor at the International Monetary Fund, and back at home, French Socialist Party Leader Martine Aubry declared her candidacy for President.
Strauss-Kahn, who may be innocent, who even Sarkozy said should be presumed innocent unless evidence led to a different conclusion, now cannot return either to the IMF or to his position as the next likely President of France.
One of the fears that I often hear from people when talking about the growing power of social network sites, blogs, as well as micro-journalism and micro-comment platforms is the one of scandalmongering, or a tsunami of mistruths and reputational attacks that take down some high profile person.
A good read on this sort of thing is the late William Safire‘s historical novel, Scandalmonger, which shares what slander blogging might have been like in late 18th century America in the person of James Callender who doggedly pursued, occasionally inventing, sleazy stories about both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
I have generally argued, and may be wrong, that the internet is a much more honest and disciplining arena than print, that errors, mistakes, or misreporting would be instantaneously sniffed out and corrected by a global audience. I know I have gotten things wrong before and had emails or posted comments that helped me put my information on a better, more accurate track. But that isn’t always the case, particularly in growing clusters of same-thinking people who care less about sorting out the facts than they do about the frame (or bias) they bring to some respective issue.
But in today’s fast-paced world, a reputation can be destroyed rapidly — and if, as in the case of Strauss-Kahn it seems, the consequences of charges made actually precede the processing of those charges, then we as a society are no longer extending the benefits of presumed innocence that are core to our form of democracy and our legal system.
I realize given the proliferation of commentary about Strauss-Kahn’s alleged womanizing and the bandwaggoning criticism of him that built after his arrest that he is perhaps a flawed and tragic figure.
But the problem of reputation wrecked still stands whether the target is warm and likeable or a brilliant storm, as I see Strauss-Kahn, and that lesson is a bad one for people on the internet, who are becoming commentators and writers, to learn. They see the successful effects of attack, whether based in truth and credibility or not, and sense that the downsides of backlash and consequence to an accuser’s or scandalmongerer’s credibility are not serious.
When Georgia State USDA rural development director Shirley Sherrod was fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for making ‘alleged’ racially-tinged remarks, we also saw consequences meted out before the entire story of that video, brought to light by Andrew Breitbart, was properly considered.
There is no clear fix to these problems. We don’t have a system that would let Strauss-Kahn have his job back, and Aubry is not likely to step aside in her presidential quest and let DSK go back and take the top spot challenging Sarkozy.
Again, I am not saying that I know if he did or didn’t engage in lewd conduct against a hotel chambermaid — but his legally-based presumed innocence has been inconsequential to the penalties that he’s already received, and that’s something that should worry us.
— Steve Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons