WashPost's Farhi Laments Newspapers Caving in to Pressure, Backing Away from Publishing Gun Owner Lists

In a 19-paragraph story today, Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi took a look at how various newspapers around the country are backing away from their initial requests for public records of gun owners. "For the third time in as many months, a newspaper has faced an angry backlash, including threats of violence, after it sought government data on local gun permit holders," Farhi noted. "In the two most recent instances, the newspapers rescinded requests for the documents amid the outcry, with one issuing an abject apology to its readers and the local sheriff for daring to seek the information in the first place," he griped.

In a time when the print newspaper is an endangered species, you'd think Farhi might present the story with the angle being how liberal papers are shooting themselves in the feet with stunts that harm their advertising revenue and subscription base. But no, the thrust of Farhi's piece is how newspapers are cowering away from doing their job. To make this point, Farhi turned to journalism professor Geneva Overholser, who perhaps is most infamous for her call eight years ago for newspapers to identify alleged rape victims (emphasis mine):


Media advocates cast the issue as one of public safety, arguing that disclosure enables people to know who on their block or in their neighborhood is armed. That could guide parents in making decisions about where their children play or with whom they associate.

“It’s a reasonable thing to want to own a gun, so I don’t understand the logic that naming [a gun owner] somehow shames or demonizes them,” said Geneva Overholser, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Instead, such information “could normalize gun ownership” by showing it to be routine and ordinary.

Moreover, she said, “Why does it invade privacy if a person is doing something legal? I don’t discount the discomfort [of being identified in the newspaper], but if we never printed things that people didn’t want in the paper, the paper would look like Swiss cheese. I think we should champion the reasons that it’s worth doing this.”

Overholser said she was saddened by the silencing of the newspapers that sought public records: “Do we as a nation feel comfortable with a newspaper being forced to collapse in the heat of . . . such a vengeful and threatening response? Is that a good way to determine what we should publish?”

By Overholser's logic, it would be perfectly legitimate for a newspaper to collect, if possible under California law Ms. Overholser's library records. What does Overholser's privacy matter since going to the library and checking out, say, 50 Shades of Grey, is legal. Sure, I imagine it would be highly uncomfortable for Overholser to see her library records in print or online for the world to see, but, what does she have to hide?

In 2005, Overholser dived headlong into controversy with her argument that newspapers should divulge the names of sexual assault victims. Most news agencies, of course, withhold the names of rape victims, in large part with the aim of not discouraging rape victims from going to the police with their complaints for fear of public disclosure. But that doesn't hold water with Overholser, who essentially argued that other news outlets will report the names of rape victims, so newspapers should too (emphasis mine):

In the crime of rape, it is time we named the accuser as well as the accused.

An awful lot of cruelty surrounds the crime of rape. The crime itself, of course, is unspeakably cruel. And the reaction is often cruel, as well. In what other instance are victims so painfully scrutinized? Where else do we see such loathsome insinuations about a victim’s character? So many false assumptions? So much ignorance? Cruelty feeds on ignorance. And I have yet to see ignorance effectively addressed by secrecy.

[...]

But here is the new development: As a practical matter, whether shielding rape victims was the right thing to do or not, it no longer makes sense. Newspapers are not — as they once were — the gatekeepers of such information. The culture has changed. Details about the Kobe Bryant accuser are being bandied about by shock jocks and on the Net netherworld. Mainstream media stick to an outdated policy, which has turned into a conceit. This empty posturing produces stories such as the one by the Orange County Register, raising questions about the mental stability of the accuser in the Kobe Bryant case — and then intoning: “The Register is not identifying the woman because of the sensitive nature of the case.” The people who know the woman already know she’s the one involved in this case. Meanwhile, much of the nation hears or reads irresponsible charges against her.

The responsible course for responsible media today is this: Treat the woman who charges rape as we would any other adult victim of crime. Name her, and deal with her respectfully. And leave the trial to the courtroom.

Take Overholser's words and send them to a reporter and say that Todd Akin said them, and I guarantee you the reaction would be predictably rather explosive. But I guess that's the benefit of being a liberal J-school professor ensconced in the ivory tower.

Farhi also curiously omitted that Overholser formerly served as Washington Post ombudsman, something that he should have divulged for purposes of full disclosure.

P.S.: NewsBusters publisher Brent Bozell once tagged Overholser as a "whining liberal windbag" for her resignation in protest from the National Press Foundation subsequent to the Foundation honoring Fox News anchor Brit Hume.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters