WASHINGTON — A Friday New York Times story that essentially indicted and convicted a 22-year-old star football player on an alleged sexual assault charge by an anonymous accuser should have begun as follows:
“We know absolutely nothing about this rumor except what six people told us anonymously about this guy who they say sexually assaulted this girl. We don’t know who she is or what she said, or really anything, but here’s HIS name and what ‘they’ say about him.”
Instead, with throat-clearing authority, the story begins with the young man’s name — Patrick J. Witt, Yale University’s former quarterback — and his announcement last fall that he was withdrawing his Rhodes scholarship application so that he could play against Harvard. The game was scheduled the same day as the scholarship interview.
Next we are told that he actually had withdrawn his application for the scholarship after the Rhodes Trust had learned “through unofficial channels that a fellow student had accused Witt of sexual assault.” And there goes the gavel. Case closed.
But in fact, no one seems to know much of anything, and no one in an official capacity is talking. The only people advancing this devastating and sordid tale are “a half-dozen (anonymous) people with knowledge of all or part of the story.” All or part? Which part? As in, “Heard any good gossip lately?”
A statement Friday afternoon on Witt’s behalf denied any connection between his withdrawal from the Rhodes application process and the alleged assault. Moreover, when Witt requested a formal inquiry into the allegations, he says the university declined. “No formal complaint was filed, no written statement was taken from anyone involved, and his request ... for a formal inquiry was denied because, he was told, there was nothing to defend against,” according to the statement.
The New York Times apparently didn’t know these facts, but shouldn’t they have known them before publishing the story? It’s not until paragraph 11 that readers even learn about the half-dozen anonymous sources. Not until paragraph 14 does the Times tell us that “many aspects of the situation remain unknown, including some details of the allegation against Witt; how he responded; how it was resolved; and whether Yale officials who handle Rhodes applications — including Richard C. Levin, the university’s president, who signed Witt’s endorsement letter — knew of the complaint.”
Translation: We don’t know anything, but we’re smearing this guy anyway.
Without any facts, it would have been easy enough to conclude that Witt withdrew his Rhodes application because he was guilty of something, as the Times implied. But this would have been an assumption based on an allegation circulated by anonymous accusers. There’s not much meat there, except the red kind, metaphorically speaking, that sends mobs in search of their pitchforks.
It also could have been possible that Witt wanted to pre-empt the inevitable investigation and humiliation. Whether the charge of “sexual assault,” whatever that is, was ever true is irrelevant to the immediate and substantively unfounded assault on Witt’s character.
By now readers have made the inevitable association to the infamous Duke lacrosse case and the media’s rush to judgment when three young men were accused of assaulting an exotic dancer hired to perform at a team party. The three teammates eventually were exonerated, but not before their lives had been ruined by an over-eager prosecutor and a community inclined to believe the worst about jocks.
Who knows what “assault” even means as used in this case? The definition of assault can range from “unwanted sexual advance” to rape as most understand it. As long as we’re making inferences based on anonymous allegations, an inquisition by any other name, we might just as readily conclude that this was no rape. The accuser first reported whatever happened to the university’s Politburo-sounding “Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center,” then later filed an informal complaint with the “University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.” Why not just call it “The Torquemada Institute”?
If the young woman believes she was assaulted, one hopes she gets the help she needs. This is no apology for bad behavior — and no indictment of Witt’s accuser. It is a plea for due process for Witt and others similarly accused. By anyone’s understanding of fairness, Witt has been unjustly condemned by nameless accusers and a complicit press.