Saturday, December 07, 2019

What do we do with Linda Fairstein?

Linda Fairstein is a writer. Crime novels. She's been a presence in the crime writing community for years. I don't know her at all. We may have said hello at some event or another in years past but I don't remember, and if you asked her who I was, she'd have not a single clue.

Linda Fairstein is now a pariah. She used to be a hero. What happened?

Some background:
She worked in the Manhattan District Attorney's office as a prosecutor.

She was largely responsible for the creation of the sex crimes unit, later made famous by Law&Order: SVU. Her tenacity, her downright tunnel vision led her to champion victims of sex crimes against all comers and made her a hero to many women.

But she was also part of -- how much and how directly is subject to interpretation and unreliable memory but is nonetheless an ironclad fact --  the team that built the case against the Central Park Five.

The Central Park Five are five young men (then ages 16, 15, 14) who were charged with, and then convicted of a brutal rape.

DNA evidence later exonerated all five; they sued the city and won.
The crime occurred in 1989.
The trial took place in 1990.
Another man confessed to the crime in 2001.

The convictions for all five (now) men were vacated in 2002.

The dates are important because it's now 2019.
17 years have passed since it became clear there was a terrible miscarriage of justice.

But it was more than a miscarriage of justice: the confessions wrung from those (then) boys were clearly forced or coerced. This wasn't just a mistake, it was getting what you wanted, regardless of who had to suffer.

Now, 30 years after the event and 17 years after the vacated verdict, Linda Fairstein is in hot water.

The first sign was when she was selected to be a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master. The press release was issued, and several authors protested vigorously.

Their point was that a woman who had been part of team that railroaded the Central Park Five, and continues to this day to maintain she did nothing wrong, was not someone that MWA should honor.

Then, Ava DuVernay released her movie about the Central Park Five. Felicity Huffman plays Linda Fairstein, in a casting choice so ironic you just have to stop for a moment to admire the machinations of the universe.

Felicity Huffman is a compelling actor. Her portrayal of Linda Fairstein evokes serious anger and outrage.

And a lot more people see movies than read press releases from MWA.

The fallout was instant, and brutal.

Some of the charities Linda Fairstein has been part of for years accepted her resignation.

Glamour magazine went so far as to strip her of their Woman of the Year award...given to her in 1993.

Her publisher, Dutton, in a tersely worded press release, said they would no longer publish her. They "bought out" her contract. Specifics not disclosed, but it wasn't a pittance.

Her agency has severed their representation.

If your first reaction is "Good, she should feel what it's like to have your whole life taken away from you by people who can do that" I can sympathize. That was my first reaction too.

My next point though is this: Dutton, the charities, the agency, all of us knew that Linda Fairstein participated materially in the Central Park case prosecution. It's never been a secret. The information wasn't kept quiet. EVERYONE KNEW.

In fact, everyone knew it was botched as far back as 2002, and botched BIG time when the city settled for millions of dollars.

I can understand why Linda Fairstein might feel blindsided here.

And I can understand why she might be wondering why and how things changed so much, and so quickly.

Two things changed: first, the Ava DuVernay movie. No longer described in dry, objective newspaper and magazine articles that are subject to litigation, Linda Fairstein is now made flesh and fang by an actor.

In a movie, what's real, what's true, what's accurate often takes second place to what's cinematic. And what makes a good story.

So what is Linda Fairstein paying for now? Her bad judgment in prosecuting the five young men? Her unrepentant position that she did no wrong? Or the movie that paints her in broad strokes of cruel?

The second thing that changed: The advent of social media that encourages and foments a pile-on mentality that allows for no nuance, no grey areas, no reasonable dissension.

I must say I thought long and hard about posting this because frankly, I'm not eager to be a target of that mob mentality.

If we can separate out our feelings about what happened with the Central Park Five (just for the purposes of this discussion) is it fair to penalize Linda Fairstein NOW for something that not only happened 30 years ago, but was never hidden, concealed, or covered up?

Linda Fairstein is paying an enormous price it seems NOT for her role in this case, but for creative choices made by an actor and director, and the advent of Twitter.

And some people might say, with no small bit of just cause: it's about time.

But the larger question is this:

Is there a statute of limitations on penalizing even the self-righteously obtuse?

And how far back are we going to go?

If someone made a movie about the worst choices in your life, and cast you to as the villain, how would you fare?

And the biggest question, the question that took me a long time to see and for which I have no answer: The Ava DuVernay movie is the first time this story has been told by a black person. Is that a factor in this reaction?

I'm thinking about this a lot.

I'd welcome your thoughts on the subject as well.

Usual rules for comments: no invective, no political insults, no blanket statements.  Anything like that will be deleted by me with no notice. Thoughtful comments offering different opinions are welcome.


Ryan Neely said...

I'm probably not going to be popular for this response, but ...

Should it matter this much? What I mean is this: 1.) Do any of us (read: society at large) actually understand the nuances of her role in sending those boys to prison? Likely not. 2.) If her role was as bad as it sounds--bad enough for her to be directly responsible for coercing those confessions--then, she should be punished and as a society, we can do that through the proper channels; she can be tried by a court of her peers.

This "court of popular opinion" is something that has always stymied me. I've spoken with too many people who refuse to patronize certain individuals because of "some thing" in that person's past as if one has any relevance or bearing on the other. My father won't watch a single Tom Cruise movie, for example, because Tom is a Scientologist. I don't see how one has anything to do with the other. Tom Cruise make fun and exciting cinema. I'm not being converted to his religion by watching them.

Is Linda Fairstein a good writer? Does she write outstanding crime fiction that, if it were anyone else, would be justified in being celebrated as a MWA Grand Master? I don't know. I haven't read her work, but the specifics of this case wouldn't stop me from doing so.

It is frightening to see how this court of public opinion can strip a person of his or her entire life without due process, or even fully formed facts. This is, however, the Age of (Mis)Information, and something I should probably get used to. The more prolific social media becomes, the fewer secrets we will all have, and the more we will all be forced to face the spotlight of our actions.

Ryan Neely said...

In discussing this concept with my wife, she just reminded me of the film Heavenly Creatures (released in 1994) about two girls who conspire to (and the do) murder one of the girls' mothers. It is a film based on a true story. One of those girls is author Anne Perry. Anne confessed and was convicted of the crime. Had this film been released today, I wonder if she would be facing similar backlash from the public or if the public would have been satisfied knowing she had been through the system and been punished (to whatever extent that was). Again, it seems as though the amrchair outrage generated by social media (unavailable in 1994) would have caused more damage than was necessary. But that's must me.

Kitty said...

Ryan is right about the "court of popular opinion." As I read this post I was thinking of an episode of LAST MAN STANDING, starring Tim Allen as Mike Baxter. Mike's grandson Boyd goes to an elementary school named after Lewis & Clark. When it was discovered that Clark owned slaves in the early 1800s, some wanted to rename the school. Mike was against it and said, "I don't want the bad things in my life to be the only things people remember."

Like Ryan, I have never read Linda Fairstein's books. Ryan summed it up rather well. So, other than my one comment, I defer to his comments.

Kitty said...

Typo correction: I REFER to his comments

Mister Furkles said...

Long ago, I learned that all movies are fiction. Even documentaries are often fabricated.

A problem with our justice system is that lawyers (i.e. prosecutors) are trained to choose a side and make their case. A prosecutor's number one goal should be to get to the truth. But law schools and courts don't teach that. Prosecutors are encouraged to get a win even if it is by false means.

A Florida man was on death row for rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl. DNA then proved him innocent. The prosecutor and the justice system opposed vacating his sentence until a prisoner dying of cancer confessed--his DNA matched.

Generally what is wrong here: (1) people do not seek truth but winning, and (2) people are too lazy or rushed to delve deep enough to ferret out the facts.

If there is a hero in this it is the scientists who worked obsessively to find the truth in DNA.

The villain is lazy judgmentalism.

It has gotten worse since the Internet and failure of people to read and sort out facts from a 'good' story.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

For fear of the piling on, this story makes me ill.

What happened to the Central Park 5 was a grotesque miscarriage of justice. Yes. But this person who is paying for that horrific wrongful prosecution did NOT rape that girl. Somebody did. Someone who later confessed.

Linda was doing her job, perhaps over-zealous, yep. What a nightmare. Was she wrong? The courts did say she was wrong. So was everyone on her team. The legal remedy has been exacted. That should have been the end of it. Leaving her life in tact does not mean that all these people in her community condone what happened. But that is what they/we fear.

There is a passage in the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis that talks about how the devil would like to keep us focused on the past and the future when we should be focused on the present and the eternal in order to live our most productive and loving lives. We can't change the past and we can't predict the future.

Learning from the past is essential but prosecuting the past over and over and over again is INSANE.

As a society, we are becoming hate-filled, vengeance thirsty, virtual-signaling monsters. This constant destroying of random lives for indiscretions committed decades ago is not the stuff of renaissance. It is the burning of Rome and the coming of the dark ages. It discounts all the years of growth and change in the time between. This is not a Cold Case rape or murder. This woman is being convicted of doing her job.

We have stared too long into the abyss and it is glaring back at us. I despise myself when I find myself part of the mob and I do at times. Because I fear the mob. It turns on a dime, requires no court of law, assumes guilt, and utterly lacks forgiveness, love, or mercy. Or any introspection.

We all fall short. We all make assumptions that are false. We all have our prejudices. We are all subject to moments of narrow-mindedness and self-righteous pride. That is part of the human condition. We also have moments of great love, charity, and light which are all swept away in the mindset of the mob. Any one of us could become victim of the sheeple for a slip of the keys, a wrong-phrasing of a tweet, a moment of poor decision-making. Furthermore, a lot of people are being destroyed for simply being on the wrong side of the current ideological trend. The ideological door swings in the blink of the eye. That door will swing back without warning, and bury those casting stones today in a landslide tomorrow. If Linda can be destroyed in this manner, then so can we all.

And I am afraid.

John Williamson said...

Excellent review of the facts and the problem. I'm reminded of the Bill Cosby situation: there were many accusations, rumors and denials which went on for years until a black (male) comedian made a comment in his stand-up routine, labeling Cosby a rapist. The dam broke. Was it because the comedian was black - like Cosby - or because he was male - like Cosby - or because he was - again like Cosby - a comedian? Maybe a combination. Whatever it was, it caused a sea change, leading to Cosby's imprisonment. What both Cosby and Fairstein have in common is their abject refusal to admit error or wrongdoing and this is huge. One might not expect someone who drugged and raped many individuals to admit to the crime but, at least in Fairstein's case, she had an out: she could have claimed that she was acting in good faith and she got it wrong. She might have taken it a step further - perhaps performing a community service by publishing a book explaining how she got it wrong. Contrition in 2002, when the truth came out, probably would have saved her from the mob in 2019.

CynthiaMc said...

Last year I was in a show about the Salem Witch Trials. Many perfectly innocent people were hanged there and the people doing the judging were lauded at the time. It made me realize that though we like to tell ourselves things are so different now but bwing on Twitter for two minutes shows the mob mentality apparently is part of our DNA.

The older I get the less inclined I am to judge anyone about anything (except pedophiles).

There are a lot of convictions overturned these days due to DNA evidence (thank you Innocence Project). We had one not long ago near us.

I'm not very familiar with the case you cite or Ms. Fairstein. Nothing will give back the years those men spent in prison.

DNA evidence was not a thing back then. Hindsight is always 20/20. If DNA evidence had been available then, things would have turned out differently. The tendency now is to judge everything by today's standards and condemn anyone who is isn't as woke and prefect as we all are today.

Is anyone blaming the real guilty person who stayed silent all that time?

If Ms. Fairstein and her team hadn't gotten a conviction would she have been excoriated for that too?

What is perfectly acceptable and even laudable one day can cost you your job the next.

A completely judgmental world is hard to survive in - especially when the rules change so often.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I have not read the entire post. I have not read all of the comments. I do know about the subject matter (somewhat). As a columnist with strong opinions, and seldom hesitant to voice them, I scrolled down. One line from E.M GOLDSMITH caught my eye.

"And, I am afraid."

roadkills-r-us said...

A friend has a food truck. The first few years she called it White Girl Asian Food. More or less a Brooklyn girl’s TexMex/Asian food fusion.
Some online crusaders were disgusted at this “cultural appropriation” and launched an attack, including lots of people who had never even been to Austin to see to her truck giving her one star reviews.
The irony here is that when her truck used to come to my employer, quite a few Asians ate there and liked it (and my friend).
Different scenario, I know, but same mindset. That was when It became real for me- trying to hurt someone they didn’t even know, destroy her livelihood. Of course I defended her- wondering if I would be next.
I’m rereading Divergent this week. With things like Ms Fairfield’s case happening, the media assault feels chillingly even more real. And if someone knows how to manipulate the people through media- of whatever sort- ugly things will get worse until enough good people say, “No!”
That’s an over-simplification, of course. It could get even uglier when that happens.

tsquared said...

I am terrified by this type of social media and sensationalized pseudo-journalism. Reading the post, I immediately had a flashback.
With nearly 30 years of experience as a counselor in private practice, I made a 911 call and followed state and federal procedures for reporting someone who was a danger to others. I can't give details.
My 911 call was played on TV. Two policemen interviewed me and harassed me for the case file. My professional organization blamed me. My malpractice insurance would not get back to me. The details were all over the news and newspapers for weeks.
In the media circus that ensued, I lost contracts with companies. My referral sources stopped giving out my name. With the statute of limitations, I lost two years of my life dealing with this case because -- instead of the situation remaining a personal tragedy, it was made into a media event.
Eventually, I had to leave the state, took another two years hiatus from therapy to let this die down in people's and the media's eye, and start over.
Social media, the press, and the entertainment world have become so interlinked, I am counting the days until I can retire. Every time I make a therapeutic decision to terminate a case or a client just doesn't like me, I cringe at what is happening to my professional and personal reputation.
I don't trust the media to present anything remotely like the facts.
I have seen this happen to other authors too.

Timothy Lowe said...

Good God. Ms. Reid, I bow to you for writing about this with such precision!

If you're not thinking these things daily, you might be a bot. But not many people have the guts to articulate them so powerfully.

In a world where I have to text my son to get his attention while he's in the room, it's clear we've lost something.

Brenda said...

It’s not news that humans love to feel morally superior. We break our own arms in order to pat ourselves on the back. Modern technology, money motivated reporting, and anonymity have combined to create a bully of truly horrific proportions. Gossip hasn’t had such a boost since the advent of the party-line telephone.

Bullying is not ok. I see no end in sight and it grieves me.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book addresses some of why we get each other wrong. I’m only halfway through but I already highly recommend it. It’s called Talking to Strangers.


Brent Salish said...

More than anything else, I am encouraged by the thoughtfulness of the post and the comments.
Every lawyer knows: Hard cases make bad law. And this "case" is as hard as any - not just the trial, and the forced confessions, and the exoneration, and the suit for damages, but the long silence, the movie, and the public reaction.
Yet one question remains unasked, and unanswered: Did Ms. Fairstein repeat this behavior? Was this her normal modus operandi, or did she get sucked into the moment and the outcry for "justice" and the need to "just do something"?
The Twitterverse isn't new, just faster. Justice got Twittered in 1989, just as it did in Salem. Or in Julius Caesar, for that matter.
Hard case. And even in this age of radical pseudo-transparency, we the jury are missing crucial information.

miriam said...

I agree with everything that has been said here, especially Brenda's comment that Bullying is not okay. I'm concerned that Ms. Farstein couldn't admit that she did anything wrong. She helped destroy 5 innocent people's lives, and the fact that she couldn't look deeply into what she did and come to terms with it is extremely troubling. Does that make it okay twenty years later for the media and others to ruin her life because things were not dealt with fairly during that time period? That is something we all need to look at ourselves and think about. Another thing this immediately brought to mind is that our President was one of the first to accuse the innocent young men, and has never apologized or said he was wrong about that. So while this is a problem that affects all of us, it would be helpful to have a leader who was able to look at him or herself and admit when a grave mistake has been made.

Colin Smith said...

I'm very encouraged by the tenor of the comments. As I look at our society today, the virtue signalling, and the willingness to trash the lives of people you don't like (political opponents, successful businessmen/women, etc.) on the basis of past (sometimes distant past) failings, and I find it both short-sighted and socially destructive.

The point about the specific case that gives me pause, is the fact that Ms. Fairstein is, apparently, unwilling to admit she made a mistake. If it has been demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that the five are innocent and the person who confessed is guilty, then she should say, "I'm sorry, I got it wrong." But I suspect she knows that whatever acts of contrition she may perform to society, these days it will never be enough.

Fact is, we appreciate and enjoy the art of a lot of reprobates. A LOT of them. Do you really want to know the sordid details of the life of every person whose work you enjoy? Whether we're talking Socrates, Debussy, Anne Perry, or the Marx Brothers, everyone has a past that might cause them to blush in the cold light of maturity. As a young teenager, I said and did things I am far from proud of. Do I need to live in fear that someone who knew me back then will tell tales should I gain any kind of public profile?

If I had a warning for our culture, it's this: Beware the pendulum of social opinion. The things you celebrate now may shame you in future. How will you want to be treated?

Bethany Elizabeth said...

There's a fundamental difference between knowing someone did something wrong and understanding that someone did something wrong. I can't count the number of arguments I've gotten into because I KNEW I did something hurtful and I'd apologized, but I didn't UNDERSTAND the scope of it. Until I understood completely, I couldn't really apologize.

There's also another point to consider: at what degree should we separate the artist from the art?

I can understand the charities and the Woman of the Year award being taken away. They were given (or earned) with a false understanding of the woman's character (presumably). The MWA and the publishing contract...that's trickier for me. Because those aren't inherently moral rewards. Those are rewards for art.

I hate the idea of terrible people receiving adoration and wealth because they happen to be good at writing or singing. I also hate the idea of normal, sinful people being denied the opportunity to share their gifts because they're fundamentally flawed and twitter got angry about it.

I don't believe, except in extreme cases, that you can truly judge someone's moral character without knowing them.

For those of us that are afraid by mass media outrage, there is some hope at least. We're starting to see people come back from it. People who did wrong and got crucified for it (and apologized) are starting to get their careers back. Public opinion isn't necessarily 'you're dead to us forever' anymore. Cancel culture is open to redemption arcs.

Don't be afraid. Fear is an immobilizing emotion and it can't solve a thing. I've often found that the best cure for fear is compassion. Trying to understand the monster in the dark turns it into what it really is: a dust bunny casting a shadow.

Colin Smith said...

... and yes and amen to Brent's comment. If you deem yourself worthy to judge whether or not a person is deserving of success, acclaim, or a livelihood, look at the character of that person's life, not an isolated incident of failure or indiscretion.

Beth Carpenter said...

I don't have much to add, except that I'm encouraged by the thoughtful weighing of circumstances in this thread. If we could all learn to step back and consider before piling on it would spare a lot of people a lot of pain.

The fact that the movie is what sparked all this after so many years is a reminder that art is powerful, and we writers have a responsibility to tell the truth, even in fiction.

Mo H said...

I don’t think social media has changed people’s capability to try and understand truth. Stories have always been told. Two sides to every story. And people will always believe what they perceive as the truth. We filter out things that aren’t in line with our way of thinking because it’s easy. The path of least resistance.

Did Ms. Fairstein receive unfair treatment? Did Ms. DuVernay’s portrayal show a perspective about being taken advantage of because of racial bias? The point is it made people ask questions. Maybe someone even learned in the process.

What social media has created is sheeple. They go along because it’s safe. A lone sheep is at risk. But everyone knows the greater the risk, the greater the reward. It’s hard, but we learn by constantly seeking answers, not just looking for something to blame. Do you take the time to wonder why you think a certain way?

I have been confronted with the consequences of choices I made that hurt other people. And how I reacted twenty years ago is not what I would do today. Wisdom comes from experience. When we learn, we can recognize how to make better choices. When I apologized for those decisions and shared how it was a learning process so I would not repeat the same mistake, the people I hurt were able to move forward. And so was I.

The Sleepy One said...

There are two things I've wondered about this situation:

1. If Linda had just apologized from the beginning and said it was an unfortunate miscarriage of justice, versus doubling down that she hadn't done anything wrong, how would this have played out? She could have further talked about how mistakes like this happen and how it can be avoided in the future.

2. How much did the movie change the *national* impact of this, especially considering it came out after the Black Lives Matter movement hit full stride, and Twitter allows everyone to share opinions quickly? I remember hearing about the Central Park 5 when it happened. But I was a child on the West Coast. I knew the 5 were exonerated. But I didn't know who Linda Fairstein until all of this happened.

nightsmusic said...

I do remember the case and the aftermath. I remember the media frenzy at the time, the 'facts' and the 'doubts' and what happened later on. I remember the exoneration and the confession. But it's something that happened then. And that to me, is where the problem lies.

Right or wrong at the time, social media has created the biggest bully mentality, at least in my mind, that we've ever seen just because it's immediate and world wide. People also, as Mo H pointed out, are quite often sheeple. Easier to be a part of a bigger organism than to stand alone and become a target. The problem with that organism is that it gets to the point where it no longer cares about the truth or right or wrong. The momentum carries it forward and whoever gets stomped on in the process is simply a casualty and so what?

How much do we know of what Linda Fairstein was knowledgeable of before the case went to court? Probably very little. Perhaps she still feels she was going on the evidence presented to her and had no culpable knowledge of coerced confessions and that's why she is still sure she did nothing wrong. Was she in the interrogation rooms? I don't know.

What I do know is this mob mentality has judged, juried and convicted her without a thought to whether it's right or wrong. They've destroyed a life not considering the consequences involved to her or anyone else associated with her. But the bigger problem is, as easy as it was to do this, and it was relatively easy, when are they going to come for the next one, or the one after that. Or me for some perceived/real injustice I did when I was young.

Or you?

Mister Furkles said...

In this 21st century people are too judgmental and too lazy to separate fact from accusation.

John 8:7 "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

Craig F said...

I think the whole recent deal is a crock of schnitzel. There are two reasons for it.

She was a prosecutor before she became a writer. Prosecutors do not investigate, or interview suspects. The cops do all of that and present their evidence to a state's attorney for judgement on if it is a viable case. If it is, then it is turned over to a prosecutor to make a presentation in court.

She did her job and did it well. She should not be judged poorly for that.

The second thing is the timeline. That big gap means that she was judged using a piece of fiction as evidence. That is wrong. The whole of social media is meant to create a pack mentality. If you know pit bulls, you know what that can do. A single pit bull is a lovely dogs, when you get a couple of them together things change and they will attack. That happened here.

KDJames said...

How the hell did 2002 suddenly get to be 17 years ago? *sigh*

I know nothing about this case other than what Janet outlined in this post. But it's nothing new. It's not shocking or even surprising. People who wield power or wealth or privilege have been doing atrocious, unspeakable things to vulnerable people throughout all of history, and still are. Mob mentality and bullying are not new and certainly are not a creation of social media.

I'm grateful to people like DuVernay who are able to hold up a big old spotlight and make us look at our mistakes, to provoke contemplation from a different perspective, to spark discussion and even argument, and yes, to shame us for past actions. How can any of us heal and grow and try to do better in the future if we refuse to see or admit wrongdoing? Especially when problems like unequal justice are ongoing and relentless.

That's one issue, and it's timeless.

The other issue I'm wrangling with is the way personal or professional events in our non-writing life can affect our career as writers. And whether they should.

I read and very much enjoyed several of Fairstein's early novels, although none recently. She's an extremely talented writer. I knew no details of her legal work at that time, other than the cover copy. I have to ask myself, knowing what I do now balanced against what I remember of her storytelling prowess, would I read more of her books? I can't say with certainty, as I no longer read that genre like I once did, but I suspect not.

Is that fair? As a writer, shouldn't I have more empathy? Shouldn't I be able to separate the work from the person? And, as Janet asked, how far back should we delve in our judgment?

I don't know.

Reading fiction is an act of emotion. There's a big element of trust involved: that the writer will take you on a satisfying emotional journey. When the emotions provoked by real life actions intrude on the emotional journey of the book, the immersive ability to suspend disbelief is damaged. That trust is broken. Maybe it can be regained over time, maybe not.

It depends on the reader. It's subjective and personal, not a universal answer.

To be blunt, for me, Fairstein is not the only writer whose work has been compromised in this way. Some issues matter more to me than others; some are easier to overlook. By the same token, there are writers whose work I have come to read and love specifically because of actions taken and words spoken in their non-writing life. It cuts both ways.

Writers are imperfect, just like everyone else. Some people will accept our flaws with grace and compassion, some won't. I don't think that's something to fear. That's not why I write and it won't be the reason I stop.

Whoa, that turned into an essay. Sorry about that.

Fearless Reider said...

People have always been quick to jab their fingers at scapegoats and pile on the flawed or vulnerable to secure their spot in the pack. But with social media, the accusations and grievances aggregate so quickly there’s no time for one or two voices of reason to chime in with an alternate view. In my cynical moments, I almost miss the good old days when media elites controlled every narrative. This is the seamy underbelly of rampant democratization, made even muckier by our failure to teach critical thinking skills to our kids.

I’ve been missing my crusty old high school rhetoric teacher, who taught us how to balance argument with counter-argument and wrestle with nuance. Our current system of petrified binaries isn’t doing us any good. And in the case of people like Linda Fairstein, many fail to grasp that our justice system is designed to find the truth through adversarial argument, each side working zealously to support their claims. (Of course, that never excuses prosecutorial misconduct).

In my more hopeful moments, I prefer to think we’re in the midst of growing pains as we lurch toward a more enlightened world. Those moments are often fleeting.

Laina said...

When something like this happens, I can't, frankly, say I'm that sympathetic that someone lost their book deal for something they actually did when five other someones lost several years of their lives for something they didn't actually do.

No one is obligated to give her their money, or their time. It's not like she's going to be sleeping on the streets or anything because of this.

Alex said...

And the biggest question, the question that took me a long time to see and for which I have no answer: The Ava DuVernay movie is the first time this story has been told by a black person. Is that a factor in this reaction?

I think that she is black is a factor, but not because people are reacting to the movie because she is black. More that this movie probably wouldn't have been made by someone who wasn't black.

I think the world has changed sufficiently in the last 17 years that black people are finally being given the resources to make films on this level. This means there are a load of new voices and perspectives coming into mainstream pop culture, which also inevitably means certain events are being talked about in a different way.

As to whether Linda Fairstein should be made into a pariah, I don't know. Maybe she should. I am in all honesty more dubious about the organisations who severed contracts with her, because they all knew about her actions and they dropped her when the PR got too hot. It's the same as knowing about Harvey Weinstein's actions, and suddenly walking away when everyone else found out the whole story.

Jonathan Levy said...

I have no knowledge of this case other than what I've read in the original post. But I think I can answer this question:

So what is Linda Fairstein paying for now?

Linda's claim to fame was that she brought justice to people who were denied justice, and that in so doing she did much good. But now, having discovered that her method blatantly imprisoned innocent men, people no longer have confidence in it; they suspect that the evil she did (however well-intentioned she was) outweighs the good. They fear that the Central Park Five were not an aberration, but a typical case. Honoring her achievements implicitly signals approval of her methods - therefore, they stop.

The analogy with the Witch Trials is a good one - all the people involved at the time thought they were doing God's work. Today, we excoriate them, and rightly so.

Which is not to say that twitter mobs are invariably right, or proportionate in their responses, or cannot do more harm than overzealous prosecutors.

AJ Blythe said...

The level-headed discussion above is wonderful to see. I know little else other than what our Queen wrote, and it's been discussed so well, I'm not going to broach more on that.

Instead, I want to share something that happened to me this week. Out of the blue I received an email from a librarian in the US. She also volunteers at the library, helping with middle-schoolers. Over November she had them participating in a version of NaNoWriMo - so they could talk about how stories come about and do a fun project.

She found my website and was emailing to tell me how helpful my "resources for writers" page was. She also wanted to share a link to a screenwriting page one of her kiddies had found. She asked if I could add it to my page.

The purpose was to show the kids how to be good digital citizens. To reach out and give compliments. To combat how often people hide behind the anonymity of the internet to say mean things.

I think this skims around the scariest issue of the Linda Fairstein case, and the hundreds more like it. Every time adults take to social media on a crusade, they are teaching the next generation it's okay to judge without all the facts. It's okay to help ruin someones life to feel good in yourself. It's easier to be anonymous and preachy on the internet, than to actually do something that really makes a difference, like volunteering for a local charity. That manners aren't important.

The gospel of the internet seems to have been forgotten: Post unto others, as you would have them post unto you

I've added that link to my page and sent them a thank you email. I hope it helps teach a handful of kids the lessons the librarian wanted.

Lucie Witt said...

I imagine it was hard for her publisher and agent to forgive someone not offering an apology. If she did not maintain she did nothing wrong, things might have gone differently. It is stunning to see in some cases the sympathy for what she has lost eclipses the sympathy for the, we can hopefully all agree, much more staggering loss those young men faced. It is hard for me to imagine someone I love going through that kind of punishment and having the person who played a role in it double down and say she did the right thing. It does not show the kind of judgment that would make me anxious to keep being her agent. That lack of judgment and empathy has now been starkly revealed. I am a fan of rehabilitation, change, and compassion, but I wonder how we extend those things to people who do not want to change and do not see themselves as having done anything wrong.

It is also worth noting that we are now in a time where the police are being publically scrutinized in a way they haven't been in the past. Many people are just now starting to question the goodguy/badguy black and white framing that shows like SVU helped create (SVU is criticized in the popular book THE NEW JIM CROW for creating a public that is fundamentally misinformed about the criminal justice system - I imagine Ms. Fairstein might be hoping that story doesn't get the documentary/movie treatment, too).


It is interesting to see this kind of backlash framed as a post-social media phenomena. While now the "average Joe" has the power to "cancel" someone, that power is certainly not new, it was just wielded in the past by a narrower group of people. The Dixie Chicks, one of the most talented country music groups of all time, has their careers blacklisted because they spoke out against the Iraq War (and, oh, hey, they were right!). Snoop Dogg lost a role on Sesame Street because of his prior rap albums, same with Ludacris losing his Pepsi campaign. This was all in the early 2000s, all driven by older conservative media personalities, and in the Dixie Chicks case, basically all of country radio.

This is not a new thing, the people who can wield the uproar and backlash have just changed and expanded.


Susan Oleksiw said...

While reading the comments I kept coming back to the same idea--police who interrogate and force confessions know they're violating their own standards, and prosecutors who know confessions are unreliable but use them anyway are also violating their standards. And yet, they continue because winning is the only goal that matters. Out of this tragedy for the young men we might have hoped for a revision in police interrogation conduct, but that doesn't seem to have happened. And so we turn our attention to Linda Fairstein and whether or not she apologized. Through it all I kept thinking about a play I recently saw, Saltonstall's Trial, about the first Salem witch trial. Judge Saltonstall was so disturbed by the use of spectral evidence that he petitioned the governor to prohibit its use to convict; he was overruled. Watching the rise of the mob against Goody Bishop so frightened him because he felt she was innocent, he ultimately left the court after he was unable to sway the two other judges and returned to his home in Haverhill. Judge Stoughton was so offended by Salstonstall's position that he never forgave him, carried a grudge to his death, and thwarted his career throughout his life. But Saltonstall never felt he'd made a mistake in objecting to the court's conduct or in arguing for Goody Bishop's innocence. Some people know right from wrong regardless of the hysteria around them. We are discussing now how to respond to someone who couldn't extricate herself from her circumstances, in contrast to Saltonstall, and make a better decision. She failed at the time and she failed every year after the innocence of the young men was confirmed by DNA evidence. It's hard to accept such deep disappointment in a person we looked up to. But she was wrong at the time and she remains so.

KayC said...

For all those jumping on the "pummel Linda Fairstein wagon" where is the kudos for all the good she did. All the guilty people she helped bring to justice? It is very sad that everyone sweeps all her achievements under the carpet for one mistake (albeit a doozy)