Media attention also kills reputations, particularly when sensationalism and the herd mentality are in play. Serious subjects, worthy of careful examination, are often treated with a kind of journalistic shorthand that cheats readers and viewers, while ruining lives. In this next example, innocent children became unknowing pawns.
MYTH: "My teacher molested me." Kids wouldn't make up stuff like that!
TRUTH: Yes, they would.
This trendy media scare sent people to jail. Many were innocent of any crime, but they were convicted by the court of public opinion. The witnesses against them were children who testified to horrible events-events which, in many cases, never happened. But when the media express gets rolling, people get run over.
One victim was Kelly Michaels, a New Jersey preschool teacher convicted in 1988 of molesting twenty children in bizarre and sadistic ways. She spent five years in prison before an appeals court ruled that prosecutors had planted suggestions in the minds of the children who testified against her.
I don't blame the kids; I blame the prosecutors and the media. Reporters' imaginations and keyboards were fired up in 1983 by accusations of sodomy and satanic abuse at a California day-care center called the McMartin Preschool. The woman who started the barrage of charges was later discovered to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Her claims of devil-worship and sadism were outlandish on their face, but never mind: It was "good copy." Headlines blared, prosecutors roared, and seven people were charged in a total of 135 criminal counts.
It was nonsense. But the defendants had their lives ruined. The case against them was cooked up by therapists and social workers who planted suggestions in the minds of impressionable children, who then told horrendous tales to prosecutors. The prosecutors also listened to the drumbeats of the media, which stirred a different witches' brew for every news cycle.
Kids are highly impressionable. We know that, but psychology professor Stephen Ceci proved it in a study at Cornell University. He told me, "We are now discovering that if you put kids who were not abused through the same kind of highly leading, repetitive interview, some of those children will disclose events that seem credible but, in fact, are not borne out in actuality."
Ceci set up an experiment where he and his researchers asked kids silly questions like:
RESEARCHER Have you ever had your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?
At first, the kids say no. Then, once a week for the next 10 weeks, the researchers ask the question again.
RESEARCHER You went to the hospital because your finger got caught in a mousetrap?
BOY And it- RESEARCHER Did that happen?
By week four or six or ten, about half of the kids say, "Yes, it happened." Many give such precise information that you'd think it must have happened.
RESEARCHER Did it hurt?
RESEARCHER Yeah? Who took you to the hospital?
BOY My daddy, my mommy, my brother.
RESEARCHER Where in your house is the mousetrap?
BOY It's down in the basement.
RESEARCHER What is it next to in the basement?
BOY It's next to the firewood.
By the time I met that boy, weeks after the experiment was over, he still "remembered" convincing details about things that never happened.
STOSSEL Was there a time when you got your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?