A few years ago, Robert Wright of Bloggingheads remarked during a discussion on Iran how difficult it was politically to articulate the position that, while the Iranian regime was doing any number of evil things, those things, in context, weren't quite as evil as many American commentators were making them sound in their efforts to whip up support for some unspecified hardline response.
I remember thinking something similar last year during the controversy over Lena Dunham's admitting in one of her published personal essays that she had, at age nine, over-handled her six-year-old sister. This admission inspired a couple of conservative blogs to post articles with titles along the lines of "LENA DUNHAM: CHILD MOLESTER!!!" I was never entirely sure whether these headlines were offered in good faith or in the spirit of this is the way the Left treats the Right, so turnabout is fair play; it probably varied writer to writer. My own position at the time was, yes, Lena Dunham may be an insufferable Leftist midwit, and she shouldn't have done what she did, and her parents, to the extent that they knew, should have sternly disciplined her, but on the other hand, haven't nine-year-olds been "playing doctor" for a long time without hyperbolic accusations of "abuse"?
Well, behold the specter of asymmetrical media power! From the Democrat-Gazette:
Springdale police began looking into the case in December 2006 when officers were notified about a letter containing allegations of improper touching in the Duggar home. The report says the letter, written 31/2 years earlier, had been found in a book lent by a family friend of the Duggars to someone else.
According the the report, an investigator identified as "W. Taylor" called Michelle Duggar the day the tip was received and was told the family was in Chicago to appear on Oprah Winfrey's television show and wouldn't be back in Arkansas until the following Monday.
The report says staff members for Harpo Studios, producer of Winfrey's show, received an email that warned of the allegations. Studio staff members faxed a copy of the email to the Arkansas State Police on the same day as the anonymous tip was received, according to the report.
The email said, in part, "I think you should know the truth before they make a complete fool of you and your show. They have been on TV before and come across as a perfect family, which couldn't be further from the truth," according to a summary in the police report.
Taylor and Springdale detective Darrell Hignite began interviews in the case Dec. 12.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar told police they learned of a person improperly touching people at their home in 2002 and 2003, according to that Springdale Police Department report. Victims also told police they had been improperly touched, sometimes while they slept. The instances happened over a period of several months.
The person accused admitted to the actions, was disciplined and eventually sent to Little Rock for counseling for three months in March 2003. The decision to send the person to counseling was made after Jim Bob Duggar consulted with leaders of his church.
After returning from counseling, the person was taken by Jim Bob Duggar to an Arkansas State Police corporal. That officer gave the perpetrator "a very stern talk" but didn't report the matter to child-abuse investigators, the report quotes Jim Bob Duggar as saying.
On Dec. 20 of that year, investigators concluded the statute of limitations had expired, precluding any possible sexual-assault charges. The case was sent to the Washington County prosecutor for review. Circuit Judge John Threet, a deputy prosecutor at the time, said he didn't recall the case but wouldn't be allowed under the law to comment on the matter even if he did.
Investigators also filed a "family in need of services" affidavit with Washington County Juvenile Court, the report says.
The sealed Washington County Circuit Court file for "Josh Duggar vs. the Arkansas Department of Human Services," CV 07-921, was found in 2007 by a Northwest Arkansas Times reporter, who now works for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A trial in that case took place Aug. 6, 2007, according to notes attached to the file. Sealed cases aren't supposed to be left in public view, but the Duggar case file had been left in a stack of routine court filings at the circuit clerk's office. The reporter saw no other information on the case at the time.
Amy Webb, spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, said she couldn't comment on any case involving a minor and couldn't confirm or deny there had been a case, she said Wednesday.
Both Josh and Jim Bob Duggar were asked about the case in 2007, and both declined to comment.
I have never watched the Duggars' television show -- I apparently don't have a taste in Red State entertainment -- and I don't have a strong opinion about the Duggars' lifestyle choices. I don't personally want 19 children, nor could I afford to support them, but if the Duggars can and do, then so what? Likewise, if enough people are interested in the drama such a family generates to support a TV show (as apparently there are: the show has millions of fans), then so what?
But the Duggars identify as Christian, so, like Lena Dunham, they have a built-in constituency rooting for their failure, albeit one with the actual power to ruin lives and cancel TV shows. I chose the Arkansas Gazette article because, as near as I can tell, this was the paper that “broke the story” (more on this in a bit), last Wednesday. (I didn’t hear about it until Friday night.) But the article nicely illustrates what I find so wrong about the reporting.
First of all, the article is almost comical in its efforts to avoid addressing the first question that came to my mind: how old were the victims? In fact, we apparently don’t know: all birthdates were redacted from the police report. We do know that the victims include four of the Duggar daughters, the four oldest of which would have ranged in age from 9 – 13 when the problem began and 10 – 14 when they were resolved. Now, this is pretty bad, but the reporting on the story is trying to insinuate, without coming out and saying so, that Josh is a pedophile. I don’t think the evidence supports this charge.
As headlines go, “BREAKING: 14-YEAR-OLD FEELS UP 13-YEAR-OLD!!! DETAILS AT 11:00!” isn’t exactly national news. So the narrative appears to be converging on, for instance, this: “BOMBSHELL DUGGAR POLICE REPORT: JIM BOB DUGGAR DIDN’T REPORT SON JOSH’S ALLEGED SEX OFFENSES FOR MORE THAN A YEAR”. The fun part about these kind of articles is that the authors never come out and state their premises or implications. The premise appears to be that parents are obligated to nuke their own families at a child’s first infraction; the implication is that by no doing that, Jim Bob was indifferent to his son’s behavior. The second of these is clearly false from the record: the allegations came to his attention on two occasions, the first in March of 2002 and the second in March of 2003. He obviously thought that he had fixed the problem the first time; when he learned that he hadn’t, he sought advice from his church, who helped him find a counseling program, and then accompanied him to discuss the matter with the police.
Further, when the police renewed their interest in the case in December2006, the Duggars were extraordinarily cooperative. (Frankly, under similar circumstances, and with a similar conviction that the problem was not ongoing, I would have lawyered up to protect both myself and my son.) So the “scandal” angle isn’t even justified by a cover up.
The story of the 2006 revelation is weirdly Gothic: a “letter” written . . . enclosed in a book, forgotten . . . discovered by third party. It literally reads like a pitch for a screenplay from the Brontë sisters.. Then there is the email to Oprah from a “61-y-o female:
Before you air the Duggar family from Arkansas with . . . .you need to know the truth. They are not what they seem to be. . . . has molested . . . while . . . were sleeping and the parents have been hiding this secret for a long time. Jim Bob lies to his church and his friends to make him look good. At this moment he is in trouble with the church for lying about . . . and things that concern the ay the church members reacted. I think that you should know the truth before they make a complete fool of you and your show. They have been on TV before and come across as a perfect family, which couldn’t be further from the truth. They jump from show to show to receive gifts fro their family and to make them look really good to. Please consider this and confront them abou their secret.
[Spelling errors as they appear in the police report.]
The writer With the exception of the “molestation”, nothing in this email is true; in fact, the police report says that the Duggars were quite open (except with the media) about the incidents with anyone that asked them about it.
Then there is the 2007 “discovery” of a juvenile court record of the case with notes about an August 6 “trial: by a reporter who, twelve years later, happens to be working for the paper that is bringing this story to the public eye. There is certainly some skullduggery here: why did the reporter sit on this story for so long. Why is it brought to light now? Apparently the present story is driven by the FOIA release of the “cavalierly redacted” police report. But then, if such reports are FOIA releasable, why was it requested now rather then?
My speculation: this reporter obtained the juvenile court record unlawfully, not accidentally as is now claimed. Years later, he needed a job and obtained one by promising the Democrat-Gazzette a scoop about the Duggars. Maybe this didn’t happen, but I would sure like to hear the real story.