Chris Cook’s name was mud from the start

October 26, 2011

Vikings cornerback Chris Cook has now been charged with felony domestic assault.  Without question, the charges are chilling and disturbing.  But they are just that, of course.  Charges.  Cook has yet to be tried, and on paper he’s innocent until proven guilty.

But in the paper — in the newspaper — innocence is lost when the suspect happens to be famous.

For example, over the weekend, a Star Tribune blog readily identified Cook by name as he sat in jail, waiting to be charged with assaulting his girlfriend.  Yet in a story from May, the Star Tribune did not identify two men arrested and accused of randomly robbing and beating pedestrians in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood.  Here was the newspaper’s explanation:  “The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects until they are charged.”

Wow.  The “general” rule, of course, does not apply when the arrested prisoner is famous.  As for the not-so-famous, even those accused of random attacks, well, um, they deserve, ah …

To be fair, the Star Tribune was far from alone in muddying Cook’s name over the weekend.  The facts of his arrest and jailing were true.  Of course the facts were news.  And unquestionably the media had a right to do exactly what they did.  In the 1989 case of Florida Star v. B.J.F., the United States Supreme Court made it clear that when the news media obtain truthful news (in that case, the name of a rape victim), they have a First Amendment right to publish it free from governmental interference.

I’m the first to support the rights of journalists to make news decisions and to exercise discretion about when to name criminal suspects and when not to do so.  It’s their job.  But the over-the-weekend Cook stories are just the latest chapter in what is a difficult, inconsistent area for the news media to navigate.

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