Kelly McBride, an expert on journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, knows all about “the list,” the much anticipated electronic police log containing the names of the alleged “johns” in a Kennebunk prostitution case that has gotten nationwide attention.
Several reporters and editors from New England media outlets called her this week to ask about the ethical implications of running the entire list in their newspapers or on their websites.
The list reportedly has more than 150 names, including those of several prominent community figures, and has been a subject of both anticipation and dread in Kennebunk, a town of 10,500 on Maine’s southern coast.
Former Zumba instructor Alexis Wright, 29, is accused of prostituting herself and secretly taping the encounters in her business on York Street. She pleaded not guilty last week to 106 counts, including three felonies related to taxes and receiving public assistance when ineligible. Her alleged partner, Mark Strong Sr., of Thomaston, entered not guilty pleas last week to 59 misdemeanor charges.
The way McBride sees it, media outlets should do whatever they normally do in prostitution cases. If newspapers usually publish entire police logs, including all the names of people issued summonses for misdemeanors, they should publish the list, she said.
However, if newspapers usually don’t list the names of people charged with soliciting prostitution, a misdemeanor in Maine, they should maintain that practice and not run the list, she said.
“I can’t find the justification of printing the whole list unless you print every misdemeanor charge,” she said.
The exception, she said, would be the names of people who are prominent members of the community. That’s because their arrest has a public impact and thus would be newsworthy.
The Kennebunk case has drawn media attention because police have the names of a large number of alleged clients for a single prostitute, and the alleged crime occurred in an established business that served as a front for the operation, said Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University.
Steele said the crime committed by each of the alleged “johns” is not particularly unusual or newsworthy. However, the operation that Wright and Strong operated is out of the ordinary, so it would not be unusual for the media to publish their names while not publishing those of each “john.” Also, Wright is charged with a felony, he said.
“It’s one of those classic cases where you have to draw the distinction between what the public may want to know and what the public needs to know,” he said. “In this case, you are balancing the value of truth with the potential for harm.”
Punishing the accused
He agrees with McBride that media outfits should publish the list only if they publish the Kennebunk police log as a matter of routine. If not, he said, they should publish only the names of people who have important positions in community roles, such as a police officer or local politician.
Steele noted that publishing the list would punish the accused much more severely than the $200 fine they face if convicted of the misdemeanor charge of soliciting a prostitute.
“It’s the modern version of being put in the public stocks,” said Melvyn Zarr, a law professor at the University of Maine School of Law. “The Pilgrims would have recognized this.”
He said police are morally and legally correct to publish the names in their public log because it is what they do routinely. To withhold names, he said, would make it appear as though the police are doing someone a favor by hiding certain information.
Rosemary Speerin, a freelance writer who lives in Wells near the Kennebunk town line, said the alleged “johns” don’t deserve to be humiliated publicly for an offense that carries that same penalty as speeding ticket. She said the media just see the case as fodder for entertainment. “It’s a smutty story in a charming little town. It’s salacious,” she said.
A case-by-case basis
Laurel Coleman, a Manchester physician involved in efforts to end the worldwide practice of selling women and girls into slavery, said that society should punish the men who provide a market for prostitutes, not just the prostitutes themselves.
“When men are going to be held accountable, that will be a deterrent,” she said. “The fact that they might face public shame or criminal prosecution or a punishment that is meaningful to them, they won’t do that.”
The Portland Press Herald plans to publish the list on its website, www.pressherald.com, when it is released. The website as a matter of routine publishes the names of everyone who appears in the police log provided by the Kennebunk Police Department.
However, the newspaper does not routinely publish detailed accounts of the police log in its print edition and therefore will not publish the list in its entirety there.
The newspaper’s editors said they would consider publishing the names of prominent individual “johns” on a case-by-case basis, and their role in the community would be a major factor. Also, if one person were charged with numerous counts, that would also be a factor in deciding whether to publish a name.
Where to draw the line?
Withholding the names of defendants in a criminal case simply because publishing them would embarrass their families would be a “dangerous and slippery slope,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald.
“Where do you draw the line? Disorderly conduct? Insurance fraud?” he asked.
Publishing the names, he said, is consistent with the newspaper’s policy of publishing the names of defendants in criminal cases with strong public interest.
In a letter to readers in this week’s edition of the York County Coast Star, a weekly newspaper that covers Kennebunk, editor Laura Dolce writes that the newspaper will publish the list, even though many people have asked the newspaper not to.
The newspaper for decades has printed the Kennebunk police log, including the names of people arrested for drunken driving, so it would be unfair to change the policy now, she writes.
Moreover, “ugly rumors” have been circulating around town about who is on the list, and it’s important to set the record straight.
“How will innocent people clear their names if those who are charged with crimes are kept secret?” she asks readers. “Do they spend their lives living under a cloud of suspicion at the cost of protecting those who allegedly committed a crime?”
Now that the story has captured the attention of the state and national media, local residents have stopped asking the newspaper not to print the list, she said in an interview.
“There is a sort of acceptance in town that the names are going to become public whether our paper prints them or not,” she said.