In today’s polarized atmosphere, false accusations of racism are often hurled about. A self-righteous Internet mob, inspired by a fabricated TV dramatization, is using social media to publicly humiliate and destroy the reputation and livelihood of an award-winning attorney heralded for her trailblazing advocacy for justice for victims of sexual violence and other forms of abuse. This Internet shaming by impersonal digital mobs is the 21st century weapon of choice in our culture of personal destruction.
In 1989, Linda Fairstein headed the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and supervised the prosecution and conviction of five teenage black and Hispanic men for participating in the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a white woman out for a jog in New York City’s Central Park.
In 30 years of postmortems about the Central Park jogger case, suggestions of prosecutorial malfeasance have been investigated and rejected.
Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” is a fictional tale of supposed white institutional racism, accusing Linda Fairstein and her staff of coercing helpless, innocent boys to confess to the vicious assault of Ms. Meili. DuVernay reinforces her narrative by selectively editing portions of the damning videotaped confessions, using cherubic-looking actors to play the leading roles and manipulating a mountain of facts in the public record. “When They See Us” is anything but a documentary.
The teens, part of a thirty-plus pack on a rampage in the park, beating and terrorizing innocent people, were tried for the savage assault of Ms. Meile and other crimes. According to Fairstein, jurors convicted the “Central Park Five” despite no DNA evidence against them, believing that there was a sixth, unidentified attacker among the horde of rioters. The defendants completed prison sentences. In 2002, an imprisoned serial rapist/murderer, Matias Reyes, volunteered that he was the jogger’s rapist. This was confirmed by DNA tests, but his claim of acting alone was never substantiated.
The Five then sued the city for malicious prosecution. City attorneys refused to settle the suit, but in 2014, Mayor de Blasio directed them to agree to a $41 million payout.
Fairstein has insisted that copious evidence, readily available to DuVernay, together with an extensive report from New York State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Galligan, who oversaw the trials, proves the teens were treated fairly and that their confessions were not coerced.
Following Reyes’ confession, the District Attorney, without declaring their innocence, set aside the convictions of the Five. He found that no police or prosecutorial misbehavior occurred in their detention or questioning.
The lead NYPD officer on the case, African-American Eric Reynolds, viewed the vacating of the convictions as a miscarriage of justice and insisted there was absolutely no coercion. He remarked that the case had become so racially charged that “everybody who had some kind of an agenda was going to use it for their own ends.”
Immediately after the Netflix miniseries premiere, the #cancellindafairstein campaign, a digital-age witch-hunt, exploded on social media. Multiple petitions, signed by thousands, appeared on Facebook urging that she be removed from boards of trustees, her awards be rescinded, her books banned (she is a successful mystery writer), and that she be prosecuted for her role in the case.
Fairstein’s book publisher, Dutton, terminated their relationship. Threats to withdraw donations from organizations about which she cares deeply prompted Fairstein to resign from the boards of a victims-services agency, an organization addressing hunger and malnutrition, and another organization that empowers survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. “I do not want to become a lightning rod to inflict damage,” Fairstein wrote, due to “mob-mentality reaction” to the series.
A Vassar College student started an online petition, signed by tens of thousands, to force the school to remove the alleged racist alumna from its board of trustees. The Vassar administration, after consulting its African-American alumni group to gauge “the temperature of black alums” and finding that calls for Fairstein’s removal were “strong,” asked its board of trustees to investigate. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Fairstein resigned. President Elizabeth Bradley’s perfunctory announcement of her departure lacked any reference to Fairstein’s pioneering work or her years of service to Vassar. Vassar appeared more concerned about ridding itself of a public relations problem than standing for the truth.
It is bizarre that many of those same feminists who decry the unfair treatment of sexual assault victims within our criminal justice system joined the digital attack mob.
The fury generated by a made-for-TV fictionalized drama exposes our society’s inability to separate fiction from reality and reveals the power of social media to create cyber mobs intent on publicly shaming and destroying those the mobs deem unworthy.
Ziva Dahl is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.