Washington state news media failed a good man. Will Senate repeat mistake?

State Sen. Ann Rivers is a Republican representing Southwest Washington.
State Sen. Ann Rivers is a Republican representing Southwest Washington. Courtesy photo

This election season, we saw one of the most distasteful episodes ever to play out in Washington state politics.

It was awful enough to see a charge of rape hurled at one of the most respected members of the state Senate. It was worse to see the news media report the charge uncritically, without reporting many details that would give any reasonable person pause.

Now that Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, has been defeated by a narrow margin, the worst is yet to come. Majority Senate Democrats are signaling they will move forward with an investigation that offers none of the safeguards we would offer anyone else accused of a crime.

The case brings discredit to the news media and diminishes well-founded concerns raised by the #metoo movement. Most importantly, it calls into question our standards of justice in an age when accusation has become commonplace.

Fain, whom many saw as a potential candidate for governor, appeared a shoo-in for reelection until Sept. 27. That’s when a Seattle woman issued a highly defamatory charge on Twitter: “You raped me the night I graduated from Georgetown in 2007.”

Not so long ago, when the press was strong and prided itself on high ethical standards, it would have refused to repeat Candace Faber’s claim. Her accusation has never been a matter of official record; she refused to file a police report.

Law enforcement authorities have never evaluated her charge and assessed her credibility. Nor has Faber risked the possibility of criminal prosecution for filing a false report.

Instead, she made her charge on a social-media site where anything goes. And once the Seattle Times rushed the story into print Sept. 28, it legitimized the story for every outlet that followed. Even the Washington Post and New York Times found it fit to print.

This error of judgment was compounded by the fact that Faber’s own writings, easily found on the Web, raise a number of red flags. Hundreds of tweets speak to her state of mind and political motivations.

Faber’s only written account, in the the form of a poem posted online, contains several improbabilities. A few news media organizations mentioned she was hospitalized last year for mental illness, but always with a curious fillip diminishing its importance.

Caution went out the window in the media’s excitement over a new #metoo story.

Today we are confronted with a new challenge: Senate Democrats’ desire to conduct an investigation that can serve no legitimate legislative purpose.

It would not be conducted with the standards of due process accorded in any courtroom. An investigator would simply interview the parties involved and write a report.

We don’t expect an opportunity for cross-examination. We don’t know if the mountain of information casting doubt on the charge will be considered.

We appreciate the stand taken by The News Tribune in its editorial last weekend (“State Senate probe is over-correction of #metoo”) but there is one point worthy of further discussion. The editorial states, as many have said during these two months of ugliness, that “accusers should be believed.”

No, we should listen to them. We should evaluate their stories carefully and check for inaccuracies. In our current climate, false accusation has run rampant – just ask the Duke lacrosse team, the Bellevue police chief and many others. Livelihoods and reputations are at stake.

No similar accusation has been made against Fain, and those of us who have worked with him closely don’t believe it for a second.

I hope he gets a chance to refute the charge. A slander suit, conducted according the rule of law, would provide a more proper forum. Even in this era of accusation, all of us are innocent until proven guilty.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, represents Washington’s 18th Legislative District and is a leader for the Washington Senate Republican Caucus on issues of sexual harassment and assault.