COMMENTS: Moran Exposes Ignorant Sheriff, Panicked Public

Check out this piece of reporting on ABC by Nightline anchor Terry Moran. There is such a disconnect between his content and his tone. At first I thought the dissonance derived from shoddy, manipulative scaremongering. On second viewing, I found the dissonance to be unnerving and persuasive.

ABC anchor Diane Sawyer introduced Moran's reporting with a reference to a teenage jogger who has gone missing near San Diego. Yet Moran's story had nothing to do with that. Nightline's camera crew was involved in a COPS-style tagalong with a task force from the Santa Clara Sheriff's Department in California "on a mission to conduct random, unannounced checks" on some of the county's 3,000 former sexual offenders, now released from prison.

Sheriff Laurie Smith explained the rationale for her task force: "These are people who have just gotten out of prison or jail, who have a history, who are likely to reoffend." And sure enough, Moran's cameras were on hand when one of the 3,000 was found with children's toys in his apartment, a "creepy discovery" that was a violation of his parole.

But then Moran turned to his statistics. Nationwide the recidivism rate for sexual offenders is 24%, "below average for all criminals, including drug addicts." Politely, he did not confront Sheriff Smith with these facts in contradiction. He just let them stand. Instead he invoked emotion--"frightening"--as the explanation for Smith's policy: "Can we ever spend enough time searching through closets and boxes to reassure ourselves that a walk to the bus-stop or a run in the park is safe?" he asked rhetorically, assuming that the answer must be No.

It seems that it is not just Sheriff Smith but most of the population at large who has no understanding of the statistics that Moran quoted: "Polls show a majority of the American public does not think child molesters can ever be rehabilitated and they want these kinds of criminals kept off the streets forever."

So you watch the report. Is Moran arguing that uninformed fear should be the basis of penal policy? Or is he pointing out that creepy anecdotes and law-enforcement overkill can amount to manipulation?


Hi Andrew. I think it's pretty clearly fear-mongering. While his rhetorical question was intended to elicit a "no" answer, I think the further implication was "but we have to keep using these extraordinary measures anyway, just in case."

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