Not one but two celebrities have recently had their public image and reputation battered by the publishing of police reports that they had been accused of sexual misconduct in alleged incidents that could not be confirmed sufficiently for the police to bring charges. One was New York Mets ace pitcher Johan Santana, who was already battling uncharacteristic ineffectiveness on the mound. The other was former Vice-President Al Gore, who also has more than enough problems in his life: such as a shattered marriage, a reeling climate change policy campaign, and the lingering memory that he received the most votes in a Presidential election yet somehow never got to live in the White House. Santana’s reputation will survive if he recovers the location on his fast ball. Al Gore, however, is genuinely and seriously harmed by the claims of a masseuse who says that Gore attempted to turn her professional massage into a forced sexual encounter.
If the police felt that the facts in the Gore allegations could not support a formal charge, then the alleged incident should have the same status as a rumor. Anyone can accuse anyone of anything. Celebrities are particularly inviting targets. A man like Gore, who has never had any reputation or pattern of sexual misconduct (in marked contrast to his former colleague, Bill Clinton), should be accorded the benefit of any doubt to the extent that this shouldn’t be news.
That is not what is happening, however. The story surfaced after a tabloid report that Gore’s surprising divorce was triggered by a long-term affair with a Hollywood liberal activist, Laurie David. The masseuse’s claim has sparked several feature stories about how common it is for men (like Al Gore!) to take advantage of young women in the legitimate massage field (like Gore’s accuser!) on the assumption that no one would accept the woman’s word over the man’s (as happened in this case!). None of which proves that Al Gore did anything wrong. None of it is justification for holding Gore in suspicion, either. Nonetheless, the late night comics are brimming with humorous innuendo, and Gore’s reputation may be permanently damaged.
Any climate change opponents who are secretly or not-so-secretly pleased at this development need to think again. Two words: “Duke lacrosse.” This can happen to any of them, or to any of us, in the hyperactive news cycle where ethical niceties like credibility, fairness and respect are subordinate to gossip, insinuation and sensation.
Maybe Gore did something very wrong, and maybe he just had a massage, but we know no more about which of these is true than we did before the story came out. No ethical person should think less of Al Gore as a result of this unsubstantiated, and unsubstantiatable, tale. I know it’s not easy, but it is important. Reputations mean something, and fairness and empathy dictate that Gore’s should shield him from this smear, not be a casualty of it.