The McMartin daycare center arrests and trials occupied the public's attention from 1983 to 1990. That's called “legs” in the news business. Few people remember it today. We could use a reminder.
At the time it was thought that some children's day care centers were evil dens of sexual abuse, not just sexual abuse, but satanic ritual sexual abuse. That additional component sent the story to the top of the page. The allegations surrounding McMartin daycare were not the first of this type, nor were they the last, but they did occupy the national attention longer than others. Several teachers at the school were accused of molesting children. The only evidence was the word of several of the children, whose testimony was not only fantastical, but was inconsistent, and obviously coached. The trials that followed were among the longest and most expensive in US legal history. One particular defendant spent five years in jail, though never convicted, then set free.
Trials like the McMartin case and suspicions surrounding many other daycares went on for years here and abroad. All of the cases were unsupportable (but for one conviction in another case that was never overturned), all of them based on no evidence beyond unreliable testimony from children. It's as if the public wanted to believe that Satan worshippers were teaching their young children and performing unspeakable acts on them. The devils that infect our imaginations may have counterparts in reality but that's not necessary to spark a moral panic, and once the fire is lit it has a life of its own. Well, that's my theory. The McMartin case and numerous copycats, cry out for some explanation, a rational explanation for an irrational response. What the heck was going on?
It kind of reminds you of the Salem witch trials. It should. Moments of mass hysteria are unusual, but they're not all that rare. There are dozens of examples. Most of what I know about the witch trials comes from the 1996 movie, “The Crucible.” The movie is based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller, who wrote it as an allegory of the McCarthy congressional hearings to expose communists in government and Hollywood. So there you have three examples; reds under every bed, witches in Salem, and Satanic ritual child abuse at your local childcare. Like I said, there are dozens of other examples. There's a name for this. It's called, for some reason, “moral panic.” It's also called mass hysteria.
The press at the time of McMartin played a pernicious role. They were not sceptical of the claims as they should have been. Instead they hyped them. They sensationalized them. The story was great for the news media. It brought ears to the radio, eyes to television, and readers to the printed word. Advertising dollars depended on increasing viewership. News coverage followed and encouraged public interest and advertising money poured in, ensuring the story would continue and grow in sensationalism. This was a template for the future. We've seen similar coverage on coronavirus. We've seen the same over the death of George Floyd and all the unrest that has followed.
When evidence was coming in that this new virus was mostly deadly for the elderly and that the younger and healthier you are, the less deadly, the press instead focused on the exceedingly rare phenomenon of pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (PMIS) appearing among a few dozen COVID-19 infected children. That syndrome is not only rare (it has lead to the deaths of only three children), it's relationship to COVID-19 is little understood. A few months ago PMIS dominated the news for several nights with all the emphasis on its deadly nature. The story could have been that few children are in danger from COVID-19, less than from car crashes, less than from the flu. It's not even close. In New Jersey we've had 15,000 deaths, only one of a child under the age of 15. Most deaths here have been from rest homes. Instead, the story was that COVID-19 is lethal to children and a looming threat should they return to school in the fall without massive changes to education. The story they chose to go with is not only false but it is resulting in guidelines for education and childcare that will have long-lasting negative effects for children and adults.
The above explanation leaves me little space to condemn the press for similar irresponsible treatment of the death of George Floyd. I'll have to save it for a future column. Now that I've started on this line of thought it's hard to stop. I want to shout it from the rooftops. Don't be led by the crowd. Don't fall for dishonest messages from the press, which is acting more like a rampaging mob than responsible journalists. Stand back and think for yourself. Resist!