Archives for posts with tag: media


Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his [defense]. 

Article 11, Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1]

The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law….”

Coffin v. United States[2]

[Phil, I read your last blog on witch hunts and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was colorful and incisive as usual. I think what you said was that in the old days a witch hunt could be started by any person who denounced a neighbor by filing charges with a local court, with supporting evidence. If the evidence made the case, then the accused [witch] was in trouble. If the evidence wasn’t good enough, then the accuser might be in trouble unless he had acted simply to protect the Faith or for the common good. In that case he wouldn’t be penalized “even if he fail[ed] in his proof.”[3] Or, if there were rumors of witchcraft all over the place, but no one was willing to denounce individuals, a local tribunal might simply open an inquiry [an “inquisition”] on its own motion and start dragging people in to question them.

So that brings me to the next question. Presumably even 500 years ago people accused of a crime were thought innocent until proved guilty. So how did the witch hunters prove someone was a witch? How could they do that when, as we know today, it’s simply not possible to affect weather, crops or livestock with a curse, or make people sick with a dirty look, or have sex with a demon? [4]]

That last is another very good question from our leader, G. Sallust. Perhaps one day I’ll ask the questions and he’ll answer them. But not today; the answer to his question – how to prove witchcraft – lies deep in the Malleus Maleficarum[5], a book I’ve read and he hasn’t. Not that I’m glad to have read it. It gives me nightmares, sometimes. But apparently people study it in our Journalism schools and treat it as a good example, if not a paradigm of how to report on politics. So, too bad for us, the Hammer may be as relevant to current events as today’s newspaper. Do any of you read newspapers?

The ancient witch hunters needed three things to try a witch: (i) the accused’s reputation; it had to be bad; (ii) ‘indications’ of sorcerous deeds; and (iii) adverse witness statements.[6] That sounds clear enough, I suppose, but the devil was in the details, especially where sorcery was involved. Also witch hunters wouldn’t have brought someone to trial unless they thought she [or he] was guilty. Anyway, that’s what I’m told.

Reputation as Evidence

If the accused had a bad reputation, the witch hunters assumed it was because she [or he] had committed sorcery at some place and time. “[S]orceresses are immediately branded with a bad reputation because of crimes in some village or city.”[7] A bad reputation was, in fact, evidence of sorcery. Where there’s smoke there’s fire! Or was it, “probably a liar?” I forget.

Indications of the Deed

This was the easy part. The investigators looked for sick children, diseased farm animals, barren fields, and so forth.[8] Such events were plentiful [it was the 15th Century] and easy to verify. The trick was to connect them to the accused. For this investigators needed either a confession or statements from witnesses.


Three witnesses were required.[9] However, they didn’t have to be witnesses to the same event. One could have said, ‘she looked at my child, and he fell sick’’ another that ‘she looked at my farm animals, and they died, and the third that ‘she waved at my fields, and they became barren.’[10] It was enough that they all agreed about the ‘essence of the deed’ – i.e., that there was sorcery.

Of course that was their opinion, unsupported by today’s science. Illness and crop failures are common when people have poor sanitation, over cultivate their land, starve periodically, and basically don’t understand how disease works. But witnesses didn’t know such things in the 15th Century, and it didn’t matter. The only important thing, apparently, was that they believed sorcery was at work and said so. How did they know that? Don’t worry; they just knew it when they saw it.

Guilty or Innocent?

So there you have it. If the witch hunters did their job properly, there was no real need for a trial. All that had to be proved would have been proved.” A trial would only validate the accused’s guilt, preferably with a confession.[11] I’m not a lawyer, but frankly I don’t see a “presumption of innocence” working anywhere in this business.

Guilt was established by the investigation. If the witch confessed as well, she would be turned over to the civil authorities and burned. If she didn’t confess, it would be just for the civil authorities to imprison her until she was ‘worn down by the misery of prison’[12] and confessed. Then she could be executed. In either case, the whole thing would be ‘summary, straightforward, and informal,’ which the hunters thought was a good thing.[13]

And, by the way, it didn’t really matter if she denied all guilt. The witch hunters thought witches successfully resisted confessing only because the devil helped them. That’s why, once a witch was arrested, the authorities were told to: search her house for ‘devices of sorcery’; lock up her ‘maids and companions,’ because undoubtedly they knew secrets; and keep her out of the house, because otherwise she might pick up magical devices that would help her keep silent.[14] Nobody wanted her to find her magical confession-repeller, because that might complicate the investigation!

Witch Hunts Today

So let’s summarize for a bit. In the 15th Century if a woman didn’t get along with the neighbors, normal illnesses, etc. attacked some of the local children, farm animals or fields, and three people blamed the woman, that was enough to prove witchcraft. You know, I used to think that it would be wonderful to live in a small town, but I’m beginning to understand the drawbacks, especially if the locals are superstitious. But that’s not our current issue, is it? What G. Sallust asked was: “Do our peerless media behave exactly the same way when they report on politics?” I’m thinking the answer is “yes,” at least where President Trump is concerned.


Have the media relentlessly focused on his private life, and allegations about it? Yes. Do they talk and talk and talk about what they think of him, his business practices and how he may or may not treat others? Yes. Do they routinely portray him as unstable and not to be trusted? Yes. Do they routinely ignore his popularity in troublesome places like the Middle East, and his ability to turn out its leadership when he goes there? Oh, yes! So quite obviously his reputation is a prime target.

Does Mr. Trump have a lot of accusers? Oh yes, and many of them – seemingly the most authoritative – are anonymous. They pretty much act like 15th Century witnesses who are afraid of the person they denounce, and ask the inquisitor for protection; only in this case it’s the media that shields the witness, not some judge. So there are witnesses against Trump out there, timid ones, but quite likely more than three.

But the ancient witch hunters demanded some independent, physical evidence of witchcraft before they would prosecute. You know, the ‘indications’ of the deed – sick children, barren fields, bad weather, that kind of thing. Most of these events are now known to have natural explanations. So do we have a disaster right now; one bordering on the supernatural[15]; that these many secret witnesses might connect to Trump?

So far there doesn’t seem to be anything like that. The stock market is up; employment is rising; there aren’t any new wars or plagues; and ISIS, although still active and deadly, is in retreat. And that, I would say, is the fatal flaw.  The media are hunting witches when times are good, or at least improving.


So, not to put too fine a point on it, if we brought in auditors from the 15th Century to look at the campaign against Trump, most likely they wouldn’t like it. There’s an essential element missing in the proof: i.e., no current disaster of near supernatural proportions to fire up the populace. Also, there’s a fussy legality that might disturb the process. Today an accused person is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

And, as we discussed last time, there are other disturbing factors in play. These days lawyers are available to an accused, for example, and the courts aren’t permitted to torture him [or her]. Given all that no doubt the inquisitors of the 15th Century would withhold their seal of approval. What else could responsible and moral hunters do?

So for now to the media: Good try, and better luck next time!

[1] The text of Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is available as a pdf download directly from the United Nations, at Want to know more about the Universal Declaration? Check out the Wikipedia entry at

[2] See Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453 (1895), available from Justia at For you non-lawyers, the Justia version of a Supreme Court case is not “official,” and can’t be cited as such in a legal brief, etc. But it works just fine for a blog. Also the Court is talking about a presumption of innocence, not an absolute rule. “This presumption is in the nature of evidence in his favor [i.e. in favor of the accused], and a knowledge of it should be communicated to the jury. Accordingly, it is the duty of the judge in all jurisdictions, when requested, and in some when not requested, to explain it to the jury in his charge. The usual formula in which this doctrine is expressed is that every man is presumed to be innocent until his guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The accused is entitled, if he so requests it … to have this rule of law expounded to the jury in this or in some equivalent form of expression.” See p. 459, citing an article in Criminal Law Magazine from January, 1888.

[3] See Christopher S. Mackay (translator], The Hammer of Witches, A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (Cambridge 2006, 2009) (hereafter cited as Hammer at p. __). See Hammer at p. 504. As noted last time, the book was written by two [apparently crazed] Dominican friars, Jacobus Sprenger and Henricus Institoris. See Hammer at Introduction, p.2 – 3.

[4] G. Sallust, by phone, June 22, 2017. Again, this was what was on my voicemail, sanitized a bit for language. You’ll have to take my word for it. I still don’t save voicemails.

[5] See n. 3.

[6] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202A, 202B (p. 521 of the text.)

[7] Id.

[8] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202A, 202B (p. 521 of the text.)

[9] See Hammer, Part III at p. 197A (p. 508 of the text.) The authors thought that two ought to be enough, but chose the larger number in the name of ‘legal fairness.’

[10] See generally See Hammer, Part III at p. 202B, 202C (p. 521, 522 of the text.)

[11] Once in jail, an accused might never get out. Some commentators argued that so long as the accused had an impaired reputation, there were indications of witchcraft, and three witnesses against her, she was ‘manifestly caught’ and should go to prison.  (See Hammer, Part III at p. 203A (p. 524 of the text)) The Malleus took a more liberal position. It let the judge decide to imprison or not to imprison based on the strength of the case and ‘on the basis of local procedure and upholding custom.’ But, and this is important, if released the accused witch had to produce sureties to guarantee that she would appear again in court if summoned.” (See Hammer, Part III at p. 203B (p. 524 of the text))

[12] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202C, 202D (p. 522. 523 of the text.)

[13] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202D, (p. 523 of the text.)

[14] See Hammer, Part III at p. 203C (p. 525 of the text.)

[15] Perhaps an economic disaster? Recessions always seem kind of supernatural to me.


The speaking in a perpetual hyperbole is comely in nothing but in love.

Francis Bacon.[1]


[I don’t really spend a lot of time on the news these days, mostly because I see the domestic version, brought to us by our illustrious media personalities, as full of gossip, falsehoods, trivial events, and irrationalities. But even I noticed on Tuesday that our weather persons were predicting a catastrophic snowfall for the DC area and all points north, west and east. My particular area was supposed to get 8 to 14 inches on Wednesday, and people were so spooked that state and local governments shut down, the private company that picks up my trash told its people to stay home, and, of course, the federal government closed its offices.

So Wednesday was a peaceful day; no traffic jams, not much street noise, etc.; lots of weather coverage on the TV, but not much else in the way of news; and, good heavens, no snow! In my neighborhood we had a bit of slush in the morning and rain all day.  What happened?

Not being in the weather business, I don’t know. But the explanations were pretty funny. One group said that some people got snow; it just didn’t fall where we expected it. For some reason it missed the major population centers. Well, that’s certainly true, but it’s not really an explanation. Why did the weather people say there would be catastrophic snow in DC? Another “explanation” was that our climate model predicted snow, while the European one didn’t. That’s nice; so why didn’t we use the European model? A third story seems to be that the Europeans have better super computers than we do, so we ought to upgrade ours. Perhaps. Or perhaps we should just outsource weather prediction to Europe.  Wouldn’t that be simpler and less expensive? Apparently the Europeans already have the proper equipment.

But I think the real problem is even simpler, but it’s much harder to cure. The real problem lies with our media! Just look at our news coverage in the last three months or so. First we had the end of the world, supposedly predicted by the ancient Maya. (If you recall, that was supposed to have happened on December 21.) Then we had the Fiscal Cliff, scheduled to destroy our economy on January 1. That was a runaway metaphor that had reporters hopping around like crazy people. Then we had the Great Sequester, which would destroy us on March 1. And, to complete the destruction, the snow emergency that would bury us on March 6.

What am I saying? Simply that our media are in love with the Apocalypse, and until the real one comes along, any minor one will do. But love is a dangerous emotion, and can distort the mind.]

And that brings me to our quote for the day. It’s from Francis Bacon, a 16th and early 17th Century politician and philosopher.[2] Bacon was an important personage in his time. He was a high official in the Court of James, I, the first Stuart king, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth, the last Tudor.[3] Ultimately he became Attorney General, and then Lord Chancellor; but not too long after that he was tried and convicted of public corruption, fined and imprisoned. The imprisonment lasted only a few days, and the fine was remitted by the King; but nevertheless Bacon left public office and retired to his estates.

Bacon was a champion of the scientific method and is seen as an early founder of British Empiricism, a branch of the philosophy of knowledge[4] He also wrote books on religion, moral philosophy and the law. Reportedly he died of pneumonia, caught in 1626 while he was experimenting with preserving meat by freezing it (outdoors).[5]

His first book was a collection of essays, and the quote we started with is from the essay Of Love. [6] Bacon’s thesis was that love is important to the affairs of men. “Nuptial love” – he meant sex – makes babies, which perpetuates the race; and love of people in general – friendly love- makes one “humane and charitable;” but serial love affairs – wanton love – can be corrupting and embarrassing.[7] Serial affairs lead to too much irrational behavior. [8]

Why? Because when we’re in love we’re captivated by the object of our affections. The loved one is beautiful, and everything he or she does is important, amazing, intelligent, beyond reproach and so forth. It’s “as if man, made for the contemplation of heaven, and all noble objects, should do nothing but kneel before a little idol, and make himself a subject … of the eye; which was given him for higher purposes.”[9] In Bacon’s terms, generally we think in hyperbole about a loved one, and that makes us stupid.

It’s not good to uncritically admire somebody else.[10] If the admiration is mutual, then each person is fooling the other. There’s a kind of parity there, although not a clarity of thought. If one person is fooled – i.e., is in love – and the other is not, then the one not in love will feel “an inward and secret contempt” for the one who is, because the one in love is acting like a fool.

Do you need a modern example? A friend once told me that she was unlucky in her choice of men. Her last affair, she said, failed because she and the guy had only two things in common: they both loved him and hated her. She dropped him after a while, but only when he moved on to somebody else while still borrowing money from her. The mental fog lifted and she broke up with him as he walked away.

So why do I think our media personalities are in love? Well, think about it. Media people want, and need, always to look their best. And, as Francis Bacon instructs us, it’s not comely – not attractive – to over-hype things, to babble and chatter in hyperbole. So the only possible way to do it, and to still look attractive, is to fall in love. Otherwise they’d just look foolish (and ugly).

What do the media love? As I suggested earlier, not a person, but the Apocalypse. Or rather, the idea of an apocalypse. They kneel before that “little idol,” and make themselves subject to it. And unlike religious folks, who are waiting for only one Apocalypse at the End Times, the media chase after every possible one that comes down the road: The Mayan end of the world, the fiscal cliff, the Great Sequester, a record blizzard or whatever. They’ve had serial affairs with each, and will have with the next ones as well.

Oh, and one final thought. The next time disaster threatens, don’t expect an accurate report. People in love don’t have to be accurate.


[1] You can find this in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (ODQ) (6th Edition, 2004) at Bacon, p. 44, n. 28. It’s from Bacon’s Essay Of Love. If you want an online version of the Essays, go to Google Books, at If you want a free online copy in text format, see note 6.

[2] Actually, he lived from 1561 to 1626. Wikipedia has a pretty good, although incomplete biography of him. You can find it by searching “Francis Bacon” at the Wikipedia website, or by clicking here:

[3] She was the last of the Tudors. Wikipedia has a pretty good, although incomplete entry on Elizabeth I. You can find it by searching “Elizabeth I of England” at the Wikipedia website, or by clicking here:

[4] If you want a nifty discussion of him and his works, go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at

[5] Wikipedia says this. The Stanford Encyclopedia says simply that “[h]e died in April 1626 of pneumonia after experiments with ice.”

[6] You also can find a free copy of the Essays at Project Guggenheim. Just go to:

[7] See the Essay Of Love at Google Books, note 1: “There is in man’s nature, a secret inclination and motion, towards love of others, which if it be not spent upon someone or a few, doth naturally spread itself towards many, and maketh men become humane and charitable; as it is seen sometime in friars.  Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth, and embaseth it.”

[8] See the Essay Of Love at Google Books, note 1.

[9] See the Essay Of Love at Google Books, note 1.

[10] See the Essay Of Love at Google Books, note 1: “For there was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself, as the lover doth of the person loved; and therefore it was well said, That it is impossible to love, and to be wise.”

[11] That’s an acronym for the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum which means, well, check it out in any internet dictionary.