Head case

Media coverage of a State House sex scandal reveals the pitfalls of reporting on mental illness
By ADAM REILLY  |  July 23, 2008

STOP THE INSANITY: Bipolar disorder could have something — or nothing — to do with State Senator Jim Marzilli’s sexual-harassment charges. But the press is making its own diagnoses.

Who is Jim Marzilli, exactly? Is he a predatory letch? Or is he a deeply troubled man who needs to be kept from harassing women — but also from hurting himself?

If you live in Massachusetts and follow the news, you’ve probably pondered this question at some point during the past few months. In April, Marzilli, a Democratic state senator from Arlington, was accused of sexual assault by a woman who claimed he’d inappropriately touched her in an early-morning incident at her home. A month later, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone announced that his office was dropping that case due to insufficient evidence.

But then, on June 3, Marzilli was arrested in Lowell after allegedly harassing four different women over the span of several hours, bombarding them with inappropriate sexual overtures and attempting to grope one’s crotch. Approached by police, he gave a false name, then fled on foot; as officers subdued him with pepper spray inside a parking garage, he wept and said that his “life was over.” And this past week, two more women accused Marzilli of sexual harassment in a suit filed in Middlesex Superior Court.

While Marzilli has said that he won’t seek re-election, he hasn’t been found guilty of any crime. In the court of public opinion, however, he’s already been convicted and sentenced. Calls for his resignation have come from the Boston Herald, the Lowell Sun, the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, and Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi. For its part, the Massachusetts Republican Party has launched a new Web site called Marzilli Watch — motto: “Taxpayers Working for a Senator That’s Not” — aimed at mustering up public outrage that Marzilli, who hasn’t done his job in more than a month, is still receiving a state paycheck.

Which brings us to the reason Marzilli hasn’t been at work. On June 5, the Associated Press reported that Marzilli had entered McLean Hospital, the famed psychiatric facility in Belmont. The Herald subsequently reported that Marzilli had taken a leave from the State Senate and was being treated for symptoms of hypomania, a condition linked to bipolar disorder. And on July 10, the Globe published a piece in which Marzilli’s attorney, Terrence Kennedy, confirmed that his client had received a bipolar diagnosis. Since then, Marzilli’s diagnosis and/or treatment at McLean have been cited in practically every story that’s been done on his situation.

But while the Boston press clearly thinks Marzilli’s mental condition is newsworthy, the question of why it’s important — and how it should be covered — has remained unanswered. Consider the Herald’s hypomania scoop. That piece included a quote from Dr. Roy Perlis, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, which suggested that bipolar disorder could help explain why Marzilli acted as he did. (“It can affect all aspects of someone’s behavior,” said Perlis. “A person may make advances that they would ordinarily not make or say things that are inappropriate.”) But the lede — “State Sen. James Marzilli, accused in a string of sexual assaults, could be laying the groundwork for a defense based on a diagnosis of bipolar disorder” — strongly suggested that Marzilli’s diagnosis and treatment were legal tactics, not legitimate medical steps.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |   next >
Related: Rise of psychosurgery, Arbitrary imprisonment, Reporter-turned-psychiatrist pans Virginia Tech coverage, More more >
  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Jim Marzilli, Eliot Spitzer, Massachusetts Republican Party,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   BULLY FOR BU!  |  March 12, 2010
    After six years at the Phoenix , I recently got my first pre-emptive libel threat. It came, most unexpectedly, from an investigative reporter. And beyond the fact that this struck me as a blatant attempt at intimidation, it demonstrated how tricky journalism's new, collaboration-driven future could be.
  •   STOP THE QUINN-SANITY!  |  March 03, 2010
    The year is still young, but when the time comes to look back at 2010's media lowlights, the embarrassing demise of Sally Quinn's Washington Post column, "The Party," will almost certainly rank near the top of the list.
  •   RIGHT CLICK  |  February 19, 2010
    Back in February 2007, a few months after a political neophyte named Deval Patrick cruised to victory in the Massachusetts governor's race with help from a political blog named Blue Mass Group (BMG) — which whipped up pro-Patrick sentiment while aggressively rebutting the governor-to-be's critics — I sized up a recent conservative entry in the local blogosphere.
  •   RANSOM NOTES  |  February 12, 2010
    While reporting from Afghanistan two years ago, David Rohde became, for the second time in his career, an unwilling participant rather than an observer. On October 29, 1995, Rohde had been arrested by Bosnian Serbs. And then in November 2008, Rohde and two Afghan colleagues were en route to an interview with a Taliban commander when they were kidnapped.
  •   POOR RECEPTION  |  February 08, 2010
    The right loves to rant against the "liberal-media elite," but there's one key media sector where the conservative id reigns supreme: talk radio.

 See all articles by: ADAM REILLY