THE Stuart murder case in Boston can be summarized in a few sentences, but the trouble from the handling and reporting of it appear to be unending. Charles Stuart made a dramatic report by car telephone to police last October that he and his pregnant wife, young suburbanites, had been shot by a black male in a minority district. A Spencer-for-Hire police search of the neighborhood plus four-alarm media coverage made the black community feel victimized.
This was even before Stuart leaped to his death last week from a bridge after it was disclosed he had likely staged the crime and killed his wife. The media pulled out all the stops to cover this change in direction of the case. But by then a black male had been wrongly accused and detained, and the readiness of public officials and the media to bite on the worst racial stereotype lay exposed.
Granted, Stuart lied, as some of his own family may have known early on. Why his family would have protected him, what his motives were, and how the young woman he had been seeing fits in - all this is emotion-laden stuff. But most of it is private tragedy. Only in a more restricted sense does it pertain to a criminal case in the public courts.
News technology makes it possible to dramatize events. The car phone call to police, the swooping in of troopers, the statements of police chiefs and politicians in this instance produced a local docu-drama that looked true but was false. This same technology led to the embarrassment of television news organizations when they displayed, on a split screen, President Bush's remarks at a press conference together with footage of coffins of American soldiers killed in Panama.
From the outset at least a few reporters in Boston newsrooms suspected Stuart might have been guilty, but the pull of the story made it run its course.
News media serve the public. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the first Federalist essay:
``It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.''
Hamilton was writing, in 1787, about the American political experiment about to be encoded in a Constitution. Can a thinking public govern itself? This crucial question about responsible self-government must be asked continually. Since information is crucial to its decisions, the public is distraught when officials or the press mislead it.
A recent Gallup Organization study for the Times Mirror Company found only about half of the general public, government leaders, and academic elites thinks ``news organizations get the facts straight.'' At the extremes, 84 percent of press leaders think the media accurate, while only 23 percent of business leaders thought so. The press (65 percent) thinks it deals fairly with all sides of political and social issues; the general public (68 percent) finds it one-sided.
The Stuart case is not the first time Boston has found itself misled by a willingness to accept racial illusions. In the 1970s, ``white flight'' was attributed to school desegregation.
But no such flight had occurred. A supposed ``drop'' in Boston white student enrollments actually reflected a change to honest minority reporting within the school department under federal court direction, not an exodus of white families or students to the suburbs. A check with public and parochial school districts outside Boston, and real estate sales, showed no such out-migration pattern.
It had been in the interest of local Boston districts to show themselves more white and better attended - to temper local sensitivities about race and to pad state financial assistance. More prosperous Bostonians had already abandoned the city's schools for private institutions. Those left could not afford to flee.
Media and officials acted out Stuart's lie. The most ready script, the racial, should have been the most suspect.