On its Friday night special, A Night in Central Park, ABC's 20/20 show displayed the latest example of the dominant media misinforming viewers with claims that, after the Central Park Five were accused of attacking a jogger in 1989, Donald Trump lobbied for the teens to receive the death penalty even though he actually argued against the death penalty for underage perpetrators.
And, while the special was more balanced than other recent discussions of the story by including the views of investigators who believe the Central Park Five were guilty in spite of their sentences being vacated in 2002, ABC did fail to press the teens on reports that they took part in attacking other park goers on the same night.
The special that aired approximately 30 years after the attack from April 19, 1989, began by recounting that, in the 1980s, violent crime was grossly out of control in New York as there were about 2,000 homicides a year. The show soon included clips of Central Park Five members recalling that they had joined a group of teens who went to the park and witnessed them attacking random people as they claimed to merely be witnesses to the criminal activity.
The show also informed viewers that, because the five gave confessions of involvement in attacking jogger Trisha Meili (which they later recanted), it was widely believed that they were guilty as various media reports immediately assumed their guilt.
Even so, the show took a jab at Trump because he responded to the attacks by running an ad calling for the death penalty to be brought back, with ABC running a clip of him from CNN's Larry King Live in which he seemed to advocate executing the Central Park Five members if they were found guilty, and if the jogger died of her injuries.
The Trump clip was then followed up with a clip of MSNBC host Al Sharpton reacting: "He said, 'Kill them,' and I never, ever could describe how enraged I got to call for these kids to be, in effect, lynched."
But the clip of the interview used by ABC omitted a portion seconds later in which Trump added the caveat that he believed the death penalty should only apply to adults who commit murder while underage teens should get longer prison sentences, thus undermining claims that he lobbied for the accused teens to be executed in this particular case.
Additionally, the ABC special did not make clear that there was no death penalty in New York since the sentencing provisions were struck down by a court ruling in the 1970s, and that, about the time of the Central Park attacks, there had been a debate in the legislature about passing a new death penalty law.
The fact that there was no active death penalty law means that the Trump ad (which was not specific in its wording) must logically be interpreted as a call to pass a new law before it could be applied to any future case since it would have been unlawful to apply a death penalty to a crime committed before a new law took effect.
The special eventually recalled for viewers that, after a serial rapist admitted in 2002 that he had raped Meili in the 1989 attack, DNA testing was utilized to confirm his involvement in the crime, and, because he claimed he acted alone, the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated at the request of the head prosecutor.
Other prosecutors and investigators in the case were then allowed to give their point of view that they knew all along that there was another attacker who had gotten away and had already taken that into account as they argued that they still believed the Central Park Five took part in the attack without leaving DNA behind. Meili also believed more than one perpetrator was responsible for her injuries.
As for the issue of whether the teens took part in the attacks on other park goers, ABC failed to press the Central Park Five members over this issue even though in the film, The Central Park Five, New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer was shown claiming that the teens were in a different part of the park "beating up other people," and could have used that as their alibi.