The media has a penchant for psychoanalysis that often gets news outlets into trouble. From killers to celebrities to dictators, this year has already born witness to more armchair psychiatry than critics can stomach.
As soon as police released a mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner exhibiting an enigmatic smirk after his arrest for a January for a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona that injured nineteen and killed six, evaluations of his mental health appeared in every corner of the media, much to the dismay of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn, who observed that:
Psychiatrists, psychologists, news anchors, and others have shown little reluctance to diagnose Loughner, whether or not they know anything about psychiatry, and in the face of what might seem to be a rather large impediment: None of them have examined the patient.
Raebrun was equally irked when the same thing started happening following actor Charlie Sheen’s rampant ranting in February. He and others, including MedPage Today and MinnPost.com, argued that the press was violating the “Goldwater rule,” an ethical standard adopted by the American Psychiatric Association, which warns (see section 7.3) that:
On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.
The rule came into being after the publication of a 1964 article in Fact magazine, which had conducted a mail survey of over 12,000 psychiatrists asking if the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, was fit to lead the country. Of the more than 2,000 that responded, about half said, no, variously characterizing the U.S. senator as “immature,” “impulsive,” “paranoid,” and even schizophrenic. The American Psychiatric Association issued public statements condemning the commentary and included the “Goldwater rule” when it drafted The Principles of Medical Ethics With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry in 1973.
“Psychobabble reported by the media undermines psychiatry as science,” the association’s former president, Herbert Sacks, wrote in the late 1990s in a column explaining the history of the rule.
It also undermines journalism as professional practice. Goldwater successfully sued Fact for libel. Yet as the decades passed, the press continued to struggle to reign in “psychobabble.” In 2007, the American Psychiatric Association issued an “ethics reminder” about the “Goldwater rule” in response to “sensational commentary” following fatal shootings at Virginia Tech. Even reporters themselves have been the subject of baseless diagnoses from afar, but one of the media’s favorite and most enduring targets has been the dictators who enforce autocratic regimes in countries around the globe. Indeed, given the myriad comparisons between Sheen and Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi in the last month, it would be surprising if journalists passed up an opportunity to analyze the latter’s mental health as well.
For going on three decades, the go-to psychiatrist for questions about an autocrat’s state of mental health has been Dr. Jerrold Post, the director of the political psychology program at The George Washington University. Before joining the school’s faculty, Post spent twenty-one years at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he founded and directed the Center for the now-defunct Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior (according to a 1994 article in Foreign Policy, it was renamed the Political Psychology Center, but eventually closed, with the profiling operations transferred to another unit).
Post has been a busy man since fighting began in Libya in late February, appearing in numerous articles speculating about Qaddafi’s mental state. It is difficult to criticize Post for breaking the “Goldwater rule,” however, since it is, in effect, his job to do so. In the case of Libya coverage, the onus is journalists to put his remarks into proper context, sprinkling grains of salt on their stories where needed. After Qaddafi claimed that there were no protestors in Libya, in late February, and then that they were actually drug-crazed al-Qaeda members, Post told a Public Radio International and WNYC show that Qaddafi has “borderline personality” disorder—but the show did not mention, let alone explain, the caveats that come with such an assessment.