cnn_steub_stillThe last time I wrote about Candy Crowley it was in celebration. After her terrific job at the presidential debate,  I applauded a seasoned journalist’s work focused on facts and substance instead of personality, and shamed commentators who denigrated Crowley’s appearance or called her a  “terrorist.” Crowley was one of the last reporters I’d expect to minimize a crime like rape.

But on CNN on Sunday night, after a judge in Steubenville, Ohio, announced the conviction of two young football players for sexually assaulting a young woman, Crowley responded not to the facts of the case but to the visuals from the courtroom: two well-dressed young athletes in business suits bursting into tears or physically leaning on others for support.

Questioning courtroom reporter Poppy Harlow, Crowley’s voice carried sorrow:  “Sixteen-year-olds just sobbing in court; regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds . . . what’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?”

There was no mention of the victim in that exchange, nor of the acts which the defendants, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, had bragged about in texts and social media. (“She was naked the whole time but she was like dead,” said one of the less sickening text messages read aloud in the courtroom last week. One of them had also bragged that being a star football player meant that they’d suffer no consequences because “Coach will take care of it.”) The “dramatic” pictures to which Crowley was responding didn’t include the victim’s trauma; her identity was being protected from the media. Instead, concern was deflected to the two young men. 

253664_10151471088844350_1563233433_nReaction to Crowley’s statement was nearly universally negative, from Gawker to New York magazine to Amanda Marcotte at Slate.  But the whole affair wasn’t as surprising as it should have been: compassion for a vulnerable young girl has always been trumped in our media by rape culture.

As demonstrated in the graphic to the left, produced by the Ms. Foundation, all of the major U.S. networks have leaned toward sympathetic treatment of the offenders. After interviewing defendant Richmond on 20/20, ABC devoted a segment of “Good Morning America” to posit that the girl’s behavior before the attack might have meant that she had consented to the encounter. Most paid significant attention to the defendants’ “promising” football statistics and the “careers” being cut short by the case.

Nothing excuses coverage of a rape case that renders the victim invisible or smeared. What makes it even more inexcusable is what rendered the case exotic: the way the story was uncovered, almost re-enacted, on social media before the police got involved. If young people are living over-examined lives, journalists need to be careful with the truths being told. Viewers and consumers of the news need to demand responsible coverage of violence against women, whether it’s sexual assault of women anywhere or the domestic-violence record of Olympic champion Oscar Pistorius.

There’s more than enough blame to go around, though I’m particularly offended by Crowley’s abdication of her journalism responsibilities.  The backlash has been heartening—but it’s going to take a lot of work before rape culture is eradicated from the newsroom.