Sympathy for Rapists: Et Tu, Candy Crowley?

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.

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  • California Girl March 23, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    That is totally depressing and disgusting.

    I can’t be the only person who watched Crowley’s handling of the debate with less than enthusiasm. Up until the moment she corrected Romney’s characterization of the President’s reaction to the terrorist attack on the Libyan embassy, she was pretty much the same as her predecessors,not in control and being talked over by the debaters. Her correction of Romney turned the tide and for that I am grateful. I don’t doubt, however, that Obama was fully in control at that point in time…”Please proceed, Governor”. She served to underscore it.

  • Cecilia Ford March 21, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Thanks so much for posting this comment.
    I would like to add a question why Ms. Crowley and others think of this verdict as “ruining” these young men’s lives. It seems to me that Trent Mays (who behaved criminally even the next day when he was no longer drunk) is already living in a moral vacuum and that a drastic intervention might be just the thing to save him from an empty, meaningless, and certainly selfish life. Many people have emerged from situations like this saying they were transformed for the better. It is possible to imagine that both these young men will ultimately be better people than had they not been caught and punished but had been allowed to flourish as football stars, etc.
    It is not so easy to imagine, on the other hand, that this trauma will lead to any positive development for the victim.

  • Toni Myers March 20, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Thanks for this, Chris. I am speechless. Thanks

  • hillsmom March 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Well written indeed. It would seem we are perhaps more like Afghanistan or The Saudis than we would care to admit…? Will the victim now be “Honor Killed”?

    I happened to hear the verdict on the car radio. The sympathies expressed were for the rapists. Disgusting! It will be interesting to hear what the sentencing will be.

  • Judith A. Ross March 20, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Viewers need to demand responsible coverage on a whole range of issues, especially when it comes to women. Yes, women can do their part to “lean in” but let’s insist that the media, business, and government do their part as well.

    I, too, was disappointed in Candy Crowley. If she has responded to this criticism in any way, I would love to hear about it (I haven’t seen anything so far). Hopefully she will learn from this experience.

    Thanks for the excellent piece.