Image courtesy of dctim1 via Flickr
By Liam Scott and Lisa Coxon
Note: The opinion reflected in this piece is that of the writers.
On Sunday, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow and anchor Candy Crowley made on-camera statements sympathizing with the freshly-convicted Steubenville rapists. The segment was more than just poor journalism. Harlow and Crowley perpetuated dangerous misconceptions about rape, minimizing the teenage victim to the point of a mere afterthought. Watching the clip, CNN checked nearly every box on the Rape Culture Perpetuation checklist with their sensationalist coverage.
Portraying the defendants, Trevor Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, sympathetically, CNN repeatedly referenced their popularity as football players with high academic standing, while worrying that their “promising futures” were ruined. The tone was more suitable for the young victims of a tragic death than for two freshly-convicted rapists. If nothing else, the language should be reserved for the only true victim of this incident: the person who was raped. What of her “promising future?” While Richmond and Mays serve their time in prison, the girl must move on with her life. She now faces the task of re-integrating into a school and community that has seen photos of her unconscious and naked; graduating with fellow students who stood by during her lengthy assault and defamed her at the trial afterwards. She and her family have already received death threats over Twitter since Sunday’s verdict.
CNN’s coverage also exemplifies the media’s squeamishness towards the details of sexual assaults. The media often leaves little to the imagination when covering a murder trial, readily publicizing every gritty detail. The audience is privy to everything from the weapon used to the killer’s mental process, at times hearing literally a blow-by-blow account of the grisliest of murders. Why then is the public not entitled to the details of a crime like the Steubenville rape incident? Richmond and Mays found the defendant severely intoxicated to the point of vomiting and led her away from the party. They stripped her naked, groped her, and penetrated her with their fingers in the back of a car on the way to another party, where they carried and dumped her naked, unconscious body on the floor for a group of onlookers to take photos. They then digitally penetrated her again, and allowed partygoers to grope and assault her further. Prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter testified during the trial that the boys used the victim “like a toy.”
Yet Harlow skipped these details, instead focusing on Ma’lik’s broken relationship with his father and tearful breakdown. That’s because it’s hard to garner sympathy from an audience that just heard the words “digitally penetrated” and “unconscious minor” in the same sentence. For some reason, the word “rape” has an ambiguity attached to it, even when preceded by the words “convicted of,” as if there’s a sliding scale of severity or responsibility depending on the circumstances.
CNN also makes no mention of the supposedly dozens of witnesses who photographed and took video of the incident, then discussed it over social media and texting the next day. As we speak, Ohio’s attorney general is launching a grand jury investigation into the students, parents, and coaches who allegedly heard of the incident the day after the party and did not come forward. But despite this information being available long before the verdict, CNN made a conscious decision to portray Mays and Richmond as two straight-A football stars who just so happened to get caught up in this rather messy rape business. Worse yet, Harlow made sure to emphasize that the boys had been drinking prior to the assault. The implication here is twofold: that the victim’s intoxication somehow makes her culpable in her own rape, and that the rapists were simply too drunk to notice they were sexually assaulting an unconscious girl.
An individual with an otherwise healthy, respectful attitude towards women does not turn into a rapist simply due to alcohol and peer pressure. Mays and Richmond’s actions speak to the culture surrounding male sexuality and sexual assault, one that allows for moral grey areas and personal interpretation of what should be very hard and fast rules. We should be asking how these two bright, promising young men could rape and not understand the pain they are causing. We should be asking how so many high school students could witness a gang rape and only think to take pictures. Instead, CNN chose to ask if juvenile detention would affect the well-being of Mays and Richmond, who are convicted rapists.
Those poor, helpless boys. I hope I never fall victim to being a rapist. M