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Craig Frucht | Axes to Grind

A one−sided rape case

Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 08:03

A 16−year−old girl goes out partying in Steubenville, Ohio, where photographs document her becoming intoxicated to the point that she can’t walk, stand or talk. While she is in that state, two boys use their fingers to penetrate her, and one of them tries to force her to perform oral sex — only she isn’t conscious enough to comply.

The latter perpetrator, Trent Mays, then 16 years old, is such an unbelievable idiot that he sends text messages and photographs to his friends documenting the assault. Later, three witnesses corroborate what Mays himself boasted had occurred: He and Ma’lik Richmond, also 16, coerced an incapacitated teenager into sexual contact.

The evidence here was as ironclad as a rape case can be. The defendants were rapists. They were rightfully convicted last week. But that reality collides with what the media views as its obligation to present two sides to every story.

What is the “other side” here? The assailants’ friends and supporters have predictably focused on the girl’s drunkenness. But they’re not even relying on the usual argument — misguided and offensive in its own right — that removing one’s clothes or going home with a person while drunk implies consent. That argument doesn’t apply here, because Mays admitted the victim was practically unconscious. She was in no condition to do anything that could even be mistaken for consent.

So excusing the assailants’ behavior relies on far more horrifying reasoning: that by getting so drunk to begin with, she was implicitly consenting to a free−for−all. That argument was perhaps made most eloquently by Michael Nodianos, a fellow student and friend of Mays and Richmond, who tweeted, “Some people deserve to be peed on.”

What are journalists supposed to do when one side of the story is objectively, unequivocally more correct than the other? What should they do when one side is backed by exhaustive photographic evidence, witness testimony and case law, while the other is based on a combination of misogyny and rabid affection for a high school football team?

The answer, apparently, is to imply credibility for ideas that have no credibility. Several prominent mainstream outlets, including the Associated Press, ABC News and CNN, emphasized the fact that the girl was drunk — as though it mitigated the boys’ crime. They didn’t just mention it in the body of a story for the sake of a thorough account; they led off their coverage of the case with that fact, as though it and the fact that the boys raped her were of equivalent importance to the case. The Associated Press referred to the victim as a “drunken 16−year−old” in the first sentence of its story about the assailants’ conviction.

That so many people have boorishly argued that the girl brought her suffering on herself does not obligate the media to treat that narrative as legitimate, much less express sympathy for the perpetrators — as CNN’s Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow did when they lamented the impact the verdict would have on the once−”promising” futures of the defendants. Reporters have also focused extensively on Mays’ and Richmond’s previous status as stars on the beloved local Big Red football team, lending tacit approval to the suggestion that some Steubenville residents’ focus on the team’s welfare at the expense of the victim’s wasn’t a morally bankrupt way to view a rape case.

This is cowardly journalism. Exalting the tenet of “objectivity” as an excuse to pander to victim−blaming misogynists whose arguments are at odds with reality is a miscarriage of journalistic ethics, not a testament to them, and it contributes to a culture that makes women more likely to experience rape and less likely to find justice when they do.

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Craig Frucht is a senior majoring in political science and psychology. He can be reached at Craig.Frucht@tufts.edu.

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