Category Archives: Media Missteps

Rolling Stone: From a Crucial and Embattled Movement, Behold Your Work

I have devoted a career to a growing and viscerally important, but eternally beset and threatened movement to end sexual violence. On college campuses, such violence has revealed itself to be among the worst and most widespread.

I can say with head-shaking sadness and bitter disgust that I’ve never seen this movement- particularly where widespread and largely ignored (or concealed) college rape is concerned- damaged so profoundly and with such speed.

This has happened because of breathtaking incompetence and blind greed, period.

I don’t know exactly where the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, falls on this miserable continuum. Perhaps she was remarkably unprofessional but sincere, paving the road to hell with a genuine belief that she was doing right by a traumatized young woman she sought out for a hyper-sensationalized story. Or, perhaps she’s as guilty as Rolling Stone’s editorial staff seems to have been, green-lighting this substandard piece simply because it was obvious click-bait and a turbo-charged issue seller.

What’s left for this particular story is hard to say. Clearly, there are both discrepancies in “Jackie’s” account and now additional emerging circumstances that must create doubt in any reasonable mind as to the full truth of what was apparently related to Erdely. But does that justify a leap to the assumption that Jackie just made it all up? Hardly.

The idea that she completely fabricated a gang-rape, and then punctuated this vicious, elaborate hoax with a two-year long journey toward healing (including thoroughly corroborated Immense distress, withdrawal, depression, and then involvement in UVA’s anti-sexual assault movement) is frankly absurd absent some profoundly delusional condition. It’s even more absurd when one remembers that Jackie never attempted to “go public.” Instead, Erdely and her editors took her there after seeking out the most shocking example of campus sexual violence available.

And now they’ve left her exposed and alone, regardless of their “apology” (revised after a backlash) that initially blamed her completely.

What’s left for the movement against rape, though, is as clear as it is damning: Legions of so-called “men’s rights advocates” and others who enjoy perpetrating myths and misogyny, are declaring victory. Jackie, they’re insisting, is emblematic of women everywhere. To the paranoid male, she’s a shining example of how college hook-up culture combined with alcohol has elicited reckless false reports from foolish, immoral women who then become desperate to claw back their virtue by “crying rape,” thus filling the prisons of the world with decent, if naturally red-blooded men.

Countless finger-wagging moralists and scolds with ready-made prescriptions to end a plague they really know nothing about are joining them, insisting that, at very least, Jackie is another “mistaken” victim, not of rape, but of the same reckless culture combined with new, politically liberal incentives to mistakenly cry rape when the real issue is “crossed signals” with a truly non-offending male.

For these two groups and so many more, Jackie is the rightfully exposed antagonist of their morality play, either because she’s a soulless liar or just another lost soul in need of everything from religion to hard-nosed advice on “how not to get raped.”

This is the deplorable handiwork of a publication literally as old as I am, and one that’s been culturally relevant and important far beyond its original focus on music (see Matt Taibbi, as an example), but that has miserably failed not just its readers but a theretofore unknown and healing, apparently contributing young woman as well.

Make no mistake; this was done for money and nothing more. I recall my father, when I was a kid, scoffing at the idea of a “liberal media” or a conservative one, for that matter. “What the media cares about,” he would say in an expression that’s now quaint, “is selling papers.”

Indeed. The almighty dollar is what matters. It’s what mattered to Rolling Stone when it came to pushing prematurely a damaged and traumatized young woman into the meat grinder of the 24 hour news-cycle and the twitterverse.  Journalistic ethics didn’t matter much. A still struggling movement they’ve set back a good 10 years didn’t matter much.

Jackie certainly didn’t matter much.

 

The Inevitable Doubting of “Jackie” and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Erdely

Our capacity for doubt when it comes to the accounts of victims of sexual violence- and apparently that of the world of journalism- never ceases to amaze me. Two weeks ago, a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing story emerged in Rolling Stone by reporter Sabrina Erdely. It was electrifying and remarkably popular. As of now, both the victim’s account and Erdely’s journalistic practice and ethics are being questioned.

I suppose I should not be surprised.

The primary objections to Erdely’s journalistic integrity rest on three primary foundations: 1) It’s only based on “the word of the alleged victim.” 2) Erdely made no attempt to contact the alleged perpetrators. 3) It’s just too horrible to be true.

First, as for Erdely basing her story solely on the apparently compelling, consistent and credible account of the victim, I’d remind the objectors of a legal maxim, often translated into a jury instruction in criminal cases and applicable in every U.S. jurisdiction I’m aware of: Testimony is evidence in a court of law, and if it is sufficiently compelling to the finders of fact (the jurors), then it may stand alone as the basis for a conviction. So jurors across the United States can base convictions beyond a reasonable doubt on the testimony of a single witness, but a reporter is reckless for accepting the account as the basis of a story?

Second, in terms of Erdely making no attempt to contact perpetrators, this is justified because they were not named. A fraternity was identified, but no individual perpetrators. According to Erdely, she contacted the fraternity and didn’t get very far, but what was she to do anyway? Erdely tells us that the victim, Jackie, for reasons explained, didn’t want the perpetrators she knew of to be confronted. She wanted to tell her story, not generate a mob. This is hardly indefensible; most victims of sexual violence do not report or tell anyone, let alone seek to create a public confrontation. Phi Kappa Psi is suffering scrutiny for sure. But not a single man is, whether affiliated or not. Thus, charges of “you didn’t get the other side of the story” make no sense, unless one or a group of men from the organization was willing to come forth and somehow prove a negative by either 1) accounting for the whereabouts of every member of the fraternity in the fall of 2012 or 2) describing the same encounter as consensual.

Third, in terms of the story being too ghastly, shocking, or indicative of coordinated evil on an otherwise august and civil campus to be true? I can only hope the doubters have never experienced something similar, within or without an environment like Rugby Road. An elucidating piece by Liz Seccuro, herself gang-raped at the same fraternity house 30 years ago, might allow some ugly but necessary light to penetrate the dark ignorance of some suspicious objectors. The LA Times’ Jonah Goldberg, for instance, can’t imagine how a bruised and bloodied woman could leave a darkened, loud college party without being noticed. I’d suggest he has either a limited imagination or limited experience with college parties. Politico’s Rich Lowry speculates that “the shock of [the story] led many people to recoil in horror upon the article’s release and ask, “How could this have happened at such a respectable school?” Actually, Mr. Lowry, there are legions of women (and some men) who know exactly how it could happen.

Both wonder how Jackie’s friends could have been so equivocal about reporting, and how the university could be so tepid about taking the matter to the police. Again, I can only say they have severely limited experience with the reality of sexual violence as it usually plays out in college life, and even less insight into how such violence is normally responded to. A fair debate continues about the role colleges should play in adjudicating sexual assault. But what must be understood is that the desires of victims, particularly given the gross limitations of the criminal justice system, drive the seemingly laissez-faire reactions of college administrators when rape comes to their attention. The idea is to empower, not dictate.

Doubting Jackie’s account is anyone’s prerogative. Doubts about Erdley’s reporting of it should stand on firmer ground.

 

 

 

Yes, Bill Cosby is Probably Guilty, and No, There Are No Heroes

I don’t like it either.

There’s nothing to like. There was nothing to like in realizing that Woody Allen, a filmmaker I credit for much of my worldview let alone my sense of humor, is guilty- in my opinion- of molesting his daughter. There was nothing to like in realizing that Michael Jackson, who even as a rock-n-roll obsessed teenager I believed was pure magic to watch, was guilty- in my opinion- of molesting children at his ranch near Santa Barbara.

Perhaps Bill Cosby is the most unpleasant realization yet. Cosby, after all, is more than a brilliant entertainer. He has been a symbol of hope and progress for a generation and some of its most marginalized and disenfranchised members. I was never a devotee of the Cosby Show, but I enjoyed what I saw, and even as a kid I loved the fact that star and cast developed a lasting and convincing image of a loving, educated and successful American black family.

Later, as a paternal figure and blunt critic of what he considered were negative aspects of black culture, Cosby was still heavily admired. Why? Because at bottom, he was looking out for black boys and young men, wanting what was best for them as an increasingly endangered species in a cultural and socioeconomic meat grinder.

But Cosby is almost certainly guilty of a pattern of sexual violence involving the use of his influence, his victims’ relative powerlessness and lack of life experience, the brutal competitiveness of his industry, and drugs and alcohol. By my count now, no less than 15 women have accused Cosby of similar acts under similar circumstances. There is consistency. There is a pattern. Few if any of the women who have come forward- particularly recently- stand to gain anything from their allegations. They are taking on no less than an American icon; a man of grace, class, considerable power and influence. He’s a national treasure; they know well they are contributing to a national heartbreak. They know they’ll be viciously targeted in terms of their motives, their credibility, and indeed their very sanity.

There’s a very, very large chunk of an already sad and disillusioned country that doesn’t want to believe Cosby is guilty of anything. Like many people who consider sexual violence in the very system that’s supposed to address it- the one I’ve spent a career in- they’ll find a reason to believe it’s just all a big lie. That Cosby never, over three decades against more than two dozen different, unrelated women in several states, committed any crimes.

Maybe it was a misunderstanding that just happened over and over again, altering lives along the way. Maybe it’s true that women are just really vicious as a gender and don’t have a problem falsely accusing men of among the most heinous crimes imaginable. Maybe it’s really satisfying, fun and quickly profitable to turn yourself into an instant media curiosity as a victim accusing a beloved figure of rape.

Yes, and maybe the tooth fairy will leave my IRS bill under my pillow if my latest root canal fails and I need an implant.

In fact, gravity brings rain to the ground and water is wet. In fact, if the man at the center of these allegations was an ordinary plumber, or systems analyst, or cab driver or cardiologist, the belief in his guilt would be widespread and probably correct. Legally, Cosby has been convicted of nothing and found civilly liable for nothing, and it’s correct that he remain legally unburdened. But Cosby has cultivated an image both as a public figure and at times a moral scold. He’s earned this scrutiny if nothing else. It’s awful. But so is the truth, much of the time.

The reality of heroic acts is the saving grace of our existence; well-lived lives often contain blessed aspects of it. There was, as just one example, great worth to the Cosby Show far beyond the laughs and the tender moments, and it should live on regardless of Cosby’s reputation.

But heroism itself is dangerous and inconsistent with the human condition. We’re too complex for halos; they’re best left to the saints. And the songs. And the myths.

An Inconvenient Truth About Pedophilia: It’s a Curse, Not a Choice

6028playground_swingA friend sent me this link to a New York Times op-ed on pedophilia, the technical term for the DSM-Vparaphilic mental health diagnosis that describes a person (usually a male), sexually interested only in pre-pubescent children.

Apparently, the DSM itself (the “bible” of mental health professionals) will not describe pedophilia as a sexual orientation, but rather a paraphilic disorder. This is basically a sexual predilection detrimental to the object of the interest, and which causes the sufferer significant distress or difficulty dealing with it. Since pedophiles are solely, sexually focused on prepubescent children, any manifestation of the disorder will be- in essence- harmful and unacceptable. Rightfully, we punish such manifestations, including consumption of child pornography as well as “hands-on” offending.

Regardless, I know of no reputable mental health expert who would call pedophilia a “choice.” When it comes to the persistent, chronic sexual attraction to prepubescent children, what we’re dealing with is more of a burden.

Or more bluntly, a curse.

What’s chosen is behavior.  Sexual behavior involving prepubescent children should remain 1) anathema to what is societally acceptable, and 2) severely punished. I’ve spent a career seeking to do these things.

But the author of the op-ed makes valid points when she discusses the need to understand pedophilia instead of just aiming vitriol and anger toward those saddled with this miserable circumstance. There are, as she notes, people with pedophilia who do not act out in response to deep-seated urges. They understand the concrete wrongness of sexually acting out against children, so they painfully but dutifully deny themselves a sexual life.

In my opinion, with a career of seeking to protect children from child molesters behind me, I believe these successfully restrained people should be commended for this, particularly when their concern is more for the children they might harm as it is for the legal or societal consequences they might face. Certainly, they should not be further marginalized, ostracized, or hated. But regardless of how balanced any appeal to common sense or baseline compassion might be, hatred and viciousness are usually what pedophiles encounter.

And so they remain in the shadows, untreated and more deeply misunderstood.

We still have almost no idea what causes pedophilia; correlations between childhood experiences (abusive or non-abusive) have been at best inconclusive. If it’s genetic, we’ve yet to discover a traceable etiology. We know that the vast majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse do not turn around themselves and abuse later in life or “become” pedophiles. Rather, it seems more ingrained, but we don’t know why or how.  We also know that, while most confirmed abusers will claim past sexual abuse, even the threat of a polygraph exam during treatment will bring those claims far down.

So we’re dealing with a very dangerous mystery. But largely as a society, we’re interested in nothing but punishing pedophiles, regardless of their actual status as offenders. If they have this desire, too many of us seem to believe that they’re worthy of the worst we can legally (or otherwise) dish out to them.

The comments to Dr. Margo Kaplan’s piece in the NYT are enlightening in this regard. While some applaud her for her courage in being a voice of reason, many more seem to fall into a couple of categories that, while understandable to some degree, are irrelevant. First, there are commenters who simply make legally and psychologically incorrect assertions, and lump pedophiles into the far larger subset of child molesters, most of whom are not pedophiles. Second, there are woefully unfocused comments that address the harm done to the victims of pedophiles (or people they assume are pedophiles) with no further thought.

Focusing on victims and prevention of harm is more than understandable; it’s completely appropriate and it needs to continue to be our highest priority. But we must also understand what drives offending- particularly when the drive is so despised that passion chokes that understanding.

Again- most predatory, sexual offenders are not pedophiles. The word is grossly overused and misused. Regardless, there are harmful pedophiles in our midst. We need to stop them, but in order to do so, we need to understand them.

Blind hatred won’t help. Blind hatred never helps anything.

 

 

 

The Rice Videotape: When An Unblinking Eye is Ugly But Necessary

HiResUnmanned, stationary video is a cold observer. It will not blink in disbelief. It will not turn away in horror. It will not cloud over with tears of pure, human empathy. But sometimes it’s the only accurate source for the truth about what individuals are capable of. Not monsters. Not demons. Just people.

In 2011, a Texas family court judge was forced to acknowledge the sadistic and brutal beating of his 16 year-old daughter who suffers from cerebral palsy because of a hidden webcam she set up in desperation. In 2013, a 14 year-old French girl compelled an admission of sexual abuse by her father through the same technology. These two children would likely never have been believed were it not for the passive, electronic observer that forced action, justice and- importantly- an acceptance of responsibility from the attackers.

Enter Ray and Janay Rice.

Ms. Rice considers her husband’s breathtakingly vicious attack of her, and then his dragging her body, skirt hiked up on a cold, hotel floor moments after, to be a part of their private lives. She seems yet to acknowledge a single act of wrongdoing on his part, instead characterizing what he did as “a moment in our lives.” She appears to be willing to support and stand by him regardless of what he did to her, what he might have done before, and what he might do again- even while she is pregnant with his child.

What are the chances, then, that Janay would ever have been forthcoming about what was done to her in that now infamous elevator- assuming she could even remember it accurately? Forget about the courtroom. What about the kind of honest detail that might have led to forcing Ray Rice to take real responsibility for a possibly permanent brain injury? What about the kind of detail that might have compelled him to examine his character and his choices, especially now that he will be a father?

Given her public statements, it is not likely that Janay would have spoken at all to anyone who might have made a difference, whether an NFL official, a judge, a counselor or anyone else. She’s in love. She’s made her choice.

But where criminal acts concerned, not all of the choices are hers to make. There are at least two entities that have an interest when a crime of violence occurs and criminal charges are brought: The victim herself (or himself) and the community as a whole. The community in this case- at least Atlantic County, New Jersey, the prosecutorial jurisdiction where this crime took place- has a right to the truth, as much as it can be ascertained, in order to decide what Ray Rice did to violate their laws and what he deserves because of it (no comment, for now, on how the case was legally resolved).

Without the video, it is highly unlikely that Rice’s brutality would ever be fully known- both in terms of the lightning blow he was willing to unleash into a woman’s face and the callous way in which he then dragged her around. Even assuming an out of character, mental snap due to rage, Rice could have knelt beside her and comforted her. He could have called for help and admitted a terrible, momentary wrong. Instead he dragged her like an inconvenient bag of garbage. We know that now, because we’ve seen it.

What Janay Rice is 100% correct about is that the repeated, for-entertainment viewing of the video tape of her abuse is exploitive and abusive itself; her pain should not be minimized nor her feelings invalidated. She is unfortunate with regard to being married to a public figure and now being at the center of a tragically public case. But given her unwavering support of a man who attacked her, given the child who will soon become a part of their dynamic, and given a desperate need for society as a whole to wake up to the undiluted reality of intimate partner violence, there is value in the videotape’s existence if not gross proliferation.

It’s awful. But it’s the truth. And the truth matters, even when love would conceal it.