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When the Columnist (Kristof) Doesn’t Recognize The Wrong Lede

To Nicholas Kristof, columnist, The New York Times:

Your May 23, 2015 column was entitled “When the Rapist Doesn’t See It As Rape.”

When I saw that you were taking this issue on, my heart soared. I’ve adored you for years. I love your compassion, your courage, your wit, and your willingness to embody my favorite of all journalistic pledges, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” So criticizing you does not come easily.

You wrote a timely, needed column on the phenomenon of non-stranger sexual violence that takes place in every area of society, but has gained attention most prominently within the college environment (mirrored by the military environment and many high school ones as well). But why did you lead (journalistically “lede”) with the story of Brian Banks and Wanetta Gibson, one of the very rare but most bluntly clear examples of rank false reporting seen in recent years?

As you note, Gibson not only recanted, but was demonstrated to be lying thanks to a sting video captured by lawyers who were rightfully assisting Banks in uncovering the crime of a baseless lie that appears to have been inspired by Gibson’s mother. Wanetta Gibson, from what is believed, was inspired by her mother to falsify an accusation against Brian Banks so that a payout could be obtained through a civil action against the school district she attended. The Gibsons pocketed 1.5 million dollars in a settlement, and that false accusation cost Banks not only five years in the California state correctional system, but apparently a professional football career as well. Banks has been gracious since his exoneration was, thankfully, made official by the Los Angeles County District Attorneys Office in May of 2012. Were it up to me as a prosecutor, I’d likely have gone after at least Wanetta’s mother (Wanetta was a juvenile at the time of the false allegation) assuming the facts are as they’ve been presented in the media.

But moving on from that, I am at a loss as to why you, in a column that otherwise correctly describes the daunting challenge of responding to sexual violence that is and has always been a sadly regular part of collage life, chose to spend roughly a third of your powerful piece on something that almost never happens.

You yourself point out the rarity of false allegations in rape cases. You then correctly spend the rest of the piece on the far more common and present danger to young women (and some men) posed by predatory people on college campuses who get away with rape again and again because of familiarity, culture, and institutional self-protection.

Still, you return to the convenient myth of allegations of rape that are the result of sexual encounters that are, “complex, ambiguous, fueled by alcohol, and prone to he-said-she-said uncertainties.”

Hogwash, Mr. Kristof.

In fact, most rape is predatory in nature; you yourself allude to Dr. David Lisak’s ground breaking research. Worse, most predators, whether articulate enough or not to describe it, are gleefully aware of the alcohol fueled, “he said, she said” patina of doubt that saves them from consequences and that you problematically promote even as you claim to do the opposite.

But more importantly, most victims of rape, meaning women and men who have been clearly perpetrated against by any commonly accepted legal description, do exactly what perpetrators hope for and expect: They blame themselves, they fold the experience into their lives, and they move on. The idea that false or “mistaken” claims of sexual assault are anywhere near as a big a problem as sexual assault itself is simply baseless and misleading.

I don’t doubt that you believe these things, sir. I only wonder why you structured a column that seems to devalue those far more profound truths in the interest of giving column inches to what is largely a dangerous distraction.