A Few Thoughts on the Media’s Coverage of Steubenville

Among many others, I have an unfortunate habit of writing posts during the evenings that I ultimately don’t finish. By the time I’ve got a moment to return to the piece, it’s either old news or my passion’s been zapped by seeing my few points raised by others, usually better, and almost always in front of a larger audience.

That’s what happened to this post. It was originally going to be about the media’s coverage of the Steubenville rape trial (too hideous for me to recount, so for the uninformed). I began it Sunday afternoon and here it is, two days later, and most anything worth saying’s been already said.

And, I gotta say, thank God for that.

CNN’s coverage was far from the only example of failure — but it was the most egregious of all. So, again, thank God for the online petition that blossomed into life today. As of this writing, it’s already notched more than 85,000 signatures. It deserves thousands upon thousands more.

ThinkProgress has a good roundup of other sources of media failure. What’s striking is the variety of ways the big news conglomerates found to approach the story with a treacly sentimentality. Sexism is obviously at play here. But I don’t think that can explain why all of these big newsers fucked up and fucked up so similarly.

My best theory is similar to a point HuffPo’s Kia Makarechi made in his response to CNN:

The slant of the day’s coverage was revealing…CNN appears to have bet on the emotions of those it could show on camera — for obvious reasons, the victim’s identity has been protected, and the victim’s family was not shown weeping in court. Networks know that people crying make for great TV.

Basically what I think happened is that the people who run these shows are overworked. They get sloppy. And lazy. If we consider that the victim’s anonymity made it exceedingly difficult to run he-said/she-said coverage, it’s kind of a no-brainer that we’d end up with reports that have much more in common with one of those unbearably maudlin SportsCenter “stories” about athletes triumphing in the face of adversity than they do with actual news.

The weeping rapists were right there. TV gold. And the girl? She didn’t even give us a single little tear! No Casey Anthony, her.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the ultimate point of TV news is not to inform but to secure an audience that it can then sell to advertisers. That has a lot of consequences in practice, but one of the more obvious results is that TV news overwhelmingly caters to its target audience’s prejudices. And I don’t mean this solely in the Fox News vs. MSNBC way, the partisan politics way.

I mean it in the way that a producer at CNN or the like is not going to challenge any of her audience’s firmly held beliefs — especially when it comes to those beliefs that aren’t really PC anymore but are nevertheless widespread. Like the idea that rape is as often as not the victim’s fault. Or, more abstractly, the idea that we should all just get along.

The “let’s just get along” stance permeates American politics and is the foundation of the anti-democratic strain that slithers insidiously through our society. We’re all used to it by now, except we usually hear it in one form or another in the context of an argument over race. It’s part and parcel of the complaints that charges of racism or the like are polarizing and uncouth. It’s manifested in the position that accusing someone of racism is nearly as bad as being racist.

What’s happening here is very similar. The sense you get if you read or watch most mainstream coverage of Steubenville? Being accused of rape is nearly as awful as being raped. Maybe even worse — because the girl was drunk and at an all-night party and blah, blah, blah. The charge is worse than the crime.

So consider this brilliant Onion video a palliative for all that. And don’t forget to sign the petition if you haven’t already.

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