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Following the announcement of the verdict in the Steubenville rape case this weekend, CNN covered the results in a breaking news segment that was, frankly, baffling.
In the commentary following the clip announcing the verdict, CNN anchor Candy Crowley and correspodent Poppy Harlow, who had been covering the case in the courtroom, both express their sadness and sympathy -- for the defendants.
Harlow describes the experience: “...It was critically difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happens as these two young men that had such promising futures -- star football players, very good students -- literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”
She speaks emphatically of how one of the defendants “collapsed into the arms of his attorney” as the verdict was announced -- she even leans in toward the camera to emphasize the point -- and quoting the boy’s spoken reaction as “My life is over, no one is going to want me now,” ostensibly a reference to his dashed hopes of a career in professional football (which, um, if professional football has stopped employing rapists then it’s news to me).
Harlow talks for almost a full minute before even mentioning the young woman they raped.
The CNN coverage then moves to video of the defendants apologizing for their actions following the verdict, one of them sobbing uncontrollably. Harlow follows this up with a bit about the sobbing defendant's bad relationship with his absentee father, and how said father allegedly whispered “I love you” to his son for apparently the first time ever in the courtroom.
It's telling that none of this woe-to-the-poor-rapists rhetoric was happening before the verdict, which gives the impression that in some folks' minds, it is the conviction for rape that is the real tragedy here. Not, like, the rape itself.
In the course of the CNN coverage, the victim is mentioned a total of twice. The CNN legal analyst comes in and talks about “a courtroom drenched in tragedy and tears” and talks about how these boys will suffer “for the rest of their lives” marked as registered sex offenders. How will their victim suffer? Eh, not worth mentioning.
Understandably, news coverage of rape cases often makes efforts to emphasize the human angle, but this situation is unusual in that the human angle CNN has chosen to highlight is not that of the anonymous victim, but of the apparently contrite perpetrators -- who, to be fair, are probably more sorry they were caught and convicted than they ever were for the crime itself.
Their conviction is important for lots of reasons, not least the difficulty in securing a guilty verdict in rape accusations -- according to RAINN, out of every 100 rapes, only 3 rapists will ever spend a day in prison -- and especially considering the energy of those who would blame Jane Doe for her own assault because she had been drinking.
But their conviction is not important because the lives of these “promising” young men are ruined by it -- their lives were ruined because they assaulted a young woman and had so little concept of the wrongness of it that they advertised their actions on social media, as though they were funny and socially acceptable.
I wanted to rant about this, but it turns out The Onion already did, back in 2011, when they aired a “story” about a young athlete accused of sexual assault, who is working hard to overcome “the trauma of his rape” and get back into college basketball, which is what really matters.
Complete with the expected thoughtful piano music and moody black and white footage of a serious-faced “Jacob,” the segment describes how “his greatest achievement came off the court in his freshman year, when he overcame the trauma of committing a terrible rape.” The satire is thick, but terribly familiar, as the focus is fixed on the star athlete and how this accusation has hurt his life, with little thought spared for the victim of his crime.
Jacob explains how, after he was charged, “Coach was really not happy that I had to miss practice because I raped someone.” Says one of the school administrators who has Jacob’s back: “He’s averaged 22 points a game for us this year! No amount of raping is gonna change that.” Says Jacob himself: “I’m not just a rapist -- I’m a basketball player first.”
The satire here co-opts the language around sexual assault survival to bitterly hilarious effect -- the narrator asserts that “He’s refusing to let what happened to the girl he raped define him,” and it would all be ridiculous if it didn’t predict the CNN reaction to the Steubenville verdict -- and let's be real, this kind of pity-the-rapist news coverage is not unique to either CNN or the Steubenville case. It happens all the time.
When I shared the original CNN segment with the xoJane editors list yesterday, requesting people be outraged with me (or something -- I was really mad), our own Helena made a really excellent point that -- the gross apologism in this particular bit of coverage aside -- it’s not a bad idea to emphasize how the lives of these young men have been forever affected by their having assaulted a woman, and that this lesson of “being a rapist will destroy you” is something we should be making sure all young men learn. And she's right.
But it’s hard to watch this particular effort without feeling as though the sympathies of the CNN coverage, as well as the sympathies of a shocking number of people who have followed this case, lie squarely with the boys who did not know that sexually assaulting a peer who was incapacitated by alcohol was not an acceptable thing to do.
They should have to live with the terrible consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives, as they made a choice to act as they did, and they denied the woman they raped the right to make her own decisions. And if they serve as a cautionary tale to other boys who might take similar advantage of a similar situation, that’s fine. But I can’t help but think we might get further if we were more focused on simply teaching all men not to rape anyone -- not just because they fear going to jail if they’re caught, but because rape is always, unavoidably, inarguably wrong.
It’s not a tragic mistake, and it’s not a terrible misunderstanding -- it’s wrong. Why didn't they know that? How have we failed as a culture? These are the tragedies here, but we're probably not going to hear about them on CNN. At least not anytime soon.
Update: There's now a petition gathering steam on Change.org, demanding that CNN apologize. Check it out here. (Thanks to famed xoJane commenter 1010011101 for pointing this out!)