LA Sheriff's Deputy Accused Of Raping Minor, But Media Won't Use The R Word

There is a responsibility inherent in belonging to the media, not just to report news and information, but also to do so in a way that benefits society.
Publish date:
September 18, 2013
media, rape culture, sexual assault

Yet another entry in the child rapist files is unfolding in Los Angeles right now, where John Augustus Rose II was just arrested and charged with 17 felonies in connection with his alleged “relationship” with an underage girl.

He's 43. She's 15, and was 14 at the time of the incidents under discussion.

He's a sheriff's deputy. She's a child.

I get really tired of reporting on these cases, because they are so depressing, and so enraging. They are clear and unequivocal cases of rape: we are talking about a grown-ass man preying on a teenage girl. They are not “having a sexual relationship.” As I put it to a friend last weekend when we were talking about these kinds of “relationships,” dudes like this are pedophile losers. Rapists. Pathetic.

But the mainstream media isn't allowed to say these things, and there are two reasons for that.

One is more prosaic and practical: When you're reporting things on people with their real names and identifying information, you have to be careful to protect yourself from defamation suits. Thus, it's common practice to use weasel words (“alleged” “possible”), scare quotes (“had sex with”), or language that's less “inflammatory,” which is how you get headlines like “Deputy charged with 17 felony counts after alleged sex with teen” instead of “Deputy charged with 17 felony counts in teen rape case.”

Legal departments, editors, and journalists are all very, very careful when it comes to toeing these lines; it's something you have to be conscious of when you're reporting on the news, especially in a suit-happy country like the US. I've had headlines and content changed in various publications because of legal concerns, after discussions with editors and legal about the best way to frame a situation. And let me be clear: I do not begrudge those editorial decisions, and understand why they were made, even though I chafe at the culture that forced us to make them.

I accept this as the price of getting news out there: better that this should be reported on than that it should remain buried in court proceedings.

But there's another reason this kind of slippery, icky reporting goes by, and it's not rooted in the logic of wanting to protect a paper from a potentially devastating lawsuit. That reason, of course, is rape culture. Some people really do seem to think that it's possible for a 43-year-old man to “have sex with” a 14-year-old girl, as opposed to raping her. And those people are the kinds of people in charge, the people who dictate how stories are told.

The same kind of people are also, of course, eager to say that being accused of rape can “ruin someone's life,” thus forcing papers to use weasel words when reporting on rape cases for fear of getting slapped with a suit from someone angry about being linked with rape in a public forum.

Those attitudes are, of course, reinforced by how these stories are reported. When no newspaper wants to use the R-word, readers aren't forced to confront the idea that it's possibly not appropriate to call this “sex.” It's rape. It's child sexual assault. It's violence. But it's not sex.

And thus, a vicious feedback look ensures that people continue to talk about child sexual assault cases with terms like “had sex with” and “sexual relationship,” continue to accuse children of being sexual temptresses, and continue to refuse to confront the fact that rape is a thing. That happens. To children.

Very little is known about the victim in this case (which is as it should be) other than her age and the fact that her accused (see how I had to drop in a weasel word in order to avoid legal problems?) assailant knew her family. Hopefully her identity will continue to remain concealed, so that the inevitable speculation about her sexuality, her complicity in her own sexual assault, will remain vague rather than painfully specific, and will be less likely to ruin her life -- if you want to talk about lives ruined by rape, let's talk about victims, not perpetrators.

We don't know if, for example, she was a young woman of color viewed as an easy target. If the accused groomed her, and for how long. What her emotional state was like.

The “Los Angeles Times,” which thus far has been the major news source reporting on this story, has certainly been hasty to tell us all about the accused, in what seems to pass for an attempt at “balanced” reporting. He's accused of rape, sure, but he's a 22-year veteran of the department, the paper informs us, and it was also hasty to inform readers that any criminal activities took place when he was off duty.

Well I for one am relieved. It's bad enough to have sheriff's deputies raping children, but simply unconscionable for them to do it while clocked in. No rape with my tax dollars, please!

The Times also appears oddly fixated on a 2002 incident for which he won the Medal of Valor when he rescued a woman from her burning home. The paper lingers over the details of the event with flattering quotes from the woman he saved (the quotes, of course, date to 2002 when the situation was covered, but the paper leaves the timing on those quotes intentionally vague, almost as though to suggest she's endorsing an accused (again!) rapist).

This information is presented to readers, it would seem, to mitigate the serious crimes he's charged with: he's been charged with 17 felonies, but he's really a stand-up guy, “well thought of” in the department, you know.

It's reminiscent of the “not the man I know” defense that frequently comes up in response to accusations of rape and sexual violence, where people decide that the accused couldn't possibly have committed the crimes under discussion. Because they “know” the alleged rapist, and that's just not like him. That defense is why cries for help go unheard, why victims become afraid to report, why obvious and clear cut cases of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and abuse go undiscussed.

As long as you seem like an upstanding guy, and cement your reputation in the community, you can get away with a surprisingly and disgustingly large number of things.

This is a strange and twisted example of balanced reporting gone wrong. It's perfectly acceptable to cover a case where someone has been accused of rape (sorry, “having sex”) and to provide a brief overview of that person's background, of course. Indeed, one might argue that it adds context to the story and provides useful information for readers. But readers don't really need to hear about what a terrific guy the alleged (!) rapist is -- all of this is information that will come out in court, as will the ultimate determination of guilt.

The media need to rethink the way they talk about rape allegations and situations like this. Because we need to be reporting on and talking about rape charges, and the circumstances of such cases, but we need to be able to do so in a way that doesn't reinforce rape culture and further victimize people who have experienced rape.

Survivors of childhood sexual assault encountering coverage like this get a painful reminder of how society thinks about their experiences and what they went through. Rape victims of all ages are left in the position of feeling like the moral defense of their attackers is more important than a frank discussion about rape.

This is a conversation that is critically important to have: how can we talk about rape while balancing the often conflicting needs that arise when talking about ongoing legal cases? And how can the media be more accountable in their rape coverage?

There is a responsibility inherent in belonging to the media, not just to report news and information, but also to do so in a way that benefits society. No media can ever be truly fair and balanced, neutral, or anything else, no matter what it claims; there's not a dichotomy between obviously biased and perfectly neutral. There are just shades of bias.

Maintaining a pretense of neutrality while reinforcing harmful cultural attitudes is a particularly nasty blow, because it leads readers down a bit of a primrose path. They don't understand the messages they're absorbing, since they think they're just reading some nice unbiased coverage in the good old“Times” with their morning coffee.

You can do good things and still be a bad person. You can save women from house fires and rape people. If there's one thing I know about human beings from my experience on this Earth, it's that we're complicated animals, and that the capacity for both great evil and great good can lie within the same person. I know too that people are eager to reinforce the good in some while ignoring the bad, in order to avoid their own complicity in damaging social structures.

Thus, fellow police officers will rally around their own whether it's rape accusations, a police shooting, or anything else, because to do otherwise is to question the status quo and to admit that it is possible for people you know to surprise you with their actions.

There's no such thing as “not the man I know,” and it's okay to use the R word.