NYT’s Retro Rape Reporting Returns to Victim-Blaming Ways

I wrote a letter to the New York Times in 1991 after they ran a piece by Fox Butterfield (4/17/91) that invaded the privacy (literally peering into her daughter’s bedroom window) and scrutinized the personal life of a woman who accused a member of the Kennedy family of raping her. Clearly some people inside the paper were outraged as well, because they don’t usually print letters that are this critical (4/21/91):

I read with growing disbelief the “profile” of the alleged victim in the Palm Beach, Florida, rape case. It seems you are borrowing not only your policies on naming rape victims from supermarket tabloids but also journalistic and ethical standards.

There has been a decades-long struggle by advocates for rape victims to convince the courts that details of a victim’s personal life are simply not relevant to the crime committed against her. Yet you consider it appropriate to note that the alleged victim’s mother was called a “longstanding girlfriend” in her stepfather’s divorce case; that in ninth grade, she skipped classes in school; that when out on a date with a chef, she talked to other men.

When one looks at this information and tries to puzzle out why you thought it worth reporting, the conclusion seems inescapable: The lifestyle of a woman is a significant question in determining how sorry we should feel if she was raped.

The article shows contempt not only for the woman, but also for the intelligence of your readers, when you explain that “the matter of her privacy” was taken out of the hands of Times editors by NBC‘s April 16 nationwide broadcast. When NBC aired the woman’s name (without irrelevant details of her social life), it justified its decision by pointing to the Globe, a supermarket tabloid; the Globe passed on responsibility to a tabloid in Britain.

Only the Times is responsible for maintaining journalistic and ethical standards in the Times, and by publishing this sensationalistic invasion of privacy, you have failed in that responsibility.

This shifting the blame in rape cases was a persistent problem at the Times; this is from a 1991 Extra! piece by Laura Flanders (3-4/91):

“After Rape Charge, Two Lives Hurt and One Destroyed” was the New York Times headline (11/12/90) above a story about a University of Rhode Island student who committed suicide before giving testimony to police about a rape he had witnessed. The story, by William Celes 3rd, presented the rape survivor and her attacker as equally “hurt,” the real victim being the 20-year-old young man with “personal problems” who couldn’t bear the memory of the assault he’d witnessed without trying to prevent. (Celes points out, however, that “some said the real victim was Mr. Lallymand,” the man charged with the rape.)

This was 20 years ago, and it would be nice to believe that consciousnesses have been raised at the Times since then. Unfortunately, a piece by James McKinley Jr. that appeared in the Times yesterday (3/9/11), about a town in Texas where 18 men and boys were charged in the gang-rape of an 11-year-old girl, suggests little progress has been made. (See, 3/9/11.) McKinley reports that the East Texas town is asking itself “how could their young men have been drawn into such an act,” and provides this as part of the answer:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands–known as the Quarters–said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

There’s no indication in the article that the reporter questions in any way the reaction of the town, which seems (to hear McKinley tell it) more concerned about the plight of “their young men” than about the 11-year-old victim.

Faced with widespread criticism of this report, the Times is digging in its heels: “The paper stands by the controversial piece,” a spokesperson told Yahoo! News (3/10/11).

UPDATE: New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane (3/11/11) weighs in on the story, saying “the outrage is understandable.”

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.