Apr 1 1993

Domestic Violence Campaign: Super Bowl Success Sparks Good Ol’ Boys’ Backlash

Violence against women (photo: Pietro Naj-Oleari/European Parliament)

(photo: Pietro Naj-Oleari/European Parliament)

Shortly before the start of the Super Bowl on NBC this January, viewers saw a public service announcement that warned: “Domestic violence is a crime.” For some, the PSA came as a surprise, but not for those involved in the campaign to get 30 seconds of airtime donated to the ad. The moment (worth roughly $500,000 to advertisers) was the result of many weeks of work by FAIR and a coalition of anti-violence groups in negotiation with executives at NBC and NBC Sports.

Workers at women’s shelters, and some journalists, have long reported that Super Bowl Sunday is one of the year’s worst days for violence against women in the home. FAIR hoped that the broadcast of an anti-violence PSA on Super Sunday, in front of the biggest TV audience of the year, would sound a wake-up call for the media, and it did.

“Since the Super Bowl it seems as though public awareness has increased dramatically on this topic,” the executive director of a women’s shelter in McKeesport, Pa., wrote to FAIR. “We believe you’ve played a major role in bringing domestic violence out in the open.”

But a handful of reporters and editors decided to “debunk” the story. These journalists, mostly men, apparently felt affronted by FAIR’s success in getting NBC to dedicate 30 seconds, in between the beer ads and the car commercials, to a crisis that, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, claims thousands of women’s lives per year.

The “debunkers,” led by Ken Ringle of the Washington Post (1/31/93), claimed that FAIR, in coalition with women’s groups, slanted the facts in their effort to get NBC to run the PSA. Ringle (and journalists at AP, the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal) asserted that the coalition had claimed “national studies” linked Super Bowl Sunday to increased assaults. No such claims were made. In fact, FAIR made the point repeatedly that domestic violence movement is gravely underfunded and understudied.

Critics charged that “predictions” about Super Sunday violence were made; none were. They claimed that the coalition was forced to “acknowledge” that its evidence was largely “anecdotal.” “Anecdotal” was the word used in countless interviews by FAIR; stories from women on the front lines were something that made the campaign stronger, not something anyone was forced to “acknowledge.”

In the Washington Post, Ringle attacked those who fought for the NBC public service spot as “causists” who “show up wherever the most TV lenses are focused.” The article painted a picture of a feminist mob strong-arming the networks with myth and false statistics.

But it was Ringle who distorted the facts. Post readers would not know that of the four experts cited by Ringle, only one agreed with the article’s thesis that there is no “evidence that a link actually exists between football and wife-beating.”

Ringle quoted psychotherapist Michael Lindsey to defend his point that the Super Bowl PSA campaign was misguided: “You know I hate this,” Ringle quotes Lindsay saying. But Lindsey told FAIR that he was referring to Ringle’s line of questioning, not the anti-battering campaign. “He was really hostile,” Lindsey added. On the same day as Ringle’s “debunk” story, Lindsey was quoted in the New York Times, saying, “That PSA will save lives.”

Ringle claimed triumphantly that a speaker at a press conference co-hosted by FAIR had “misrepresented” a study by Old Dominion College on violence and sports. FAIR interviewed the authors. While due to the small sample involved, they chose not to express the study results in percentage terms as the activist had, they did not see this as misrepresentation. “We have not accused anyone of distorting the results of our study,” the authors stated.

Following the lead of the Washington Post and editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh jumped into the act on his TV show. He berated the PSA as “just a bunch of feminist bilge” because the man it featured is not a credible batterer: “Like people who beat their wives wear ties,” Limbaugh scoffed.

The backlash articles bore all the traits of typical coverage of domestic violence: They belittled the victims, minimized the crisis and missed the point–which is that, according to FBI averages, a woman is battered every 18 seconds. That is enough to deserve attention all year long.

FAIR’s goal was to open up debate. We did. The PSA was seen by more people than any anti-battering message in history. Weeks later, TV news and talk shows were still covering the issue intensely and constructively.

The fact that some good ol’ boys managed to miscast the campaign came as no surprise. Some journalists’ determination to undermine the Super Bowl effort was just a reminder of how many in mainstream media typically disbelieve women when they talk about the violence in their lives.