When dozens of women were sexually assaulted in and around Central Park on June 11, the story became front page news locally and nationally.
While many outlets focused on allegations that police officers did little to prevent the attacks or help the victims, a disturbing trend emerged in coverage of the story. In a media climate accustomed to sensationalized images of mass crime scenes, news outlets seemed to use the Central Park “wilding” story as an excuse to feature lurid amateur video footage of the assaults.
Outlets from the Fox News Channel to the New York Post repeatedly featured images of nearly naked women crying, screaming or trying desperately to cover themselves as they were forcibly stripped and molested.
Adding serious insult to injury, many of these outlets disregarded newsroom policies preventing the identification of victims of sexual crimes (policies established because assault victims are less likely to come forward if they believe their attacks will be hyped by the media as a spectator sport).
Some outlets partially obscured the faces or bodies of the victims; others showed close-ups of victims’ faces and even slow-motion visuals of a woman attempting to hide. While outlets such as the New York Times and NPR (both 6/19/00) correctly questioned the ethics of outlets running clearly identifiable images of victims’ faces, they missed the larger point– that repeated airing of these lurid images were exploitative regardless of whether the victims’ faces could be seen.
Sexual assault on this scale– and the police force’s failure to respond to it– is certainly news. But media did not have to run tape of in-progress sexual assaults to tell the story. Victims caught on tape attempting to cover themselves didn’t want bystanders in the park to see them naked; by running this footage over and over, news outlets made sure that the victims were exposed to anyone tuning into the TV news for weeks to come. In doing so, news outlets have further humiliated the victims, exposing them on a grander scale than did the original attackers.
One of the worst examples of coverage was a Dateline NBC (6/20/00) broadcast reported by Bob McKeown. The broadcast opened with McKeown describing “young people wearing very little at all” at the parade; his first interviewee, parade attendant Andre Holmes, sets the tone for the broadcast: “Everything was hot. The women are hot. The food is hot.” Interspersed between interviews with victims, men who had videotaped the assaults and police spokespeople were constant visuals of women being sexually assaulted.
As if this prurient display wasn’t bad enough, Dateline went on to raise the “delicate question” of whether the victims should be blamed for the assaults on them: “What responsibility, if any, did the women have for what happened that day in the park?” McKeown asked.
To answer that question, Dateline turned to Amy Holmes, identified as a USA Today columnist but not as a member of the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum. Holmes cited the videos in claiming that the assaults started out as “almost consensual sexual play and roughhousing and exhibitionism.”
The theory that the sexual assault of passersby by an aggressive mob was triggered by “almost consensual…play” is, to say the least, a dubious and regressive one. Even if the assaults were preceded by mutual “roughhousing,” to suggest that this somehow implicates the victims of the subsequent assaults is like saying that a woman consensually kissing on a date somehow mitigates date rape–or, to use a more accurate analogy, the rape of women other than the one who went on the date.
Dateline completed its analysis of this “delicate question” by consulting a man present at the assaults, who insisted that though he was “not blaming anyone,” there were “two sides to this coin.” He described the assailants as “a crowd of guys, just oversexed and overheated, provoked to a point to where it allowed them to do what they wanted to do. They saw open flesh and they just got hungry for more.”
It is disturbing that Dateline would uncritically present the discredited and sexist argument that men who sexually assault women do so because they are provoked to the point of losing control.
In one revealing segment, McKeown described the motivation of one the men who videotaped the assaults: “He had gone there, he admits, to record videotape of pretty girls, many of them scantily clad…. It turns out several men we met were doing the very same thing that day.” McKeown explained that this was “one reason there would be so many pictures of the mob mayhem that followed.”