Feb 11 2000

From the Women’s Desk: In rape debate, NBC prioritizes controversy over scientific credibility

During the last week in January, NBC news viewers had two chances to learn that rape is not a crime of violence but a “natural, biological and evolved” male behavior–and that the clothing a woman wears can put her at risk of being attacked.

On the Today show (1/24/00), evolutionary psychologist Randy Thornhill insisted that “rape is a sexual act with a sexual motivation” that evolved as a reproductive strategy for men to pass their genes on to as many offspring as possible. Thornhill, co-author (with University of Colorado professor Craig Palmer) of the then-unreleased book A Natural History of Rape (MIT Press), warned that to reduce their chances of being raped, women must understand “that there are costs associated with dressing provocatively and going out alone at night and so forth.”

Watching the Today show, viewers would never know that Thornhill and Palmer’s theory has been criticized by fellow scientists as an advocacy-motivated product of sloppy research, weak premises and insufficient data. It wouldn’t have been difficult for NBC to find scientists who could offer a contradicting voice. Evolutionary biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne told the New York Times, (1/15/00) that their work, excerpted in The Sciences magazine, was “irresponsible, it’s tendentious, it’s an advocacy article and the science is sloppy.”

Or NBC could have interviewed science journalist Natalie Angier, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography, who told FAIR she identifies many problems areas within Thornhill and Palmer’s work. “There is so little data here on which they base so much,” Angier said. “Is there any research showing that women in miniskirts get raped more often than women in long skirts? Of course there isn’t. He’s saying it, but that data doesn’t exist.”

In The Sciences and in numerous interviews, Thornhill complains that his and Palmer’s writings on rape have been turned down by science journals because of political correctness censorious feminists within the scientific community. Angier offered a different reason the pair’s work might have been rejected: “Their paper was probably turned down for the same nonideological reasons why so many other papers are turned down–simply because their data isn’t convincing. The truth is that their book was not peer reviewed. The beauty of this type of thing is that they can say anything they want when it doesn’t have to hold up to scrutiny… in a serious scientific journal,” Angier said. “They’re willing to go way out on a limb on very, very little data, and then people like me get accused of being ideological when we call attention to that while they get to fall back on their scientific credentials.”

Indeed, much of the media coverage surrounding Thornhill and Palmer’s “Darwin made me do it!” theory framed the discussion as a battle between angry activists and dispassionate scientists. Thornhill set the terms of the debate, and news outlets followed his lead, describing his work as controversial, provocative, and most of all disturbing to social scientists and anti-rape advocates.

While a number of outlets did seek comments from other scientists, few offered serious scientific counterpoints illustrating research-based objections.

This limited and leading framing was typified on Today, where Thornhill was never asked to substantiate his theory with data. Instead, the University of New Mexico professor was allowed to blithely round off his claims about the biological nature of rape with the assertion, “these are not debatable issues” (a line he favored during most of his print and broadcast interviews).

Rather than including any response from biologists who could challenge the rape theory from a scientific viewpoint, Today pitted Thornhill against New York City sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, setting up a profoundly unilluminating, science-verses-law debate.

As the only scientist in the conversation, Thornhill appeared by default to represent objective science and natural reality. When Fairstein criticized Thornhill for never studying rape victims or rapists, and instead basing much of his work on the apparently coercive sexual practices of scorpion flies (“This is not, professor, ‘A Bug’s Life,” Fairstein said), Thornhill’s response was to say that Fairstein “mischaracterized science.” Thornhill dismissed anyone who disagrees as anti-intellectual and manipulative: “It’s very, very tragic for critics of our approach to try to mislead the public about the nature of science.”

The Today segment closed with news anchor Ann Curry’s promise that “this is not the last we’re going to be hearing about [Thornhill’s theory]. In fact, it’s just the beginning.”

As it turned out, viewers didn’t have to wait very long to hear more of the same from Thornhill–or from NBC. The next day’s Dateline (1/25/00) featured a segment, again pitting Thornhill against Fairstein, that opened with this voice-over from reporter Lisa Rudolph: “For years the conventional wisdom was that rape is a crime of violence, not sex. Now a shocking new theory suggests the opposite, that it is about sex and a biological impulse that all men have.”

In another voice-over, Rudolph repeated Thornhill’s assertion that he isn’t blaming the victim when he tells women their clothing can trigger men’s biological tendencies to demand sex by force, he’s merely “suggesting the only way to prevent rape is to understand it scientifically.” Rudolph’s comments were bolstered by visual images capitalizing on the sensationalism of the story: close-up shots of women in tight shorts, and a clip from “The Accused,” a movie centered on a graphic, brutal gang rape of a woman in a bar.

NBC seemed more interested in stoking the controversy surrounding their book than examining its scientific validity. Dateline‘s segment was prefaced by the teaser, “And the big story that everyone is talking about: a shocking theory about rape… Is this a new field of conflict in the battle of the sexes?… Are all men born rapists?”

Though this segment did include a brief quote from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne denouncing Thornhill and Palmer’s theory as “bunk,” Dateline never posed any questions that could illuminate whether or not their work has scientific merit. Instead, Rudolph ends her report by telling viewers that their book, when it is released, “will likely fuel the debate over whether it’s irresponsible runaway science or a frightening insight into human behavior.”

Irresponsible science or frightening insight into behavior? That’s an interesting question. Too bad there was so little actual scientific debate in the two NBC shows supposedly devoted to answering it. In the typical “science in one corner, feminism in the other” paradigm so often favored by the media, Today viewers received a whole lot of hype and very little information on which to judge this contested theory.

What Thornhill and Palmer received as a result of this type of coverage (by NBC as well as in the national and international press) was much more tangible: MIT Press capitalized on the book’s PR hype by moving its publication date from April 1 to February 1. An MIT Press representative told FAIR that as of the first week in February, the initial print run of 10,000 copies has already sold out, and at least another 10,000 copies have been ordered.

ACTION: Want to know why NBC devoted so much air time–and so little scientific scrutiny–to a dubious theory that women can reduce their risk of rape by dressing conservatively? Ask them. Express your concerns to:

Dateline NBC corespondent Lisa Rudolph: dateline@nbc.com Fax: 212-644-7073 30 Rockefeller Plaza NYC, NY 10112.

Today Show news anchor Ann Curry, today@nbc.com30 Rockefeller Plaza NYC, NY 10112

Please “cc” your letters to Jennifer Pozner, Women’s Desk Director, FAIR, at jpozner@fair.org, fax: 212-727-7668.