Media victimized by patriarchal legal spin
by David Weinshilboum
I hate spin. It disgusts me when a politician attempts to manipulate audience with elision of fact or terminological trickery. Needless to say, I’m not looking forward to the next presidential election.
My abhorrence of spin makes me a fan of old-school journalism. I enjoy media outlets that eliminate slant by providing unbiased analysis and language.
And language is important, down to the word. Take, for example, the Occupy Wall Street participants—are they rebels or rule breakers? The terms “rule breaker” and “rebel” are synonyms; however, audiences interpreted the terms in very different ways. A “rebel” is someone who goes against the evils of the system; I’ve no doubt that many people envision James Dean as a rebel, a la “Rebel Without a Cause.” Conversely, readers are far more likely to view the term “rule breaker” negatively.
Thankfully, most newspapers refer to the Occupy participants as “protesters,” a neutral term that generates neither positive nor negative connotations.
In other instances, I fear that newspapers are themselves being spun.
Spin doctor language seems to have infiltrated the Herman Cain sexual harassment story. Four women have come forward and asserted that the presidential candidate sexually harassed them. Two of the women received paid settlements from the National Restaurant Association—where they worked under Cain in the 1990s—after they complained of Cain’s behavior.
These women are described by a litany of media reports as “accusers.” (spin)
Notice the subtle implication? An accuser pushes the action, points a finger. The term accuser implies that the women initiated this chain of events, that they somehow generated these alleged events. (spin, spin, spin)
Let’s be clear: these women didn’t initiate anything. They were allegedly harassed in a sexual manner. Their claims were so serious that the association for which they worked paid them off.
Yet, these women—these apparent victims—are described as accusers in “The New York Times, “ “USA Today,” and “National Public Radio.”
It all started in 2003, when police in a small Colorado town investigated an alleged rape. A woman had gone to the police; a nurse examined her. The exam showed the woman’s injuries to be consistent with rape. Later, police arrested basketball superstar Kobe Bryant on felony rape charges.
Bryant hired very expensive lawyers. The lawyers insisted that the term “victim” not be used in the courtroom. The lawyers bullied journalists about referring to the woman as a victim. The big bucks lawyers also outed the victim’s name in court repeatedly and, in my estimation, slandered her. In essence, the lawyers performed a full-court legal spin.
The alleged victim received death threats and refused to testify. Without her testimony, the case was dead and the charges against Bryant dropped. The woman later settled a civil suit with Bryant.
But the outcome isn’t as important as this: she was considered an accuser, someone who did not deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Prior to the Bryant case, journalists almost always referred to women who were allegedly raped as victims. Police had investigated the circumstances and generated enough evidence to press charges. At this juncture in the legal process, journalists afforded these apparent victims the benefit of the doubt.
After the Bryant case, journalists were less inclined to refer to women as victims. More and more, they became “accusers.”
Almost a decade later, several media outlets remain bound to Bryant-case language. A quick search of New York Times records shows dozens of rape charges linked to an “accuser.” Several times over the past few years, I’ve found myself cursing out National Public Radio reports because they have described alleged rape victims as “accusers.”
A recent news story could change the way journalism utilizes the term “accuser.”
Last week, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office charged former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky of sexually abusing eight boys. The abuse occurred over the course of several years.
Interestingly, NPR and USA Today avoid using the term “accuser” when describing the victims. A Nov. 8 USA Today headline went out of its way to describe a young man who came forward against Sandusky as an alleged victim.
Why the disparity in terms? I’m guessing that Sandusky’s alleged actions are so vile that no paper wants to paint potential victims as “accusers.” Unfortunately USA Today did not immediately respond to my request to discuss their editorial policy on language.
The New York Times appears to be the only newspaper to refer to alleged victims of the Sandusky scandal as “accusers.” They too did not immediately respond to my
inquiry regarding “accuser” versus “victim” terminology.
Mind you, there might be instances where a person who levels an accusation should be referred to as an accuser. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn incident comes to mind. But above all, I want the media to reflect on language instead of blindly embracing the legal spin-term “accuser.”
I can’t help but think that the media’s fixation on the term “accuser” for alleged rape victims is the result of the patriarchal society in which we live. And a single man accused of hideous crimes might break the media of this nasty habit.
David Weinshilboum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org