The Rights Stuff

The New York Times' Rape-Friendly Reporting

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 2:25 PM EST

From today's New York Times:

The police investigation began shortly after Thanksgiving, when an elementary school student alerted a teacher to a lurid cellphone video that included one of her classmates.

The video led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys on charges of participating in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the abandoned trailer home, the authorities said.

This story from Cleveland, Texas, is beyond horrifying. Obviously. Unfortunately, further injustices have now been heaped on the victim (and the movement to end rape culture) by the article's writer and editor.

"Gang Rape of Schoolgirl, and Arrests, Shake Texas Town," the Times article covering the atrocities, is a collection of one perpetrator-excusing, victim-blaming insult after another. It starts right after the lede and some further information about the suspects, who include middle schoolers and a 27-year-old. Then:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act? [Italics mine.]

Hmm. My editors let me get away with passive voice, too, but in this case it seems inappropriate, as does the peculiar verb choice, which gives the suspects a little bit of a pass. If the allegations are proved, then the young men of Cleveland, Texas, committed these dreadful acts. However, by the story's semantics, they didn't allegedly do anything. They were coerced into it by some unnamed influence or entity.

But okay, maybe how 18 young men were allegedly drawn into gang-raping a child is truly the question on Clevelanders' minds. The article was written by a reporter, not a pundit, so perhaps it can't be helped that some of the reported content is wildly insensitive. For example:

"It's just destroyed our community," said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. "These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives."

You can't blame a reporter for reporting uncomfortable facts, like this evidence of a culture that places more responsibility on victims and has more sympathy for rapists. You can blame a reporter, though, for not using the tools available to him to provide a basic balance of information and opinions. A transition like this could follow that last quote: "But others have different concerns, like…" Now insert a quote from a person wondering what it's going to be like for the victim to have nightmares, post-traumatic stress, depression, possibly crippling intimacy issues for a very long time. Instead, the only other people quoted are saying things like this:

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.

"Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?" said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. "How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"

This is the point at which, as the writer's editor, I would send him an email. "Dear James," it would say. "Thanks for getting this in! I have some concerns that we've only got quotes from people who are worried about the suspects ('The arrests have left many wondering who will be taken into custody next') and think the girl was asking for it, especially since, even if she actually begged for it, the fact that she is 11 makes the incident stupendously reprehensible (not to mention still illegal). We don't want anyone wrongly thinking you are being lazy or thoughtless or misogynist! Please advise if literally no other kinds of quotes are available because every single person who lives in Cleveland, Texas, is a monster." 

It seems such a message never happened, because the story ends with the school district spokeswoman, whose primary concerns appear to be as screwed up as the rest of the community's.

The students who were arrested have not returned to school, and it is unclear if they ever will. Ms. Gatlin said the girl had been transferred to another district. "It's devastating, and it’s really tearing our community apart," she said. "I really wish that this could end in a better light."

You know what I really wish? After wishing that this had never happened, and didn't happen all the time? That major media organizations would stop sneakily, if unintentionally, promoting rape-friendliness. It doesn't help the cause of keeping our youth from getting drawn into such acts.

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Meanwhile, in Ohio…

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 10:00 AM EST

Yesterday, Ohio Governor John Kasich delivered his State of the State address in a hostile environment. Some inside the Capitol booed him. Lots of people outside the building demonstrated against him. Someone even rewrote the lyrics of Queen's "We Will Rock You" to turn it into a vaguely threatening anti-Kasich screed ("We Will Stop You"), because that is how we protest in my home state.

As in Wisconsin, the Ohio legislature is proposing to drastically reduce unions' bargaining abilities, which prompted thousands of protesters to come out in Columbus last month. The city's protests have had a smaller turnout than Madison's, and no Michael Moore appearances, but the battle is no less significant. "I just want other states to know what we're going through," said my friend, who called me shortly after listening to Kaisch (or, as she calls him, "our big stupid douchebag governor"). We went to Ohio State together; she's been a public school teacher for eight years.

Here's what they're going through: The anti-union Senate Bill 5 barely passed after some shady, last-minute reshuffling of committee members to get it to a vote. SB 5 "severely limits my union's ability to collectively bargain," my friend said. "It involves jail times and fines for striking. It takes away employers' incentive to bargain in good faith. Then you're just at the mercy of your board. It's not like just because I'm in a union I'm bullying the board into raises. I've taken a zero for the last two years."

The rhetoric painting union workers as contentious, fabulous fat cats really pisses my friend off. The average Ohio Association of Public School Employee makes a whopping $24,000 a year. She also resents the propaganda about unions being disruptive strike machines. Ohio's current collective-bargaining law was passed in 1983. The State Employment Relations Board says that in 1978, there were 67 public-sector strikes; in 2008, there were just three.

Kasich called broadly for reforms, but didn't say much about what exactly he has in mind. It's not clear, either, what will happen with SB 5, which has gone to a House committee.

"It's all just political bullshit," my friend said, part of the "agenda to break down the Democratic Party by dismantling unions. But this happens to be political bullshit that affects my ability to feed my family."

Happy International Women's Day

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 3:01 AM EST

It was kind of kick-started by commies encouraging women to contribute to a great socialist empire, but anyone can celebrate International Women's Day, which is today. Russians celebrate it by buying ladies flowers. Daniel Craig celebrates it by wearing a dress while Judi Dench assaults him with stats about gender inequality.

Some other suggestions for marking the occasion? Play around on the International Rescue Committee's new Wake Up website, a multimedia campaign that, among other things, introduces visitors to women who are battling violence and disparity in unfathomably hostile environments, like this Jordanian gal. Her organization sneakily provides services to Iraqi refugee women who are being abused with impunity. Or read this profile of an Afghan prosecutor so brave her story just might choke you up. Or check out the PBS documentary about how striking lady-workers helped start the whole American union movement.

May you enjoy this empowery holiday, even if there are no flowers or large men in drag in your life.

Deconstructing MoJo's Haiti Reconstruction Story

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 1:55 PM EST

Last week, Andrea Pitzer, the editor of Nieman Storyboard, a project of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, sent me an email. "Each month, we pick one outstanding narrative that is then poked and prodded by a group of top editors from around the US to see how it ticks," she wrote. This month, they picked my feature "Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti's Reconstruction Hell." 

Pitzer promised that being dissected by the editors would be "a little like getting an ice cream sundae while being beaten with a stick." Indeed, some of their comments are flattering, some of them harsh, some bitingly true and then some, in my opinion, a little off the mark. If you've read the piece and want to see if you agree with the experts, check out the roundtable here.

Bringing Qaddafi to Justice

| Thu Mar. 3, 2011 1:52 PM EST

Today International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced that his body will investigate Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and company for possible crimes against humanity. By ICC standards, this is superfast action. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, for example, wasn't indicted until 2008, years after the internatonal community knew about the slaughter in Darfur. This is some of that "timely and decisive" movement we've been looking for from the United Nations since the Libyan crisis began last month. 

So, what now? The court has two months to report back to the Security Council with the results of its investigation. Then the ICC judges will decide whether to issue arrest warrants. The ICC does not have any authority to actually bring in defendants, so if Qaddafi is indicted, someone will have to apprehend and deliver him to The Hague. Maybe some anti-Qaddafi Libyans could get hold of him. Or maybe he will be forced out or step down and then leave the country, and the authorities of whatever country he goes to will arrest him.

Or, maybe not. Plenty of countries aren't members of the ICC—notably the United States, which was one of only seven nations (along with Libya!) to vote against the statute that created the court. Plenty of ICC-indicted criminals have been at large for years because no one will arrest them. And plenty of authoritarian governments have violently smacked down massive protests with no serious consequences. A crazy person with an army can kill a lot of civilians in two months. It would be swell if the specter of an ICC investigation pressured enough of Qaddafi's own people to turn against him, diminishing his ability to kill more. But it would be tragic if the world lazily leaned on the ICC's announcement as an excuse to do nothing else while investigators watch the slaughter.

BP's Back in Deep Water, Baby!

| Wed Mar. 2, 2011 2:56 PM EST

On Monday, the Department of the Interior green-lighted the first deepwater drilling permit since BP's Deepwater Horizon rig blew up last year and ruined a big piece of the world for a lot of people for a very long time. But, as the National Journal figured out, nearly half of that well is owned by...BP.

"This permit was issued for one simple reason: the operator successfully demonstrated that it can drill its deepwater well safely and that it is capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur," said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in a press release. Noble Energy, which owns 23 percent of the well, says that it will be responsible for handling all the operations of the well.

An agency spokesman says to "expect further deepwater permits to be approved in coming weeks and months based on the same process that led to the approval of this permit." That process includes, of course, meeting BOEMRE's much-touted "Important New Safety Standards," so there's nothing to worry about. Though the Important Standards can't require drillers to guarantee potential spills won't kill a bunch of baby dolphins or coat the ocean floor in a blanket of death long after a disastrous explosion.

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More Tips for Kicking Ass Before Yours Gets Grabbed…Or Worse

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 3:00 AM EST

So you're lying on the floor with your eyes closed, and all of a sudden a guy pins your arms to your side. When your eyes flash open and you start to struggle, he holds you tighter and barks, "Behave!" You do, because you haven't figured out what else to do, and because he's put all his weight on top of you and put his nose to yours. His fingers are tight around your wrists and he's crushing your chest, and you go completely limp.

This non-response response is called Going To Zero. It can be a self-defense strategy if you use it to plan your next move, a fake out. But in this particular case you have just been paralyzed by the awfulness of what's happening and his breath on your face. "You thought you were tough, didn't you?" he coos. "But look at you now with your weak, hot ass."

It's the second eight-hour day of my full-force personal-safety course, an emotional- and physical-self-defense primer on deescalating unwanted advances and surviving a sexual assault. We've come to the So You Are In The Incredibly Unfortunate Position Of Being On Your Back And About To Get Raped module. Here's how to snap out of Going to Zero: Wait for your assailant to start strangling you so you can grab your elbows above your head and then clamp down, trapping his forearms against your chest hard enough to knock the wind out of yourself but long enough to roll him off, walk your way up his body, then kick him in the face. Or wait for him to pull your pants all the way down to your ankles so you can kick him in the face. Pretty much all your options lead to a dirty ground fight in which you'll have to free your legs from his grasp with a move called "pistoning" so that you can land enough heels on his (in this case, elaborately padded and protected) head to knock him out.

Beware the "Dirty Handshake"

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 4:12 PM EST

When she heard I might soon be headed for a conflict zone in Central Africa, MoJo digital media mistress Laura McClure stopped by my desk to offer some advice. She lived in West Africa for years when she was in the Peace Corps and has traveled widely on the continent, and thought I could use some tips on comporting myself. From her email of what not to do so no one "interprets [my] normal American actions as sexual invitations":

  • No clothes above the knee, no tight shirts. Long skirts and sleeved, collared shirts best.
  • Don't be out after the sun goes down.
  • Women may hold your hand, men never should.
  • Never hug or kiss a man there. Shaking hands ok, but you risk the "dirty handshake." Remind me to show you this so you can avoid it. [This turns out to be the basic tickle-the-other-person's-palm-with-one-finger move we Catholic school kids always used to pull on each other during the peace shake during Mass.]
  • Never invite any man into a hotel room, or let him invite you into a hotel room. Never, basically, be alone in a room with a man in any context.
  • Limit drinking to your hotel bar, or in the company of women. Most assaults on foreigners in that area involve alcohol.

It all sounds "totally draconian, I'm sure," McClure said, "but the gender rules are very Victorian there." Well, you have to do whatever it takes to help defend against the sexual threats and assault that so plague lady-reporters. Adopting culture-specific decorum is of course far from a guaranteed safe time, but you cross your fingers that working within those boundaries will help. Some of the suggestions have the added bonus of being better for your health, anyway.

  • Don't smoke, unless you're in your hotel bar or alone in your hotel room. Otherwise they'll think you're a prostitute. Seriously.

Why Won't the UN Do Anything About Libya?

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Whether you believe the body count of the Libyan government (300), the Italian government (1,000), a French doctor-witness (2,000), or a member of the International Criminal Court (10,000), one thing remains undisputed: terrible, terrible things are happening in Libya.

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a statement condemning the violence, saying that "Those responsible for brutally shedding the blood of innocents must be punished."

Those are pretty strong words. But what they are not is a resolution. If you're thinking that the UN is theoretically supposed to actually do the punishing the secretary general is referring to, you would be correct: In 2005, its member nations agreed to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which stipulates that if a government starts slaughtering its own people the UN is responsible for taking "timely and decisive" action. I've blathered at length about cases where the UN has failed to do this, but the Guardian's Carne Ross puts it fantastically in regards to Libya:

What is happening in Libya is the true test of such declarations, and it is for every UN member, including the UK and US, in their positions as permanent members of the council, to declare loud and clear—and now—that this principle must be respected, and if it is not, that consequences will follow.

A possible UN resolution could say that if dictator Muammar Qaddafi doesn't stop the slaughter, the international community will freeze his regime's assets, resort to sanctions, or even force. It must be really hard, though, to get something like that together; with all the states involved and China and Russia predictably pulling the old "we shouldn't interfere with other people's business, especially people who sell oil" card, it certainly takes a super long time to pass a resolution. Right, Ross?

I spent four and a half years negotiating resolutions on the Middle East at the UN Security Council. When it wishes, the council can make decisions in hours. We agreed a resolution condemning the 9/11 attacks in less than an hour, the morning after the attacks took place.

Alright, well, there's that. When it comes to the lack of meaningful UN action on Libya, it's not disorganization, or excessive bureaucracy to blame—just a healthy dose of sacklessness.

What Journalism Might Learn from the Lara Logan Story

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 9:08 PM EST

On Tuesday CBS released the horrifying news that correspondent Lara Logan "suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating" while on assignment in Egypt last week. First: Mad props to Logan for so bravely going public, and our thoughts are, insistently, with her. Second: Let us in the face of this high-profile tragedy acknowledge, finally, that too many journalists have suffered similar horrors.

For many journalists sexual assault is, as Ann Friedman puts it at Feministing, "a risk that comes with the job." (That's why I've gotten up at six in the morning the last couple weekends in a row to drag my ass to a dojo to drill through attack simulations.) But as Judith Matloff, who worked as a foreign correspondent for two decades and teaches a course at Columbia University on journalist safety, explained to me a couple of months ago, there are "no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety, by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists." In a 2007 article, Matloff argued that sexual assault of female correspondents is all but ignored in the industry. Sometimes, it's even made light of, as when NYU Center on Law and Security fellow (and MoJo contributing writer) Nir Rosen completely lost his mind today and forgot that "joking" about rape falls into the category of NOT EVER FUNNY. (Update: Rosen has since resigned from his fellowship.)

This afternoon, I asked the Committee to Protect Journalists (an organization that does great work, hence its winning last month's Sidney Award for outstanding journalism) why its safety handbook ignores the issue of sexual assault. (It contains, for example, tips for other important but probably less common problems, like keeping your spirits up while you're hiding in a basement from Sierra Leonean rebels who want to kill you.) The response from CPJ's communications director was encouraging:

The CPJ Journalist Safety Guide was published in 2002. I am not aware of what the discussions were at the time regarding a section on sexual harassment and assault, but we could look into this. Nonetheless, the guide is undergoing a broad revision and the new edition is due to be published towards the end of this year. It will include a section on sexual assault and we will work with reporters globally (the handbook will be available in different languages as the current one is) to promote implementation of these safety measures.

It's about damn time. Hopefully that inclusion and today's headlines will lead to a broader push by the Fourth Estate to protect correspondents against assault. Because that's its obvious responsibility. And because it will protect, too, the crucial stories—including those about sexual violence—that reporters are dispatched to cover.