NY Times’s Sympathy for the Devils

I've spent my entire adult life writing media analysis, so it takes a lot to drop my jaw. Because my mouth was already agape at the absolute horror of a New York Times article describing the barbaric gang rape of an 11-year-old girl, my jaw nearly ripped clean off when I realized the reporter was sympathizing to some extent with the perpetrators and seemingly casting a share of blame on the survivor.

The story is out of Cleveland, Texas — one of those sleepy Middle American towns where no big-city awfulness ever occurs. Apparently, a 19-year-old boy lured the girl into his car, then he and friends invited boys and men to sexually assault her in two different locations.

But nowhere in the reporting of this story are we invited explicitly to sympathize with the girl. You might say, well, if I'm reading about a gang rape, of course I naturally sympathize with the person enduring the brutality.

Not so fast. Apparently, one small town found 18 boys with no such qualms — quite the contrary. What's more, the New York Times found a reporter and at least a couple of editors with a deficiency of these sympathies, because their conveyance of the story actually does find a way to sympathize outwardly with the boys and a way to cast aspersions on the girl (and her mother, who may or may not exist).

Consider that this is the first quote in the article:

“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.”

This is a fine thing for Ms. Harrison to say at some point during an interview, as the statement stands true. I would say something like this if I were her, after talking for a while about how awful the crime itself was and sympathizing effusively with the little girl, which this source may well have done. But as the fifth paragraph of an article about the incident? The boys have to live with it?

Now, one could argue that what makes this newsworthy is that it is a community-level event. Rapes in small Texas towns don't usually make it into the Times at all, even if they're particularly brutal, unless there's a larger angle. This story definitely has broader implications for a whole community, and even for our society.

But then why, later in the story, do we get a few paragraphs basically using the blame-the-victim approach that I thought sophisticated big-city journalists would be above by the year 2011?

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?”

Yes, reporter James C. McKinley, where was the little girl's mother? That's the right topic to prompt us to ponder.

Make no mistake: this was first and foremost an incident-level crime story, with details given about the crime scene that would have no place in an arms-length sociological investigation. But missing from this story is a quote by anyone specifically sympathizing with the survivor. We're distracted from the survivor, in fact, with detail upon extraneous detail.

So we've got an implication that the promising lives of so many males are now potentially ruined (we'll see about that, won't we?), and we've got a description of the victim as maybe having been out looking for trouble. How ever shall we, America's "Paper of Record," end such a report? At least we'll finally hear something about the survivor actually having suffered in some small way…

The arrests have left many wondering who will be taken into custody next. Churches have held prayer services for the victim. 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."

Another helping of concern for local males. Prayers for the little girl (I'll give the benefit of the doubt and assume the victim in McKinley's eyes is the little girl — not the town). The girl has suffered a change of schools, so there's that. And then, a cryptic statement about wishing a gang rape had ended in a better light. I honestly don't want to publicly speculate as to what that could possibly mean, but a statement open to such broad interpretation probably doesn't belong at the end of a hard news report.

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