Although countless people on Twitter, Facebook, in blogs and articles, and more than 27,000 people on Change.org have declared their outrage over the way in which the New York Times reported on the gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl in Texas, the Times‘s response so far has been mostly silence. Except for a single, completely unsatisfactory reply to The Cutline.
The Cutline pointed out that the only acknowledgment of this issue by the Times was their publishing, of all that they must have received by now, a single letter to the editor. Responding to The Cutline’s request for comment, spokesperson for the Times Danielle Rhoades Ha only dug the Times in deeper:
Neighbors’ comments about the girl, which we reported in the story, seemed to reflect concern about what they saw as a lack of supervision that may have left her at risk. As for residents’ references to the accused having to ‘live with this for the rest of their lives,’ those are views we found in our reporting. They are not our reporter’s reactions, but the reactions of disbelief by townspeople over the news of a mass assault on a defenseless 11-year-old.
“Rhoades Ha also stressed that the paper stands by the controversial piece,” added The Cutline. In Ha’s words:
We are very aware of and sensitive to the concerns that arise in reporting about sexual assault. This story is still developing and there is much to be learned about how something so horrific could have occurred.
Much to be learned, indeed. What Rhoades Ha and the New York Times fail to understand is that the backlash is not about readers misinterpreting these quotes as belonging to the reporter, James C. McKinley Jr. It is about everything else. It is about the quotes they chose, and the quotes they left out, the angle that the piece takes from the title straight to the finish—that the child and her mother have, in their lax behavior, brought terrible consequences down on this little girl and her entire town. It is about our culture of victim-blaming—in Cleveland, TX, across America, and around the world—on which the article, the reporter and the editors seem to have no perspective at all. Was there consideration to balance the story by selecting quotes from other people? Or—if the entire town is lost to a victim-blaming mentality as McKinley’s reporting suggests—did they consider finding an expert to comment on such a situation? Did they consider taking an objective and serious point of view on the nature of the quotes they chose to print? Are they “very aware and sensitive” to how, by failing to balance this reporting, the article tacitly endorses a hostile and rape-sympathetic mentality toward women? Toward prepubescent girls? If so, they had better start talking.
Let’s be clear: what the Times has done here pales in comparison to the actions of the boys and men who committed this crime. But as a newspaper with worldwide readership in the millions, the Times, in the careless way it has brought this story to the world, has amplified and participated unchecked in a dangerous culture that indoctrinates people of all genders to the idea that holding a rape victim responsible for the crime committed against her–especially an 11-year-old child–is ever acceptable. It is just such a culture—our American culture—in which the men and boys who have committed such a hideous crime can somehow justify it in the first place.
For more about how the New York Times could have handled it better, read this by Mac McClelland and this by Libby Copeland. Then read Roxane Gay’s piece on “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.” And then tell the Times what you think with your own letter to the editor or op-ed.
Update: The New York Times public editor has issued a better response.