Steubenville, Candy Crowley And The Social License To Operate: An Open Letter
Dear Ms. Crowley:
I’ve watched you much of your career, and I have not always agreed with you, but I always took you seriously. I am very troubled by the way you and your network reacted to the juvenile convictions of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond in a sexual assault trial in Steubenville, Ohio yesterday. It might seem overly harsh to say that things like this happen because of reactions like yours. It may seem overly harsh, but it is sadly true. You would do well do develop an understanding of this.
Obviously you didn’t make Richmond or Mays sexually penetrate that teenage girl, and you didn’t make Mays take pictures of her. You didn’t raise them, you didn’t coach them, and you didn’t follow them from party to party that night last August. But you did far more to shape the culture they grew up in than most of us non-celebrities. Yours is a household name; you speak with the voice of authority in people’s living rooms, and what you say about these juvenile offenders, after their conviction at trial, shapes how teen boys and parents and school administrators and the whole culture interpret what happened. You called it a tragedy, but you came within a whisker of calling it a travesty, and by doing that, you’re part of the problem.
We know a lot more about rapists than we did twenty years ago. Particularly because of the research of David Lisak at the University of Massachusetts, and of Stephanie McWhorter, who studied Navy entrants, what we know now is that a lot of sexual assaults are committed by a very few men, that those men do it again and again, and that they are responsible for lots of other violent and antisocial conduct.
How could a society let these people operate? If maybe one in twenty or twenty-five men is such a bad actor, such a repeat abuser, why don’t those men stand out, get excluded and shunned, suspended and expelled, arrested, incarcerated? Ms. Crowley, that’s where you come in. When the allegations that such men committed rape are first revealed, there is an endless supply of people to normalize and excuse what they did; to doubt that the victim says, and also to blame her own behavior for whatever happened to her (usually under the guise of “well-meaning” rape prevention advice.) When they are tried, CNN and other media outlets qualify every statement about their culpable conduct with words like “allegedly,” and while this is necessary for liability reasons it subtly but surely conveys the impression to the audience that CNN doesn’t believe her.
The justice system so rarely works in the victim’s favor. Rape is the least-reported major crime because rape victims fear for their own mental health if they submit to a process that interrogates every aspect of their conduct — and often their past — and leans so heavily on their credibility. When reported, their stories are often rejected as unprosecutable. When tried, jurors’ biases often result in acquittals that are facially unjustified. And sometimes, particularly with celebrities like Kobe Bryant, the victim’s name becomes widely known and death threats from fans literally force her to withdraw her complaint.
One might think that in the case of a gang assault, the victim might face less headwind. Not so! In the famous Glen Ridge case, the town rallied around the young football players who molested a mentally disabled girl, and though the first case ended in conviction, the process was so traumatic for her that the second trial was cancelled and Richard Corcoran walked free — only to kill himself and another soldier years later in a domestic violence incident at Fort Bragg, just as we might predict from Dr. Lisak’s research. In the Haidl gang rape in Corona Del Mar in California, there was a lengthy video of the assault on a girl who was absolutely unconscious and nonresponsive, yet the first trial resulted in a hung jury due to the defense’s full-court press on the victim’s credibility — which is to say they set out to prove that she was a bad girl, and it worked, at least the first time.
When, as in Steubenville, the justice system works and puts the rapists behind bars, I understand that you may feel that balance requires you to say something about the convicted juveniles’ side. But if it was balance you were after, you would also have said something about the victim’s side: she found out what they did to her when it became public information on social media. Witness testimony demonstrated that she was stumbling, slurring her words, at times completely nonresponsive, and throwing up, including on herself. When she learned what had happened, she also learned that she had been turned into an object of public mockery on social media. She was publicly defamed in her community. How did it feel to be her? How did it feel for her to finally hear, after six months of living with this, that the State of Ohio declared that what was done to her was wrong, was a criminal act, and that those who did it deserved to be in juvenile detention as sex offenders? How did it feel to be vindicated?
Ms. Crowley, you lamented the lost futures of these young men. But did you say a word for the future of this girl? CNN isn’t identifying her, and I agree with that. But the limitations on discussing the details of her life surely don’t keep you from talking to viewers about how the sixteen year old victim of a very public sexual assault and a very public trial goes forward. Where does she go from here? Does this close a chapter for her, or will she need to watch the continuing grand jury proceedings, follow the inevitable appeals?
You didn’t say a word about her. As far as your viewers know, you don’t see her as a person at all, just a cypher, some theoretical construct that these boys did those things to. If you humanize the boys and not the girl, if you feel for the boys and not the girl, what does that tell the viewers?
What does it tell the parents of the next girl who dumps vodka into slushed ice and heads out to a high school party? There were many last weekend and there will be many this weekend, and no amount of warning them will entirely change that. If you didn’t drink to get drunk in high school, you had friends who did, and so did we all. That’s not an offense deserving of rape. That’s not behavior that causes rape. If this girl got staggering, vomiting drunk with a different group of people — say, with the boy I hope my son grows up to be — she would have found herself delivered to her parents’ door with a blanket over the vomit-stained shirt. “Mr. Doe, I’m sorry to wake you, but your daughter had quite a bit to drink and passed out at the party, and the folks she came with were not taking care of her, so we brought her home. We couldn’t find her phone …” Isn’t that what we expect of our young men? The reason that, instead of a ride home, she got sexually assaulted, filmed and mocked was because the people around her failed a basic test of moral fiber. The bystanders failed to intervene, and the peripheral participants failed to walk away, and Mays and Richmond failed even the baseline legal tests. They sexually penetrated a girl who was so inebriated that she didn’t understand or participate in what they were doing to her.
What you told that next girl and her parents is that even if what happened to their daughter is a crime, even if it is prosecuted and proved, you’re still on the side of the rapists.
What you told the next young bystanders at the next party is that the rapists are not really doing anything wrong by molesting the drunk girl, nothing repugnant, nothing reprehensible, nothing shocking. You could have told CNN’s viewership that what Mays and Richmond did was disturbing, or upsetting, or wrong, but you didn’t. Instead, you implied that it is normal, understandable, and that the real tragedy is that they are being punished for it.
What you told the next Mays and the next Richmond is that, in the unlikely event that they are reported and arrested and the coach doesn’t succeed in covering it up (as Mays evidently expected Coach Reno Saccoccia would here), and the prosecution results in a conviction, you’ll still be on their side. You see, Mays and Richmond thought, right up until the conviction and maybe even now, that it wasn’t a big deal and certainly wasn’t a grievous wrong they did.
Mays had his chance to say something. He could have apologized to the girl, and to his teammate who as Quarterback he might have offered some moral leadership, and to his team and his town who by his conduct he let down, to his parents who surely at least thought they raised him better. And to the girl. I know I already said that. Without compromising his appeal, he could have said that he looks back every day and wishes he had thrown a blanket over her and piled her into someone’s back seat for a ride back across the river to her home when it became clear she was too drunk to know what was happening to her. And he could have apologized to the girl. I know I already said that twice.
He didn’t say any of that, though. I have no reason to believe he thinks any of that. For all we know, what he thought is that girls like her don’t matter, and if it hadn’t been for national media attention this all would have gone away. It might have. It almost did.
Ms. Crowley, these boys have done nothing to deserve your sympathy except to be young and have promising futures, that through their own conduct they squandered. This girl has done nothing to deserve your dismissal except to drink to get drunk, like too many high school students do.
I believe that guys like Mays and Richmond are fairly set in their ways by the time they are in their late teens. If they are in Dr. Lisak’s and Dr. McWhorter’s group of repeat offenders, and I suspect they are, they won’t change. But the environment they operate in can. There were boys, some of them witnesses, and one of the infamous Nodianos video, who understood the moral wrong that happened. But they lacked the courage and numbers and the support they needed to make it stop. It shouldn’t have to be an extraordinary act of bravery to tell the rapists, “leave that girl alone, she has no idea where she is or what you’re doing to her!” Every person, every single person except a hardened serial rapist ought to do that, ought to do that together as a single voice, the voice of the community. And if they did, the rapists would have a very hard time operating. That it isn’t like that is a cultural battle we’re fighting every day. You need to think about that and decide which side you’re on.