Outraged by outrage and the Steubenville rapists

How did coverage of the Steubenville trial depict the defendants, and what does it mean to hold rapists responsible?

Sheriff''s vehicle patrols area around Steubenville High School after a threat, in Steubenville, Ohio
CNN's sympathetic report on the Steubenville rapists caused widespread outrage [Reuters]

The Steubenville rape trial sparked public discussion of rape culture that many advocates consider long overdue. The case didn’t only bring sexual violence into sharp focus: the media itself went on trial in the court of public opinion.

Poppy Harlow covered the Steubenville verdict live, reporting back to Candy Crowley, a CNN host. The segment garnered particular outrage, especially Harlow’s statement that it was “difficult to watch” as the two defendants, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, were sentenced. How is it difficult to see a rapist face legal consequences for rape, after all?

Harlow was criticised for her description of the defendants: “two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students.” Her reference to their lives “falling apart” seemed to void their responsibility for the crime: this rape conviction was something that happened to them, catastrophic as a sports injury, not something they brought upon themselves by committing rape.

Critical reactions like MSNBC’s “Watch how sad these CNN reporters are for Steubenville rapists”, invited readers to answer the question, “What do you think of their coverage of the verdict?” Critics have gone so far as to write an online petition demanding an apology from Crowley and Harlow. Thus far, neither reporter has issued an official response, although an article on the Huffington Post claims that Harlow is “outraged” by the criticism.

Have Crowley and Harlow “failed miserably”, as the petition says? Is it possible to humanise perpetrators without diminishing rape?

Two star high school football players’

It isn’t immoral to momentarily feel compassion for a sobbing, terrified teenager, whatever he’s done to deserve incarceration. CNN’s coverage was much more slanted than sympathy for the defendants’ suffering: both reporters allowed the defendants to transform from convicted rapists to desolate “juveniles”.

Over and over again, Crowley and Harlow emphasised innocence, vulnerability, and youth. The defendants’ tears were mentioned a total of four times. They were also filmed apologising; Ma’lik was shown breaking down in sobs as he apologised to the off-camera victim, saying that he “never meant to do anything like that”. The devastating impact of the sentence was mentioned three times.

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The defendants were also referred to four times as “young men”, alongside references to “juveniles”, “high schoolers”, and “juvenile court”. At no point were they referred to as “rapists”. Worse, in a turn of phrase that later found its way into countless angry comments, Crowley refers to their conviction for “rape, essentially”. The only time they are described as not small, not young, not helpless, it’s as “big football players”, as though we would naturally picture their aggression on the football field.

It’s important as well to recognise that Harlow was not watching trial footage. She was in the courtroom. She describes herself as “sitting three feet” away from Ma’lik Richmond when he apologised to the victim. That means that she would also have been a few feet away from the victim while she watched her rapist apologise for raping her. Did that have no emotional valence? Did she cry? Did Harlow look at her or note her reaction at all? Did she think about how a rape victim might feel if her rapist offered her a public apology? She didn’t say, and Crowley didn’t ask.

Ma’lik Richmond’s father was also allowed to comment on the tragic affair. He was described as a deadbeat – and Richmond as half orphan. He took responsibility for the crime, saying that he “wasn’t there for [his] son”. Harlow mentioned that he embraced his son and told him that he loved him, and quoted Richmond’s attorney as saying, “I have never heard Ma’lik’s father before say I love you, he’s never told his son that, but he just did, today.”

Heartwarming, isn’t it? A family growing closer in the aftermath of one family member raping someone. The victim’s mother also released a statement in the aftermath of the trial, incidentally; it would not have been available to Harlow during this segment, but I doubt there were no emotional reactions among the victim’s family.

Even the sentence was described in a way that made it sound draconian, mean. The two defendants received disparate sentences on different charges. Both were convicted of rape. Harlow explained that Richmond was also convicted of “felony use of an illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material because he took a photograph of the victim laying naked on the floor that night”, as though he received an extra year for a snapshot. In fact, he was given additional time for taking and disseminating a photograph of the victim in a way that could be construed as callous or even sadistic. In other words, for victimising her. Although Harlow didn’t mention it, “social media” played a large part in the crime. The victim learned about her own rape through a video posted on YouTube – and through photographs, including Richmond’s photograph, which he didn’t keep for his own use.

The remorse exhibited by the defendants is also more complicated than Harlow makes it. Neither waited until after the trial to express regrets. The victim testified that she received multiple texts from Mays, who was frantic about his budding football career, and who begged her not to tell anyone. This could be described as tears and tragedy. It could also be described as intimidation.

‘A sixteen-year-old victim’

Some of this emphasis on the grief of the perpetrators could be said to result from the desire to protect a child. Reporters are compelled to find human interest in their stories. They cannot use minor victims of sexual violence for this purpose; their identities are protected by law and policy. Thus, the compassionate lens shifts to the next most vulnerable characters in the true-crime drama: the perpetrators, children themselves. 

That excuse involves a very shallow understanding of rape. Harlow could not invade the victim’s privacy, but she certainly could have talked about the lasting trauma caused by sexual violence, or described its prevalence in communities like Steubenville. She could have placed this sentence in legal context, and informed viewers that rape is underreported, seldom prosecuted, with more than ninety percent of rapes going totally unpunished. She could have mentioned the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits, a lapse made even more outrageous by the fact that testing of archived rape kits has resulted in the capture and conviction of serial rapists. She could have invoked our compassion by reminding us of our moral responsibility to young women like the victim – and our responsibility to teach young men not to rape.

This doesn’t seem like anonymity. It seems like invisibility. Harlow described the entire drama as though it involved no one but the defendants: those two nice boys whose lives were derailed one fateful evening.

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The victim has no place in this picture: she has no stake in legal recognition of the crime committed against her. The sentence has no effect on her life or her spirit, or on her recovery. The human drama of the rape trial does not involve the raped woman. Her absence is especially striking when the two reporters describe this as an event, the end of a story: whose story?

‘An incredibly emotional day’

This goes far beyond an excess of sympathy for the perpetrators. It signals an inability – or unwillingness – to feel sympathy for the victim when the crime is rape. The petition charges that Crowley and Harlow humanised the rapists too much. I would say that they dehumanised the victim entirely. She is an occasion of sin, an accident waiting to happen. Not a person in her own right, let alone a young woman who had to survive an investigation and trial, who had to testify against her attackers in order to see them go to prison. This conviction and trial were not inevitable. This verdict required strength and commitment on her part. She had to face her rapists and their attorneys in court. That deserves compassion. It certainly deserves acknowledgement.

The Change.org petition says, “Not one word about the victim.” This is not quite true. In the notorious segment, the victim comes up three times; she gets less attention than her rapists’ tears. She is mentioned once as “this sixteen-year-old girl” the two defendants have just been found guilty of attacking and once as “the victim” of their crime. As a person, a young woman whose life will be affected by this “tragedy”, she is mentioned only in conjunction with the poor perpetrators, and only after them. They are listed together as Candy Crowley sadly shakes her head: “[the defendants] still sound like sixteen-year-olds, the other one seventeen, a sixteen-year-old victim.”

Rape, essentially’

We tend to turn raped girls into adults. During another notorious gang rape, when twenty men were charged with assaulting an eleven-year-old girl in her hometown of Cleveland, Texas, neighbours commented to the New York Times on her habit of, “wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s”. As a girl who pretended to be womanly, she was partly responsible for what was done to her: because she was not totally a child, she was not totally innocent.

Conversely, we infantilise rapists when we can. We make rape a crime too adult for normal men to commit: our rapist is the epitome of corruption, almost a demonic vision of masculinity. It is no coincidence that we are most able to make light of rape when it occurs in the prison system, among male prisoners. They are bestial, hardened, subhuman: when they commit rape, they do not implicate us.

Richmond and Mays do not fit this pattern. They’re not sadistic monsters. Neither is old enough to legally drink; neither could rent a car; both would require parental permission to marry in their home state. They have not graduated from high school.

When children commit rape, they challenge this distance between sexual violence and what we are capable of. If a sixteen-year-old can film the rape of a classmate and then go home to sleep it off, what does that say about our society? How do we disown a teenage “football star”?

Harlow’s solution was to separate the criminal from the crime, effectively absolving both defendants of responsibility. Richmond and Mays weren’t only fearful and remorseful, but helpless.

She also absolved them of any connection with their victim. She didn’t mention any personal sympathy for the young woman whose ordeal was the focus of this coverage – a young woman who has already received death threats in the aftermath of this trial. She also failed to empathise with the victim in her analysis of the sentence: a maximum of five years might well seem like an eternity to Richmond and Mays, but it probably doesn’t seem like quite such a long time to the young woman they attacked.

CNN’s focus on the perpetrators seems like a miscalculation in retrospect, given the outpouring of anger at Crowley and Harlow and the outpouring of support for the victim. We may already see rape as more serious than Big Ten scholarships.

Jessica White is a journalist, translator, and playwright who has lived and worked in Asia, South America, and the US. She currently makes her home in Chicago.