The media coverage of the Steubenville Rape Trial has been, in a word, horrifying. At this point, it seems redundant to expound upon the point, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, here are three links to articles spelling it out in cringe-worthy detail. To say the mainstream media dropped the ball on this seems a painful understatement.
Or is it? I would suggest that when we take a step back from this particular case, there might be a silver lining to the meta-story. We can all agree that the poor victim in this case is suffering as a result of media mishandling, and we can empathize and advocate on her behalf. And without a doubt, we should. But we can also look at the potential impact this story could have on our cultural awareness of the mainstream media’s abject failure to appropriately cover important stories.
We all know that mainstream media is biased and unreliable as a source of important information. But have we stopped to think about just how widespread the problem is, and just how many people are suffering as a result? Our attention is hyper-focused right now because we have a single girl who is obviously being wronged by the media. But how do we begin to quantify the suffering of millions of people? How do we move from sensationalizing an emotionally compelling story to reconciling ourselves with almost inconceivable and unforgivable non-reporting, mis-reporting, and slanting that impacts every single one of us on a daily basis?
The most obvious example is the “fiscal cliff.” Let’s take a moment to remember that the sequester cuts are real, and they are heavily slanted toward cutting services for the poorest Americans. The invisible Americans. For months, Congressional Republicans have been bombarding the airwaves with patently false claims of impending economic disaster, record spending, socialist takeovers, and skyrocketing national debt. Only… the national deficit has gone down 41%, as a percentage of GDP. That’s not a matter of opinion. It’s a hard fact of economics.
Now for the real kick in the shorts. In a recent poll, 94% of Americans thought the debt was either growing or staying the same. Only 6% knew that it was shrinking. How can we even begin to wrap our brains around this number? As news stories go, this is about as big as it gets. The front page of every newspaper in America ought to read, “National Debt Shrinking at Record Pace.” The story on page two ought to be the fact — the incontrovertible fact — that government spending under President Obama is the lowest of any president in most readers’ lifetimes.
But more than half of Americans believe the debt is growing. To call this unforgivable misses the point. To call it politically biased is to sugar-coat the issue into a diabetic coma. For each of the millions of Americans who has lost their job, Medicaid coverage, unemployment benefits, or social services in the past year, this is a matter of illness or health, solvency or bankruptcy, and even life or death. Without mincing words, the media’s refusal to report uncontroversial facts is killing people. And not just a few people.
While we’re on the subject of healthcare, what about the question of universal healthcare? Why doesn’t every American know that it’s mathematically impossible to treat as many people through private insurance as through public Medicaid? Why don’t they know that Medicaid is a single-payer insurance system that just happens to exclude people above a certain income? Why don’t they know that America is the only developed country without universal healthcare? Why don’t Americans know that during the Jimmy Carter presidency, the top tax rate was 70%, and taxes on the wealthy now are nearly the lowest in U.S. history?
These two questions — healthcare and the national debt — are front and center battlegrounds for vitriolic debate. The only political leverage Republicans have on either issue relies on… well… let’s say it plainly: lies. Or if not lies, then egregious omission of uncontroversial facts.
What is the problem? Like most issues of policy, it’s probably not just one thing. The glaring lack of “truth in journalism” legislation in America is certainly a problem. Many bloggers note that FOX News is banned in Canada. It’s not exactly true, since FOX is carried by some cable and satellite providers in Canada, but it is true that FOX could not broadcast out of Canada. If Canada’s laws were adopted by the U.S., FOX would have to shape up or shut down.
Even with truth in journalism laws, we would still have a problem. Returning to the Steubenville case, what can we say about the “truth value” of the reporting? Mostly, it’s been true. The media has accurately reported the charges, the verdict, and other “nuts and bolts” facts about the story. And yet, something is horrifyingly wrong. Some pundits suggest that the problem is “the patriarchy,” and the pervasiveness of “rape culture” in America. While there’s certainly truth to this charge, we might wonder how this culture came to exist, and what role the media might have had in shaping it.
This isn’t the first time a woman has been treated poorly in a sports-related rape case. Remember Kobe Bryant? If we’re trying to have as broad a focus as possible, we might ask: Was the media’s coverage of this incident more about Kobe being a man, or more about him being arguably the best basketball player since Michael Jordan? I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure there is a clear answer. At what point do athlete privilege and patriarchy converge on a graph? Like the Steubenville case, the “facts on the ground” were generally reported accurately by the media. And yet, we feel as if we’ve been lied to.
At the bottom of all of this speculation is one thing that’s fairly certain: In all of the stories I’ve mentioned, the media marketing gurus opted on the side of ratings. So long as we’re arguing about whether there’s a fiscal crisis, we’ve got a lead story that inspires fear and outrage in Americans. So long as millions are without healthcare coverage, the story is an emotional tug-of-war. If the victim of an unconscionable rape cannot be paraded in front of us, we’ll have to make some sort of story out of the identified assailants. And let’s face it: Nobody cares about good ol’ “What’s-her-name,” who may or may not have said “no” while Kobe was having sex with her. But we care a lot about Kobe.
There’s a tendency — unfortunate, in my opinion — to become myopic when a story pushes our buttons. To be absolutely clear, the Steubenville case is a story about male privilege and sports worship. It is absolutely a story about “rape culture.” However, it would be wrong, or at least somewhat naive, to ignore the fact that it’s also a story about the mechanics of the mainstream news media in America. This isn’t just about victimizing a young woman because she’s female. It’s about victimizing anyone and everyone if it suits the fiscal sensibilities of ratings-based media devoid of any “public good” motive. Maybe the Steubenville story will be a pathway to a more acute public awareness of just how horrifying and immoral our media machine has become.