“You think you could tell a rapist to stop doing what he’s doing? Do you, really? And he’s going to listen to an ad campaign to stop?” At the end of a heated exchange over guns and personal safety for women on his Fox News program, Sean Hannity asked that of his guest, Democratic strategist Zerlina Maxwell. During the segment, Maxwell suggested that the best way to stop rape was to teach young men not to rape, rather than to arm all women.
Hannity’s statement reveals a telling blind spot. He inhabits a world in which there is no rape culture, only rapists, who are criminals. Criminals cannot be reasoned with or taught not to commit crimes; thus, the only way to stop them is by force, during their commission of their crimes. The response to the segment belies Hannity’s view, however. For her trouble, Maxwell was the target of numerous racially and sexually abusive messages on Twitter, many of which centered on her being raped.
The inability of the media and political figures to see or understand rape that isn’t what Whoopi Goldberg infamously called “rape rape” – that is, a violent, forcible sexual assault by a stranger in a dark alley – is nothing new. On March 17, it reached perhaps a new low, as CNN aired a segment lamenting the “promising lives” of two Steubenville, Ohio, teens convicted in juvenile court of raping an unconscious girl at a party. Anchor Candy Crowley and two correspondents, Poppy Harlow and Paul Callan, spoke at length about the terrible effects of the guilty verdicts for the two rapists, whose “lives are destroyed,” according to Callan. The report focused on their football accomplishments and good academic standing before their trial; conspicuously absent was any discussion of their victim, or any suggestion that the best way to avoid your life being destroyed by a rape conviction is not to rape anybody.
One reason why CNN so badly interpreted this case may be that, like so many real rape cases, it didn’t fit the narrow definition of the hypothetical rape rape scenario. These two young men were not the rapists that exist in Hannity’s mind, prowling the streets for unprotected victims to abduct and assault. Rather, they were two young men who had no concept of consent because no one had ever taught it to them. As David Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports wrote: “Throughout this trial, the two defendants and a parade of friends who wound up mostly testifying against the defendants expressed little understanding of rape – let alone common decency or respect for women. Despite the conviction, the defendants likely don’t view themselves as rapists, at least not the classic sense of a man hiding in the shadows.” They grew up in a rape culture that privileges “good” men – successful athletes, good students – and denigrates “bad” women – those who express their sexuality, or drink. In rape culture, a rape conviction and a ruined life is not the just outcome of your own criminal behavior; it is a tragedy that happens to you against your will.
It is particularly disturbing that CNN would produce this kind of reporting. The role of Fox News and its personalities in our political and social discourse is no secret – Hannity’s segment is of a piece with past Fox material on guns and crime. But according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Fox was the second-least believable national news organization. CNN was the most believable cable news channel, suggesting that the reliance on opinion programming by Fox and MSNBC – confirmed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2013 State of the News Media report – has left CNN as the cable news viewer’s go-to source for straight news. For CNN to suggest that the conviction, rather than the commission, is tragic is a stunning reversal of this story, and it does a tremendous injustice to rape victims everywhere.
Not surprisingly, the rape culture that underlies concern for the rapists also prompted additional abuse for their victim. On the day the verdicts were announced, two teenage girls were arrested for posting death threats against the victim on Facebook and Twitter. Social media also played a role in the original crime, as pictures and video taken by onlooking partygoers were posted online. Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all aired the name of the victim on March 18, potentially enabling a new wave of abuse. But if there is a silver lining to this episode, it is in the quick and sustained response to CNN and everyone else sustaining the rape culture’s infrastructure. Just two days after CNN’s initial report, a petition demanding an apology on Change.org has more than 189,000 signatories. Critical responses to CNN could be found from everyday Twitter users to the Huffington Post to the Poynter Institute. Social media provided a platform to quickly expose CNN’s coverage and to allow a broad coalition of reform-minded voices to come together and be heard, perhaps across interpersonal relationships that may never have supported an anti-rape discourse without this context. It is another reminder that the power of our communication tools lies primarily in how we communicate with them.
Veenstra, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University, is a leading researcher in the field of social media.