Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Language Matters: News Anchor Bestows 'Victim' Status on Rape Accuser

Language matters. We sometimes even hold people responsible for the language they use. Well, depending on the group offended.

Male broadcasters are not permitted to refer to conservative women broadcasters as "talk sluts," as we recently observed.  Male broadcasters aren't permitted to call black members of a women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."  Male late night comedians are not permitted to make sex "jokes" about the daughter of a former vice presidential candidate.  White male sports analysts aren't allowed to to say that blacks were "bred to be the better athlete . . . ."

Each of the men who made those remarks, and countless others, have been punished for offending members of the group who identify with the person(s) they referenced.

Other times, people get away with saying things on the air that are just wrong, but since no group is offended, the remark passes.

This morning on "The Wall Street Journal This Morning," a news broadcast that airs on stations across America, news anchor Gina Cervetti referred to the accuser of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as "the victim."  Specifically, she noted that the defense team apparently was planning to go after "the victim."  

We must assume that Cervetti, an experienced journalist, knows how to pick her words carefully.  Underlying Cervetti's use of that term is an assumption that the unnamed accuser was raped by the ex-IMF chief.

By labeling the accuser the "victim" before a single scrap of evidence has been admitted at trial, much less an adjudication of guilt, Cervetti impliedly rushed to judgment and declared the unnamed accuser's allegation to be factual.  Such a description does a grave disservice to (1) the presumptively innocent who are accused of such crimes since, by necessity, they must be guilty if their accusers are, in fact, "victims"; (2) actual rape victims, because Cervetti trivializes rape when she includes among its victims women who may or may not be actual victims; and (3) her listeners, who are entitled to accurate reporting but receive something less than that when she transforms an accuser into a "victim."

No one -- aside from his friends and, I dare say, this blog -- is going to go to bat for Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  The general consensus, whether it's true or not, is that he is part of a culture of male privilege that has, in the words of Maureen Dowd, "the sexual norms of a libidinous pirate ship." It would, of course, be much easier to buy into the general consensus if it didn't also hold that the typical American college boy -- who, truth be told, generally has minimal sexual experience of any kind, much less of the predatory variety -- holds similar sexual norms.

There are howls of protest when a male broadcaster uses a word that disparages women or blacks, and rightly so. But no one gives a damn when a broadcaster on a show that airs coast-to-coast assumes a presumptively innocent man's guilt on a rape charge in a way so casual, so matter-of-factly, that it seems perfectly natural and true.

I don't know about you, but that's chilling to me.