Really, New York Times? How hard was that?

credit: flickr.com/texasphotowrangler

So, the New York Times had another go at writing about the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, TX. You may remember their first attempt. It was several hundred words long, and it consisted of quoting concerned and sympathetic friends of the alleged rapists, of quoting people who felt like the 11-year-old girl could have avoided being gang raped had she not dressed like such a slut, of quoting people who were wondering if maybe the girl’s parents could have prevented the gang rape.

What the writer of that article, James C. McKinley, could not manage to do at the time it was published: find anyone in town who believed the child was not somehow responsible for her assault, find anyone in town who thought child rapists might deserve something other than mild concern, find anyone in town who felt anything other than consternation at the way the gang rape of a child might, you know, be a little inconvenient and sad for the town.

After a widespread internet backlash and a Change.org petition, the New York Times‘ public editor acknowledged the story “lacked balance” and the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, later called the piece “cringe-inducing” and “ham-handed.” A new story was in order, wrote Keller.

And lo, it is here–under a shared byline from McKinley and Erica Goode. The piece shows, I think, that the Times listened to its critics. The story leads with a sympathetic (well, how could it be anything but?) view of the 11-year-old victim of this terrible, repeated crime. It quotes a woman who knew the child. It quotes the little girl’s terrified, confused and distraught father.

But I think the paper’s re-framing of the impact of the whole event on the community is interesting. Because McKinley’s original frame was this: How could this happen to our boys, our men, our community? McKinley’s new frame is this:  how did our community allow this crime to take place, especially multiple times?

The old nut of the story:

“The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.””

And the new nut:

The arrests have raised fundamental questions about how a girl might have been repeatedly abused by many men and boys in a tightly knit community without any adult intervening, or even seeming to register that something was amiss, until sexually explicit videos of the victim began circulating in local schools.

An “attack” becomes a “repeatedly abused by many men and boys.” The videos apparently “began circulating” all on their own (modern technology! amazing!) but their existence at least indicates a kind of depraved pride on someone‘s behalf. In the second story, there’s culpability, at least, a little bit … somewhere.

And while in the first article, the child’s clothing and behavior are described as inviting the assault, the new article has the girl’s father noting that, no matter what she looked or dressed like, she is a child:

Juan said his daughter had been a bright and easygoing girl, adept at schoolwork. As she reached puberty, he said, she had grown tall for her age and had begun to talk about wanting to be a fashion model. Yet she was still a child; her bed was piled high with stuffed animals. “Her mind is a child’s mind,” he said. “That’s what makes me so angry.”

The accused rapists are not invisible in the second story–nor were they invisible in the first–but the second piece takes more time and nuance with the accused, and quotes relatives rather than those who say they knew the defendants. An aunt of one of the accused rapists is quoted, expressing bewilderment and confusion without necessarily absolving or blaming the defendants.

Bertha Cleveland, an aunt of Mr. Cruse, said her nephew went to church regularly, held down a job at McDonald’s and had told her he intended to go to college. “Our younger generation is running rampant,” she said. “The devil is in full control.”

The second article is, without doubt, an improvement. The question becomes, then, why did it take the New York Times two tries to get it right/better? The first article was written well after the story itself had broken, at least in Texas. So there shouldn’t have been any particular rush to get something down on the page, which might otherwise explain the atrociously lacking reporting in the first story. But that’s just how the first article reads–like a reporter had to jump into a new city, track down a couple casual quotes and get a fast impression of the place before filing copy.

That kind of reporting might fly for a story about a weird art festival, a wacky small-town politician or remarkable athlete. You can’t do that with sexual assault. You really can’t do that with a sexual assault that has racial implications. But the New York Times thought they could. I’ll give it to them, I appreciate the new piece, and I appreciate the effort put into it. But I’ll still be disappointed that they had to rewrite and re-report it in the first place. I’ll still be disappointed that the people who ought to be the best journalists in the country had to engage in such a massive do-over. Because the second story is good, thoughtful, interesting and well rounded. Why? Because the second story isn’t lazy.

I hope that whatever happened behind the scenes at the NYT has led to some serious discussions about their policies when it comes to reporting on rape. I hope some people have had to rethink their assumptions about what rape culture means (or, at the very least I hope some people learned what rape culture is). Most of all, I hope the writers and editors at the New York Times don’t want to have to do something like this again, not because it was a hassle and an embarrassment, but because they realize their initial coverage was so powerfully damaging.

About andrea grimes

Andrea is a journalist living in Austin, TX. She has a master's degree in anthropology and did her thesis work on gender and stand-up comedy. Seriously. Also, she has a bunch of cats. Three of them. Is three a bunch? Discuss.
This entry was posted in media, politics, race, rape culture, sexual assault. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Really, New York Times? How hard was that?

  1. Christina says:

    Thanks for this side-by-side analysis–you make some good points about what the second story does right but why this outcome is still somewhat disappointing.

    You note that the story has some racial implications, but I think we should also note the class implications (or maybe you thought this was too obvious to point out?). The article says that “her family was in dire economic straits since Juan stopped working” and that “Both parents are plagued with health problems. […] His wife, 42, was told last year that she had a mass in her brain, and a doctor had said it should be removed, friends said. She suffers frequent headaches and fainting spells. Yet she put off surgery and continued to work at night at a cashier at an underground gambling parlor, friends said.”

    I remember the original article faulted the parents for not watching out for their children better. However, this follow-up makes it very clear that (a) they were trying really hard to watch and discipline her when appropriate and (b) that they had some other concerns on their plate that made this more difficult. Obviously, their economic issues were a factor, yet the Times completely ignored this the first time around, along with everything else.

    Hopefully, not just the NYT has learned from this, but the general public as well–I hope a few more of them learned about rape culture due to the uproar.

    • Oh! I totally did mean to say something about the class implications. You’re right, the whole picture is painted much clearer when you understand the socioeconomic situation of her family.

  2. G.L. Piggy says:

    Andrea,

    How do you define “attack”? By all accounts, the girl wasn’t attacked, she was coerced.

    Also, I find it interesting that you still believe that the story was mishandled and painted incorrectly because of the race of the victim – that because she was Hispanic the NYT felt that they could blame her. But if any racial component is at play here, it is that the 18 young men are all black. How does that happen? Something is fundamentally wrong with the community they grew up in, and we should remember that they surely aren’t taking cues from the white community.

    The NYT worked on their piece, maybe you guys at Hay! should do the same.

    • I define a gang rape as an attack. If you need that clarified in some way, I’m afraid we’re so far off the same page I can’t help you further.

      • Chuck says:

        No accounts of the story say that she was attacked. Attack implies a certain use of physical force. She was threatened and coerced into having sex.

  3. Mimi says:

    So Chuck, are you implying that she just laid back and enjoyed it. An eleven year old is not going to participate if you know what I mean, therefore she was forced and viciously gang raped repeatedly. Do you need a gynecologist to explain preteen female physiology to you? I am sure they injured her internally. Is that not an attack or is it ok if it cannot be seen?

    • John Prewett says:

      He’s claiming that it is not an “attack” until the victim is actually physically struck with fist or slaped or the like. I fail to see the point of his point.

      • G.L. Piggy says:

        Mimi, if you read into my statement that I thought that the young girl laid back and enjoyed it then you have more problems than I can address. But if you want to think of me as a person who would think something like that, then go ahead. However, I said nothing remotely similar to that.

        I know how rape discussions on feminist blogs go. None of you will understand my point of view. The fact that I don’t just accept prima facie what you’re saying without question is enough for you to believe that I’m a rape apologist. But I’m not.

        The term “rape” has very little meaning. Feminists paint a lot of things with that label. Sexual assault gets confused with rape; groping gets confused. Statuatory rape is considered rape. Girls who have sex while drunk are considered to have been raped. So if guy has sex with a drunk woman he is a rapist and since rape is broadly defined with no qualification, a stupid frat guy is lumped in with a person who rapes at the point of a knife.

        So there are degrees of rape which depend on the type and the amount of coercion applied and the psychological and physical impact on the victim. Thus, the difference between “attack” and “coerce”. In the case of this little girl in Texas, she was seemingly coerced. These rapes took place over the course of three months. Question becomes, then, at what point is she able to make her own decisions about what she’s going to do with her body? This isn’t an easy question to ask or to answer, but one should understand that individuals develop at different rates and that the law is relative in these matters. When can someone actually consent to something? What is consent? When is consent actually masked coercion? At what point should coercion be considered predatory?

        There is also the question of consent. Age of consent is different among the various states. It also varies by country around the world. It should interest you that Mexico has an age of consent of 12. Amazingly, the Rio Grande is the only thing separating intercourse being considered sex on the south side and rape on the north side.

        When you say that the girl was attacked, you are simplifying the issue. She wasn’t attacked. She was coerced. Now why not talk about the role of coercion in rape and how it is used to prey on girls and young women.

      • Seriously? You actually wrote “Question becomes, then, at what point is she able to make her own decisions about what she’s going to do with her body? ” ABOUT AN ELEVEN YEAR OLD CHILD. Jesus.

      • G.L. Piggy says:

        andrea:

        as i said, consent seems to be relative. in mexico, not far from where this little girl is living, the age of consent is 12. they seem to think that 12 year olds can make decisions on what to do with their bodies.

        understand that i’m not saying that this girl wasn’t coerced or forced into having sex with these men and teenagers, but it’s not that she was attacked.

      • John Prewett says:

        GLPiggy: “understand that i’m not saying that this girl wasn’t coerced or forced into having sex with these men and teenagers, but it’s not that she was attacked.” ……

        “attacked” is irrelevant. “attacked” isn’t the charge.

        “Rape” is the charge.

        You evidently agree the 11 year old girl was coerced/forced into having sex with these males. So I presume we agree she was RAPED. Yes ?

  4. John Prewett says:

    From recent NYTimes: “She told her father that the men had threatened to kill her.
    Juan, whose last name is being withheld to protect his daughter’s identity, said his wife reported the crime to the police three days later, but in court documents the Cleveland Police Department said it was first alerted on Dec. 3 by school authorities.”
    Not that it matters much, but just for the record: I believe the girl and her father.
    I also believe the police hoped the accusers would just “go away.” So they would not have to face such as QUANNELL X and the inevitable supporters of the young men and boys seen on the video. The young men whose lives have been so upset by this terrible event.

  5. John Prewett says:

    Chuck points out it is not an “attack” till the victim is actually hit/slaped or the like.
    If the perp has the capacity to make good on his threat and the victim chooses to avoid being beaten/killed, it is still vile rape. Chuck’s point is pointless.

  6. John Prewett says:

    opps, sorry bout the double post. But, not to worry, mod can delete and clean it up.

  7. Pingback: Gangbang Culture and the Cleveland 19 « Gucci Little Piggy

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