Anyone who follows me on Twitter will note that I occasionally rag on CultureMap Austin, a publication I actually wrote one piece for back when it launched in 2011. (Relive the memories!) CultureMap–there’s a Houston, Austin and now, Dallas, version–is the kind of fluffy, PR-friendly brand that best lends itself to enthusiastic coverage of largely inconsequential things. And certainly there’s a place for that kind of thing, and nothing intrinsically wrong with it–in Austin, TRIBEZA, another publication I’ve written for in the past, is a pretty good example of how to do this kind of journalism-lite successfully. I know and like many of the people who work for CultureMap in both Dallas and Austin; unfortunately, a few good people do not a decent fluffy, PR-friendly publication make. I’d very likely ignore it entirely except that CultureMap Austin’s food coverage is really quite good, and since one of my part-time gigs involves a fair bit of food coverage, I like to keep it in my RSS feed lest I miss the good work of folks like Jessica Dupuy.
What CultureMap has is a consistency problem. A a writer and contributor curation problem. Because they seem to be willing to run just about anything by anyone, they’ll end up printing, for example, Dan Solomon’s fantastic music journalism, but also a piece from some dude in a bathrobe telling you to fight terrorism by watching movies because this one time the ceiling collapsed at a movie theatre by his house so, expert.
I’m writing all this as a preface because I think in order to understand the developing shitshow that is now two pieces on rape from recently launched CultureMap Dallas’ managing editor Claire St. Amant, you need to understand more or less the place CultureMap occupies in Texas’ media landscape. It’s a fluffy online publication that occasionally dabbles in Real Issues, and almost always fails when it does. Why that is–a lack of aggressive, experienced editorial oversight, laziness, inability to pay good writers what they’re worth, sheer ignorance, favoring pageviews over quality content, a combination of any or all or none of these things–I don’t know and can’t begin to say. All I, or anyone who doesn’t work there, can see is the end product, and I personally find it nigh unreadable most of the time, with notable exceptions that make it hard to write off entirely.
Here’s the background, according to police records and this WFAA report: on Saturday night, two Highland Park High School students went to see Ghostland Observatory at a downtown venue in Dallas. After the concert, Ryan Romo (who is 18) and an unnamed teenage girl (of so-far unreported age) ended up in the back of Romo’s truck, at which point the girl, who I’ll refer to going forward as Jane Doe, told police Romo raped her despite her repeated demands that he stop. He later drove her home, where she told her mother what had happened and then underwent two examinations, a sexual assault exam at a hospital that “revealed vaginal tearing and and abrasions on her buttocks” and follow-up with her gynecologist, who declared the trauma to be “forceful.” Police recorded two phone calls between Romo and Doe, one in which he offers to get her the morning-after pill, and another in which he told she was making him “feel bad” by construing the sex they had had as non-consensual.
Barely a day after the charges were filed on Tuesday, CultureMap Dallas ran an article by St. Amant under this headline: “Is this Highland Park baseball star a rapist?” It was filed under the category “Crime News.” But what it amounted to was a weird, rambling trip through rampant speculation, picking-and-choosing of facts reported, victim-blaming and some serious conflation and confusion around the very serious–and different–legal concepts of statutory rape and sexual assault of a child.
It’s something I expected to have been written by one of CultureMap’s contributors; an errant piece that slipped by the editorial process somehow. An excerpt:
Kids are supposed to mess up. They lie. They cheat. They get caught. They grow up. But throw a sex act in the mix, and childish ways are all but left behind.
Romo is one week shy of 19 and legally an adult. However, it still seems bizarre to call a girl his peer while they are kissing but a child if their clothes come off.
No matter the facts, there is no good outcome in this case. If Romo forced himself on a girl in the backseat of his Chevy Tahoe as alleged, then he’s a sexual predator. If it’s a case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt, then no one suffers more than 18-year-old Ryan Romo.
This, written by CultureMap’s managing editor. I’m not going to tackle all the things wrong with St. Amant’s original piece, because Anna Merlan at the Dallas Observer did that yesterday to great success. From Merlan’s piece:
Whose impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt are we talking about here? The implication seems to be that the alleged victim may have had consensual sex, regretted it, and then went on to say she was raped. That’s a staggering bit of speculation, and would be at any point in an investigation. But it’s especially obnoxious to bandy about just hours after the alleged incident was first reported.
Put simply: if you’re going to file something under “Crime News,” it oughtta be a rundown of the facts, and not a waffling opinion piece that poses a question that, ultimately, is up to a jury, and not a journalist, to answer. St. Amant’s initial article basically amounts to a “But what about TEH MENZ?” bit of trolling and belongs nowhere near a label of “news.”
One might think that smart criticism from a peer–in this case, Merlan’s piece in the Dallas Observer–would give St. Amant pause. It didn’t. Instead, she wrote a self-righteous defense of the original terrible article, published today. It’s a great lesson in how not to do the right thing. She starts:
It’s an interesting day when merely raising the question of an accused criminal’s guilt or innocence results in an outcry. Disregard the fact that not every person accused — and even convicted — of a heinous crime is guilty.
Actually, it’s not an interesting day when people who say they’ve been raped are not taken seriously. That day is more aptly described as “typical” or perhaps “every.” She goes on:
Forget due process. Toss out innocent until proven guilty. Any 18-year-old should immediately be condemned when accused of rape. Just lock up this kid forever. If only the world were so simple.
With regard to “due process,” St. Amant is the one who “forgot” it when her first piece of coverage on the story sought to question either the alleged victim’s account or the alleged rapist’s guilt. Journalists write stories that don’t take sides on alleged criminal action all the time. It’s called news reporting, and it generally comes with at least the pretense of objectivity. The headline “Is this Highland Park baseball star a rapist?” isn’t one that’s written by someone who cares about “due process.” Next:
Ryan Romo, 18, was arrested on October 29 for sexual assault of a child. In recorded phone calls, he admitted to having sex with a fellow Highland Park High School student on October 28 after a Ghostland Observatory concert at the Palladium Ballroom.
Here we go! This is some reporting of the facts as they’re known so far! Well done, St. Amant. But then this:
I have some experience covering sexual assault cases. I fully subscribe to the belief that even if a female walks down the street naked, she doesn’t “deserve” to be raped. No matter what choices a girl makes, she always has the right to say no. And when men don’t listen, it’s rape. Period.
That “some experience” link goes to past accolades for St. Amant’s work, as if winning awards somehow makes one impervious to criticism. But what follows it is just astounding: St. Amant wants us to give her credit for thinking rape is bad and that rape victims don’t deserve to be raped? Congratulations, lady! You’re a human being who lives in the world! Let me go find my gold stars I hand out to people who aren’t sociopaths.
This is where I particularly want to note that “no means no” is an inadequate way of viewing rape. The word “no” doesn’t have to be uttered for sex or sexual acts to be non-consensual. For more on this: Yes Means Yes.
St. Amant also makes the mistake of writing about rape in a way that centers the “girl” (not all rape victims are female!) and not the perpetrator of rape; this leads to an endless circle of “But what if she did THIS” or “What if she was wearing THIS” or “But what about THIS contingency,” which puts the onus on rape victims to prove their worth, and not the onus on rapists to not rape people. Here’s a better way of putting it: “I fully subscribe to the belief that non-consensual sex is rape, and that people who force others into non-consensual sex are rapists.” She goes on:
However, we don’t know that’s what happened in that Chevy Tahoe on Saturday. And when the two parties are high school students, the situation is much murkier than, say, a 32-year-old teacher preying on his pupil. When you immediately declare the accused guilty, you risk creating a different victim. But shame on a reporter for taking an emotionless approach to a volatile topic.
You right, St. Amant: we DON’T know what happened in “that Chevy Tahoe on Saturday.” But when you do your damnedest to speculate based on your selection of the facts–speculation that heavily favors the idea that people falsely report rape more than rapists actually rape people–you’re going to get criticized.
The fact that the alleged victim and alleged rapist in this case are high school students has NOT A SINGLE THING to do with this situation being “murky.” The facts, as reported–sexual assault exams revealing trauma, phone calls where intercourse was admitted–would be as “murky” as anyone could want them to be whether the players involved were 17 or 50. Granted, the charges would be different, but “murky” isn’t something that has to do with age, here.
The problem with St. Amant’s piece wasn’t its “emotionless approach to a volatile topic,” it was with its selective reporting of the facts and wholesale questioning of just one side of the story–the alleged victim’s. More:
Stepping off the specifically prescribed, tough-on-crime, “lock ’em up and throw away the key” talking point gets you labeled a victim-blamer. Never mind that I spelled out that anyone who forces another person to have intercourse is a sexual predator. If you raise questions in a sexual assault case, you are accused of hating women.
No, what gets you labeled a victim-blamer is victim blaming. “Spelling out” that “anyone who forces another person to have intercourse is a sexual predator” doesn’t mean you can’t victim blame, it just means you’re trying to soften the blow by pretending that you’d totally be on the alleged victim’s side, if only their story were better.
The “you are accused of hating women” link goes to Merlan’s piece in which she does not, anywhere, accuse St. Amant of hating women, but does break down St. Amant’s piece in a thoughtful and meaningful way, drawing out the many, and appalling, mistakes in her coverage. Then:
When you can’t even question a person’s guilt before a case goes to trial, there is a serious problem.
I couldn’t care less that this guy is a star baseball player, but that doesn’t make the modifier any less true. Were Romo a budding ukulele player, that would’ve gone in the story instead.
I’m not sure where St. Amant thinks anyone is telling her she “can’t” question Romo’s guilt; nobody’s calling for censorship. Plenty are criticizing her coverage. They’re not the same thing.
If Romo forced himself on a fellow student, he aptly will be labeled a rapist. But the term child molester still wouldn’t fit, and any law that labels sex with a peer a case of pedophilia deserves scrutiny.
Again, St. Amant seems to be unclear on what the statutes are, here. She seems to be conflating the idea of “Romeo and Juliet” type cases–involving consensual sex–with actual assault cases? It’s unclear what St. Amant is getting at. But for more on the issue I think St. Amant is trying to address, see Jordan Smith’s work at the Austin Chronicle.
We don’t know the age of the alleged victim; if she is a minor and more than 36 months younger than Romo, the law says she simply cannot legally consent to sexual activity. Whether that law “deserves scrutiny” is up for debate, but this seems like a bad case to take as an example, since known details are so few and especially since it hasn’t even gone to trial. Once we know what a jury decides, I guess we can talk about whether Romo is a “child molester” or a “pedophile,” but until he’s convicted of anything at all, speculation is completely pointless, because until then, he’s just a person who’s been accused of a crime.
St. Amant goes on, referencing some good work she did on a D Magazine cover story:
In the Episcopal School of Dallas case, the lines were clearly drawn. A married teacher groomed and manipulated his student. He took advantage of her and committed sexual assault of a child.
They were never on the same page psychologically. There weren’t questions to be answered in the ESD case, only a matter of punishment.
But every sexual assault case is not so black and white.
It’s certainly clear that when a case isn’t nuanced, St. Amant is capable of writing objectively and thoughtfully about it. To observe that “every sexual assault case is not so black and white” is observing that the sky is blue and the grass is green. But what we do know is that rape victims often do not report rape because they’re afraid they won’t be taken seriously–because they’re afraid that what will happen to them is exactly what St. Amant has done, which is exactly what happens so frequently in coverage of rape and so infrequently in coverage of other crimes: the alleged victim’s story is treated as intrinsically questionable.
There’s a name for this: it’s called rape culture, and Claire St. Amant’s pieces don’t do anything to combat it. Rather, they powerfully reinforce it. If CultureMap Dallas wants to be taken seriously by serious people, it should treat further coverage of this case–especially coming from its new managing editor–with a more thoughtful and delicate hand.