Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a couple of dozen times, and shame on me — but also shame on what passes for journalism on television.
This truism comes to mind after my appearance on “Paula Zahn Now” on CNN this week to discuss the Duke rape case. I’m not naïve about these kinds of shows — which I know are not really about journalism but about ratings, most easily obtained through sensationalism and playing to the prejudices of the audience — but over the past 20 years I’ve gone on a number of them to discuss my work as a sociologist on issues of racism and sexism in media. Like many progressives, I do that with eyes wide open, knowing the limits but realizing it’s one of the few shots we have at a mass audience.
But this time I foolishly had high hopes after a producer from Zahn’s show actually conducted a thoughtful screening interview, unlike any I had spoken with in the past. Most producers typically are uninterested in my views and tend to ask banal questions in these pre-interviews over the phone. They usually don’t care about my arguments, but simply want to check that I have a big mouth (which, I admit, I do) and will not freeze in fear when the cameras roll. When they recognize that I am not someone who is likely to cower in the face of adversarial arguments, that’s enough for them.
But this CNN producer kept grilling me with questions that suggested that they were interested in doing a show that looked at the historical and contemporary issues of violence against black women in this society. Four phone calls later, I agreed to fly to Durham to do the show.
I was told I would be in at least two segments, possibly three. That promise was crucial; there’s no sense flying halfway across the country to say a couple of sentences between the ads. So I dug in to prepare, reading and consulting colleagues (all of them busy activists and academics, including Mark Anthony Neal, Imani Perry, Robert Jensen and Jackson Katz) about the way the media has framed the story. What an utter waste of time and energy.
The first inkling that something wasn’t going according to plan was on my ride from the airport to the makeshift outdoor studio at the Durham courthouse. A different producer called to tell me that although I study both race and gender, they don’t want this show to be about gender. I answered that this woman was brought in as a stripper and is charging that the lacrosse team sexually abused her — how could this not also be about gender? Yes, yes, yes, she answered, but the show is focusing on race. I know enough by now not to argue with a senior producer an hour before taping, and so I simply agreed.
The second clue was one of the people on the panel with me — the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, an African American man who has made his name by slandering blacks for their racism against whites and their continuing “unwillingness” to climb out of poverty. For Peterson, black men have been emasculated by black women, and his project is about making black men “real men” again. The one saving grace was that the other guest on my panel was Kristal Brent Zook, an insightful journalist with Essence magazine.
In the green room, Peterson went into a tirade against the black leaders for destroying the black community with their leftist views, and then thanked God for Fox News. When I started to argue with him, CNN producers in the room explained to us all that news media in America are doing their job — Fox’s right-wing views are balanced by CNN’s left-wing shows. About this time, I know I am in big trouble.
As the green room starts to fill with guests, I am getting the distinctly uneasy feeling that there are too many people here for a one-hour show that has promised me two to three segments. Guests come and go, and my segment cohort is still sitting in the room at 8:20, 20 minutes after the start of the show. There’s no way to watch the show in the green room, and so I have no idea as to what the other guests are saying and am clueless as to what I am walking into.
As it turns out I was on camera for less than five minutes, and most of that time was taken up by Peterson railing against the “alleged” victim for setting these poor white guys up. Kristal got to make a few points but also was cut short. Zahn was clearly more intrigued by Peterson than either of us; her body language and eye contact focused on him. As I tried to interrupt his tirade, she cut me off and returned to him. He got the last word of the segment, saying that the “stripper” has no humanity, no morality (she had children out of “wedlock”) and should be jailed for what she has done to these athletes. As I got up to leave the studio I ask Zahn how she could do a show that once again leaves this woman stripped of her dignity and rendered invisible as a human being. Zahn smiled and offered her hand as a way to tell me they are done with me.
When I got back to the hotel 30 minutes later, I already had a few emails from enraged men informing me that I am a “bitch dyke,” “dumb feminist” and “nigger lover” who is an embarrassment to the academic profession. By the next day at noon, it was a flood of emails, each one more hateful than the next. After most television appearances I get some hate mail and some support, but never such a consistently negative barrage in such a short time. It is only when I sit down to watch a tape of the show that I understood why everyone was so upset.
Rather than being about racism and sexism in the media, the show had been billed as an examination of the “rush to judgment” on the part of the media and society. The possibility that these men were guilty had been “proved” wrong, as the victim is clearly lying and motivated by money. The case is framed as a “race” issue, which for producers meant that blacks are out for revenge for past misdeeds by whites. Jumping on this bandwagon, so the story goes, was the District Attorney Mike Nifong, who was trying to curry favor with the black community in a re-election year. The consensus on the show was that if anyone is guilty here, it is the lying, immoral black stripper and the amoral, politically motivated DA. The victims here are the upstanding white men who have now had their reputations tarnished first by a stripper and then by gullible fools who believed her. And of course, within the framing of the show, I appeared as not just a gullible fool, but even worse, a gullible fool with a feminist agenda.
My anger at the way the media humanized these men as victims and dehumanized the woman as the perpetrator of a lie clearly stood out from the rest of the show. And this was, I am now convinced, the producer’s goal. I was set up in the show to be an example of the problem — white liberal elites who have taken political correctness too far. I was not brought on as a researcher or activist but as an example of how feminists “rush to judgment” in order to further their man-hating propaganda.
Virtually every email I have received blasts me as a conniving feminist who didn’t even bother to know the facts of the case. These men — yes, they all were from men — explained to me that the facts show without question that nothing happened that night, which I would have known if I were not so busy trying to further my feminist agenda.
This is truly an example of how mass media construct reality. The so-called “facts” of the case have mainly been planted by the defense as a way to spin the case. The prosecution can’t reveal all their evidence by law, but we do know, as law professor Wendy Murphy has pointed out, enough evidence was presented that “police, forensic experts, prosecutors, and a grand jury comprised of citizens, all agreed that charges should be brought.” The truth is that we actually have access to very little evidence about that night, yet every man who has emailed me is convinced that all the facts are out there and only a feminist fool would believe otherwise. This is because the “facts,” or lack of, speak for themselves and tell their own story in a society where racist and sexist ideology is internalized by a good percentage of the population and subsequently writ large onto a black woman’s body. Let’s not forget that this woman was bought and sold in the white male marketplace of sexual entertainment.
This obsessive focus on the woman is not particular to this case; routinely the media focus on the women victims, with a certain prurient interest. Instead, we should put some of the focus back on the men in this case, as we know much about their behavior that night that is not under dispute. They saw the hiring of two black women to strip as a legitimate form of male entertainment. They didn’t see the commodifying and sexualizing of black women’s bodies as problematic in a country that has a long and ugly history of racism.
One of the team buddies, Ryan McFadyen, sent out an email on the night of the event where he wrote “ive decided to have some strippers over and all are welcome …. I plan on killing the bitches as they walk in and proceed to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke spandex.” Later that night, 911 got a call from a black college student out walking with her friends who was called “nigger” as she walked past the team’s house. And to top it all, not one lacrosse player has come forward to express any regret at that night’s events or offered any apology for being part of a drunken strip party that humiliated and degraded two black women.
It would seem to me that all of this undisputed information would make for a compelling CNN program. On such a show, I would be happy to share these emails calling me a bitch, whore, and cunt. That wouldn’t be a rush to judgment, but instead an acknowledgement of what women know — any one of us could be the next victim turned celebrity whore.
Gail Dines, professor of American Studies at Wheelock College in Boston, is one of the organizers of the upcoming conference “Pornography and Pop Culture: Reframing Theory, Re-thinking Activism.” http://www.wheelock.edu/ppc/. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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