The XX Factor

The Steubenville Rapists Are Not Tragic Heroes

There’s been an understandable media blackout regarding the victim in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape: Directing more of this attention her way is a bad idea. The result is that the focus of the cable news coverage has been primarily on the two convicted rapists, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. It’s important for those covering the case to avoid glamorizing two boys who raped a girl and then bragged about it. Sadly, CNN utterly failed on this front, going straight for the “tragic hero” instead of “violent criminal” angle: 

Poppy Harlow:

“Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart … when that sentence came down, [Ma’lik] collapsed in the arms of his attorney … He said to him, ‘My life is over. No one is going to want me now.’ Very serious crime here, both found guilty of raping the 16-year-old girl at a series of parties back in August.”

Candy Crowley:*

“Sixteen-year-old’s just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds … what’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?”

Most reactions to this segment have focused on how this kind of thing feeds a culture that already has an ugly tendency to side with rapists and against victims. Mallory Ortberg explained:

“And yet a CNN viewer learning about the Steubenville rape verdict is presented with dynamic, sympathetic, complicated male figures, and a nonentity of an anonymous victim, the “lasting effects” of whose graphic, public sexual assault are ignored. Small wonder, then, that anyone would find themselves on the side of these men—these poor young men, who were very good at taking tests and playing sports when they were not raping their classmates.”

What makes CNN’s coverage doubly amazing is that teenagers get taken off the path of “promising” every day for behaviors that are exponentially less anti-social than terrorizing girls with sexual abuse. The country is full of nonrapist D students, teen moms, high-school drop-outs, and dim but well-meaning people who have severely limited opportunities to become the sort of community leaders these boys were clearly slated to be. I’d have any one of them be my boss rather than a guy who raped someone and then reportedly texted a naked photo of the victim with the caption, “Bitches is bitches. Fuck ‘em,” to his friends later. A system that takes rapists out of the running for certain opportunities so nonrapists have a better shot is a system that is working. After the Penn State scandal, you’d think people would understand the importance of keeping sexual predators out of positions of power.

Correction, March 18, 2013: This post originally attributed a statement by journalist Candy Crowley to CNN’s Paul Callan.