March 18, 2013

Activists from the online group “Anonymous” rally at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, last December. (Michael D. McElwain/Associated Press)

CNN doesn’t want to chat about the tone of its breaking-news coverage yesterday of the verdict in the Steubenville rape case. “[W]e’ll decline” comment, e-mailed Barbara Levin, the network’s vice president for communications.

The Erik Wemple Blog had requested an interview to hear its response to a rash of criticism from folks angered by how CNN had approached the news that 17-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond, had been convicted of raping a 16-year-old. To sum up the backlash, critics jumped on the network’s extensive discussion of the implications for the perpetrators and their plight, with less countervailing discussion of the rape victim. Change.org has launched a petition seeking an apology from the network.

A live-news segment on the matter at 11 a.m. opened with “State of the Union” host Candy Crowley striking a note of compassion for the perpetrators:

We want to go now to CNN’s Poppy Harlow. She is in Steubenville, and has been covering this trial.
I cannot imagine having just watched this on the feed coming in. How emotional that must have been sitting in the courtroom.

That lead-in set a tone — one that Harlow extended:

I’ve never experienced anything like it, Candy. It was incredibly emotional — 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 believe their life fell apart.

The compassion baton subsequently changed hands:

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, Candy, we’ve seen here a courtroom drenched in tears and tragedy and, you know, Poppy’s description, I think, you know, sums it all up. But across America scenes like this happen all the time.
I know as a prosecutor and defense attorney, when that verdict is handed down, usually it’s just the family and families of the defendants and the victims, there’s always that moment of just lives are destroyed. And lives have already been destroyed by the crime. And we got a chance to see that.
But in terms of what happens now, yes, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law and, by the way, the laws in most other states now require such a designation in the face of such a serious crime.
That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see they’re a registered sex offender. When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet where these things are posted. Neighbors will know they’re a registered sex offender.
It’s really something that will have a lasting impact. Much more of a lasting impact than going to a juvenile facility for one or two years.

Bold text added to highlight important choice of words. “Label,” huh? These two young men are “labeled” sex offenders because they are sex offenders. To choose the term “label” suggests that perhaps the two don’t deserve such categorization, that the fate that has befallen them is somehow undeserved.

That CNN won’t comment on the coverage appears to signal that a hunkering-down is taking place. And why not? The network committed no apparent factual mistakes in its coverage. Perhaps it can just sit tight and watch this one blow over. The excuse for the unmistakably warm feelings coming from CNN toward the guilty parties is twofold:

1) The defendants are young, and the proceeding was an emotional affair.

2) It’s a breaking news story — tone and emphasis are hard to get perfectly right in such a situation.

Not very convincing.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.