March 21, 2013

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

Earlier this week, the Erik Wemple Blog attempted to score an interview with CNN regarding criticism that its breaking-news coverage of the Steubenville rape verdict was too sympathetic to the two boys found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl from West Virginia. CNN declined to comment.

As criticism has mounted all week, via a Change.org petition (now with nearly 260,000 supporters) seeking an official apology from the mature cable network, CNN hasn’t changed policy; it still hasn’t commented on the matter.

The silence, however, doesn’t mean CNN talent has simply moved on. The Wrap is reporting, for example, that Poppy Harlow, who reported from the trial in Steubenville, “is taking this extremely personally as a woman,” in the words of an executive who spoke to The Wrap on condition of anonymity. “She’s outraged that someone would think she’d do such a thing…. It’s gotten so out of control.”

There has been some backlash to the backlash. Kelly McBride of Poynter.org, for instance, has urged people not to sign the Change.org petition. Her argument rests, in part, on this passage:

Portraying all rapists as monsters and refusing them any sympathy creates a dynamic in which it’s impossible to acknowledge how many ordinary and common rapists live among us. (According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim,” and “38 percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance.)

That mode of thinking suffers from a false equivalency. Detractors who saw too much sympathy from the CNN coverage aren’t asking that the guilty parties be demonized or monsterized. They merely saw an imbalance in the coverage—a fawning and over-the-top sentiment for the boys, almost to the point that the CNN team was grieving for them. At the same time, there didn’t appear to be any countervailing sentiment for the victim.

When I first sampled the coverage—before I even saw any of the nasty comments on Twitter—I thought it was off. Not feloniously so. Just off—missing something.

Had CNN chosen to address the tonal issues with the coverage on Monday, this whole thing would be dead by now. With each new signatory on the Change.org petition, however, the stakes rise for the network. If it speaks up now, it’ll create the impression that it’s caving to pressure. It still should anyhow: It’s an organization, after all, that demands transparency from everyone else.

(h/t Josh Feldman of Mediaite)

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