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Steubenville, the media and ‘rape, essentially’

Defense attorney Walter Madison, right, with his client, Ma’lik Richmond, and defense attorney Adam Nemann, left, with his client, Trent Mays, as Judge Thomas Lipps pronounces both teens delinquent on rape and other charges. (Keith Strakocic/AP)
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Without social media — and irrefutable video evidence helpfully provided by the proud young perps themselves — it’s fair to wonder whether the two Steubenville high school football players found guilty Sunday of raping an unconscious 16-year-old would ever have even been charged.

Twitter and YouTube were weapons turned against the victim when a 12-minute party video of her — showing her passed out and naked, being violated and urinated on — was widely shared and, judging from the response it got, widely enjoyed: “Song of the night is Rape Me by Nirvana,” tweeted a recent grad of the school, now enrolled at Ohio State. Another football player at the high school tweeted, “Were not gonna let dumb s___ like this mess up our championship goal.”

At first, anyway, that didn’t seem to be a minority view in the town of 18,000, where the team has 27 football coaches and has won nine state football championships. In fact, without the evidence shared by the accused and others who saw what happened and never tried to stop it, it’s not at all clear that police would have been able to make a case against even the two players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who cried when the verdict was announced. If aspiring assailants keep this up, one of my least favorite phrases, “He said, she said,” may no longer be an out for those who prefer not to know.

One stubborn, sometimes over-the-top blogger, Alex Goddard, kept the heat on until the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote about the case in September. For her trouble, she was sued for defamation by a high school junior and his parents, a suit that has since been dismissed by a judge.

Without the national attention that followed, would the state of Ohio have taken over the case? Would Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine, have put out a statement that the investigation was ongoing, and that charges might still be filed against anyone who failed to speak up? “I’ve reached the conclusion that this investigation cannot be completed, simply cannot be completed, that we cannot bring finality to this matter without the convening of a grand jury,” he said, adding that sexual assaults actually happen every Friday night and every Saturday night across the country. Strikingly, he didn’t mean that as any defense of what happened in Steubenville, either.

That’s a departure from public statements in September, when the local sheriff, who’s been in office since 1985, told reporters that “people think there is more to come, but there is nothing more,” the Plain Dealer wrote. “He said all the evidence is in, and based on what was learned, there is no coverup.”

So, yay media, old and new, right? Well yes, until the verdict was passed down and some TV anchors all but wept right along with Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. On NBC, Lester Holt told viewers, “In many ways, tonight stands as a cautionary tale to a generation that has come of age in the era of social networking.”

Hello, Mr. Holt? That almost sounds as though you think the takeaway is that rapists should have sense enough not to implicate themselves. Good thing there were some women covering the story. Oh, but they included CNN’s Candy Crowley, who said to the reporter covering the trial, “I cannot imagine, watching this on the feed coming in, how emotional that must have been sitting in the courtroom” when the judge handed down the verdicts.

Reporter Poppy Harlow surpassed even Crowley in an outpouring of compassion for the guilty: “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 — we literally watched as they believe their life fell apart. One of the young men, Ma’lik Richmond, when that sentence came down, he collapsed in the arms of his attorney. . . . He said to him, ‘My life is over! No one is going to want me now.’ ”

That’s what victims were so long made to believe, of course — only presumably, Richmond means no football teams will want him now, though that’s far from clear.

Then it was back to Crowley, who was in full mom mode — not with sympathy for the victim, mind you, but on the contrary, for the convicted: “A 16-year-old just sobbing in court; regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds. . . . When you listen to it and you realize they could stay until they’re 21, what’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty, in juvenile court, of rape, essentially?”

She asked that question of commentator Paul Calllan, who continued on in the same vein, bemoaning the shame that “lives are destroyed.”

Enough with the passive voice, and with the hyperbole: They’re lucky they were tried in juvenile court, and could be out in as little as a year.

Now it’s video of Crowley, Harlow and Callan that’s being widely shared, along with a clip from Fox News that reveals the young victim’s first name. And maybe, as Callan said of those newly branded as convicted sex offenders, the impression that they’re not on the side of justice when football is on the line is “really something that will have a lasting impact.”

Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.