The photo is clear: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is touching the chest of journalist Leeann Tweeden while Tweeden slept on the plane ride home from a USO tour in 2006.
Franken, a comedian at the time, has said he “intended to be funny but wasn't” and added that “it's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture.”
Nevertheless, many news outlets have cautiously reported the act preserved on camera as an accusation, informing audiences that Tweeden alleges or says Franken groped her.
A sampling of headlines:
Associated Press: Radio anchor says Franken groped, kissed her without consent
Fox News: Al Franken accused of kissing, groping L.A. TV host without consent
CNN: Woman alleges Franken groped, kissed her without consent
Breitbart: Photo: Journalist Leeann Tweeden accuses Sen. Al Franken of fondling, kissing her without consent
New York Times: Senator Al Franken accused of groping a woman in 2006
National Review: Report: Al Franken groped a radio host in 2006
Washington Post: ‘Al Franken kissed and groped me without my consent,’ broadcaster Leeann Tweeden says
Some women's rights advocates chafe at the media's delicate approach, which has been pretty consistent across a range of editorial perspectives.
“I'm a lawyer, and I understand why lawyers advise this sort of qualification, to try to avoid libel claims,” said Camille Hébert, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law who specializes in sexual harassment.
But, Hébert added, “these sort of qualifiers are incredibly frustrating for people like me and others, who advocate against sexual harassment and assault. . . . In this situation, at least, it seems to me that the media might be going beyond cautious and instead leaving the impression that we can't even believe women's claims of harassment and assault when our eyes and pictures provide proof that it happened. This leads to the impression that women's claims certainly shouldn't be trusted when there is no such documentary evidence.”
Debra S. Katz, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, agreed that news outlets should unequivocally assert that Franken groped Tweeden.
“The photo clearly shows that Franken groped, fondled, grabbed, touched the breasts of a sleeping woman,” Katz said. “And, yes, in a clear-cut instance like this, there is no reason to say 'alleged.' He admitted the behavior and acknowledged that it was inappropriate.”
Franken's admission was very carefully worded, however. Note, in the excerpt below, how he addresses the picture without actually saying that he did what the picture shows:
I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. There's no excuse. I look at it now, and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture.
An Associated Press spokeswoman told me that “in the story, we seek to reflect what is the accusation and what the apology refers to, and we will continue to do so.”
I asked the other news outlets whose headlines appear above why they decided to tread so carefully. Jesse Lewis, The Washington Post's style master, told me that “we use 'allegedly' when we’re reporting a charge or accusation that someone is making against someone else. Usually in these instances, we don’t know if the situation happened or not.”
While there is a photograph of Franken touching Tweeden's chest, there is no equivalent evidence to corroborate Tweeden's claim that Franken, in a separate incident, kissed her and forced his tongue in her mouth during rehearsal for a skit to be performed in front of U.S. troops. Franken said in a statement that he does not “remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does.”
National Review editor Rich Lowry offered this theory: “I think people are simply used to putting 'alleged' in front of any offense.”
He noted that at his magazine, “different writers have described it differently.”
Merrill Perlman, a former New York Times copy desk director, explained why she would advise against a flat-out declaration that Franken groped Tweeden:
Since it's a still [image], we don't know what he did before or after. So the safest thing is to say he touched her chest. We can't assume that Franken squeezed her chest, or moved his hands in a groping movement, or touched her in this one movement and withdrew his hands. “Groping” implies action.
The safest and most accurate course is to say that the photo clearly shows him touching her chest with his hands cupped (while mugging for the camera, maybe). That's descriptive of the photo and avoids any journalistic assumption of what the action was.
For various reasons, many news outlets have exercised linguistic restraint in their coverage of Franken and Tweeden — to the chagrin of some advocates who would like the media to be bolder.