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Opinion How the media failed at covering Huma Abedin’s memoir

Huma Abedin at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., in September 2016. (Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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Revelations in Huma Abedin’s forthcoming memoir have restarted a conversation about how the media should cover questions of consent, power and violation — one that in the wake of #MeToo has still not come to a satisfactory conclusion.

According to the Guardian, which obtained an advance copy of the book — “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” publishing on Nov. 2 — Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, describes an unwanted advance from a U.S. senator. By Abedin’s account, the man in question invited her to his place for coffee after a Washington dinner in the mid-2000s that had been attended by “a few senators and their aides.” Clearly, Abedin thought this was a platonic invitation. “Then, in an instant, it all changed,” the Guardian quotes the book as saying. “He plopped down to my right, put his left arm around my shoulder, and kissed me, pushing his tongue into my mouth.”

The senator, the book says, apologized and said he had “misread” her “all this time.” Abedin worried over how to leave “without this ending badly,” then said “something only the twentysomething version of me would have come up with — ‘I am so sorry’ — and walked out.”

The Guardian and other news organizations covering this disclosure characterized it — sensationally — as a “sexual assault,” even though it doesn’t appear that Abedin herself used the phrase.

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And although Abedin doesn’t name the senator or his party, or give any other clues to his identity, more media speculation immediately followed: So who was the senator? Why is she revealing this now? And, critically, is it really sexual assault?

It has been years since #MeToo began trending, and media organizations still don’t know how to talk about events like this. We cover them without nuance. We often fail to address the underlying issues. And when we waste the opportunities we are given to engage in needed conversations, we do our readers a disservice.

For instance: Is an unwanted kiss “assault”? At least one legal definition defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law.” But how you interpret that will depend on whether you believe a kiss is always a “sexual act,” and whether you’re inclined to see the senator’s move as an attack or a misunderstanding.

Foregrounding the discussion with the rather prurient “sexual assault” headline is certainly a magnet for clicks, but it tells us little about the broader issues inherent in this particular interaction, and how to address them on a societal scale. More useful would be for the media to shed light on questions of how different individuals can conceptualize the same interaction — and questions of how power and influence, or the lack thereof, can define how women are compelled to move through their professional and private worlds.

Take the expectations under which women are still supposed to labor, even if they are a political aide kissed without consent after an ostensibly professional dinner: “You went into a man’s house and sat on his couch? You should have known what would happen.”

Or the power dynamics that come into play when an elected official makes an advance on an aide: Most articles covering the story barely scratched the surface of how this might have colored the situation. The detail that Abedin felt the need to apologize after an incident she did not instigate is perhaps more revealing than the blow-by-blow narrative of how the senator “rolled up his sleeves.”

Or the existence of the revelation itself: In the case of information like this, how should the media respond?

The story of the forced kiss comes from a book that presumably carries more tales of Abedin’s life. Thus it seems unfair that coverage of her memoir will inevitably be dominated by this single story. All too often, women themselves are blotted out by their “sexual assault victim” status, whether such a label was voluntarily taken on.

In excerpted sections of the book, Abedin suggests that she was moved to resurface this episode by the 2018 confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the conversation around Christine Blasey Ford’s “being accused of ‘conveniently’ remembering” her own alleged assault. The way most media outlets alternately escalate or trivialize public accounts of sexual violence hurts women who have suffered such violence in the past and stayed quiet, or who are simply trying to move on. It’s an abdication of the responsibility to treat all stories with the seriousness they deserve, and it harms survivors.

Abedin, it appears, has taken the brave step of sharing her confusion and trauma with the world. We knew that the #MeToo moment wasn’t a fixed point in time, that it wouldn’t solve our deep social issues around sex, entitlement, violation and redemption. But the coverage of this small sliver of Abedin’s story shows that the media still has a lot of self-examination to do.