OTI Online
Fall 1993

SEX CRIMES, CIRCULATION, AND SALES
An interview with Helen Benedict
by Fred Pelka


Helen Benedict wasn't able to cover sex crimes when she started out as a staff reporter for Weekly News of London - it wasn't permitted. Crime reporting, after all, has until very recently been a man's job.

"The tradition was that women weren't allowed to work on that beat, because it was considered too gruesome for their sensibilities. You're supposed to be able to look at a mutilated body and not flinch."

Benedict has spent the 15 yean since then writing books and articles on crime, particularly rape, for publications as varied as Glamour, Quill, Ms., and the Soho News. Her books, Safe, Strong, and Streetwise; Recovery: How to Survive Sexual Assault; and most recently, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes (reviewed in this issue), have earned her accolades from both the feminist and mainstream press. She is also a published novelist {A World Like This, about life in prison), and a noted literary critic and biographer {Portraits in Print).

I read Virgin and Vamp just as the press launched into its latest rape fad - false memory syndrome - demonstrating the truth of Benedict's observation that all the old rape myths are still with us: In this case that women (and now children) cry rape out of spite, or simple gullibility. You can find the other myths out there too, if you read your newspaper closely enough: That women provoke rape, that rapists are usually working class or men of color, that some women even deserve rape. The central thesis of Benedict's book is that the press, playing to these myths, divides survivors into two broad categories, despoiled victims or deserving whores, and then imposes "a set of mental and verbal cliches on the sex crimes they cover.. .forcing the crimes into proscribed shapes, regardless of the specifics of the case or their own beliefs."

And so, for example, the survivor of the Big Dan gang rape in Massachusetts became an alcoholic welfare mother, and William Kennedy Smith's accuser was characterized as a social climber.

I spoke with Benedict on two occasions for a total of two hours. What follows is an edited transcript of those conversations.

Fred Pelka: In what way is crime reporting seen as a macho field? Helen Benedict: To be a police reporter you're supposed to be tough. And it's very important to be able to get on with the cops, who themselves are a very traditional male group in their values.... I send my students out to do police reporting every fall, and they're constantly having to deal with the macho attitude. The women are often flirted with and disparaged, and the men are tested. It's almost like the military, and when you're a crime reporter you've got to play that game.

Were there any particular news stories or events that sparked the writing of the book, or was it a more subtle process?

Well, there were several things. Concretely, it was the Jennifer Levin "Preppie Murder" case that gave me the idea.

As I started to read about the case, and how she was being covered by the New York Times, I just became so angered at the bias against her that I began to really notice the language. The headlines in the tabloids were obvious and predictable, but the New York Times, which is supposed to be more careful, was committing the same sins, in a more subtle and insidious way. In an article on the lifestyle of the two preppies Levin was described as naive, implying the victim didn't know something she should have. But in a more general way I had already been writing about rape and sexual assault for many years, and trained as a counselor as part of my research for my first book, and had already been feeling strongly about the various injustices to which sex crime victims are subject.

I was struck by your comment on how, while we expect sports writers to know something about sports, and political writers to know something about politics, it seems as though pretty much anybody can cover a rape trial, knowing little or nothing about rape. Is that the fault of journalism schools, or editors, or tradition?

It's both the fault of journalism schools and of newsrooms. A lot of journalists don't go to journalism school. But awareness of what sex crimes actually are, why they happen, what they do to people and their families, and the games that the lawyers play, the strategies that they use, are not taught anywhere. Crime reporting is very often the first beat that you're given when you join a newspaper, so it's often the greenest reporters who are doing it, and who are also scrabbling the hardest to get some attention and rise up the ladder. So they're working very hard, they haven't got much experience, and they've entered the tradition of the most macho type of reporting, other than sports, that exists on the paper. They have all those pressures, and nobody even thinking of training them about the points of view of the victim. So they perpetuate all these stereotypes, and don't question things, and don't realize what they're doing.... One of my suggestions is that news reporters get some sensitivity training from the local rape crisis center, that a rape crisis counselor be invited into the newsroom to do an in-service. In some places that's already begun to happen, for example at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where a woman reporter named Dianna Marder was bothered by the way the paper only covered the most spectacular and unusual crimes, and missed the day-to-day reality of crime. I think reporters also need to watch the vocabulary they use, and to ask themselves: Would I use this word for a man? And they need to do more background articles, instead of just breaking crime stories - to interview people who know about rape, or even past victims who are willing to talk about just how horrible it is, how frequent it is, and what it does to people and their families.

Have there been any more recent events or trends since you finished the book that you might want to comment on?

Well, the date rape thing really has taken off. I did get the Kennedy/Smith case in there, but the whole furor about date rape on campus has really arisen since then, and of course that brings up all the same old questions about the believability of the victim that I talk about in the book. And then Anita Hill happened after my book, which raised awareness in a lot of cases, and it also raised a defensive backlash....

It seems there are fashions or trends in press coverage, for instance the issue of whether or not the press should publish the names of rape victims without their consent arises periodically. Why the naming issue in particular, of all issues around rape?

Well it came up when it did because of Geneva Overholser [editor of the Des Moines Register]. In 1991 she ran an editorial arguing why it was a good idea for rape victims to agree to be named, because it helped expose the crime for what it really was, and gave a face to the anonymous victim. And then because of that, Nancy Ziegenmeyer, who was a rape victim, decided that she would come forth and tell her story for the sake of other victims. And so she did that, and the reporter who wrote up her story won a Pulitzer for it, so there was a lot of fuss about how this is a great thing. But the reason that story was so good is because the woman was honest, and very graphic about what had happened to her, and the paper allowed the reporter to give the graphic, realistic description of the rape, and how it affected her marriage. The name was a good thing too, but it wasn't the reason the story was so good. But the media went "Aha, you see what happens when a name is used - it makes it a Pulitzer Prize-winning story, so we should all think about doing that too." Reporters love names more than anything, because they're always afraid that people will think they've made things up.

David Nyhan, who is a columnist up here in Boston, wrote at the time that naming victims had less to do with removing any stigma or advancing any agenda than goosing the declining circulation figures of American daily newspapers. Do you see a major factor, or a partial factor here?

I think people tend to confuse the way publishers think with the way reporters think. Reporters, and even editors, are mostly concerned about the credibility of their story. They're not thinking, "I'll name this victim and it'll make more money." I don't happen to think that's true, I think it's in the details of how the story is done, how candid the interviewing is; the name is actually fairly meaningless. It is to the reader, anyway - of course it's anything but meaningless to the woman....

One question that gets asked is that with all this attention and sensitivity and carefulness being paid to the victim, you're just making the accused man look more and more guilty. And I do think that once you become the subject of a news story, as someone who is accused of a crime, you look guilty no matter what, just by virtue of being there. And that even if you're acquitted, and the acquittal is written-up extensively, you still look guilty. But I think that being unjust to the victim of the crime is not the way to redress the injustices done to the accused. Punishing her doesn't help him, it just makes more people miserable. A lot of people see it as the victim versus the accused, and that somehow you make things better for him by making things worse for her, but that really isn't the balance. For one thing, just because mere's an acquittal doesn't mean there wasn't a rape, maybe they got the wrong guy, or maybe they didn't have enough evidence. So the idea that somehow if he's acquitted, then you can turn the light on her and write more and more unflattering things about her to make him look better - this happened in me Patricia Bowman case - is an erroneous one. Rape is very hard to prove, and convictions are very rare. It's just very important that a woman not be further traumatized and endangered by the press, regardless - which is a separate issue from whether the man is guilty or not.

Some people have suggested that if we withhold the names of victims, we should also withhold the names of alleged perpetrators, at least until they're convicted. What's your opinion on that?

At the moment, sometimes they mention names of people being investigated, and that can be very unfair to a man who's innocent. I suggest in the book that the names be withheld at least until officially indicted, but I don't think that will happen in this country. And I don't think it should be a matter of law, because once you let the law dictate to journalists what they can't do in one place you're going very soon to have a lot of other restrictions, and freedom of the press is going to be seriously impinged. Sol think it has to be an ethical discussion by the papers themselves, about this names business, when and where.

Many reporters and editors try to justify the worst of what they do by explaining that that's what sells, it's what the public wants. How important is that sort of self-justification to the persistence of rape myths and bad reporting about rape?

It's a constant refrain on the part of editors and reporters, that we have to give the public what they want, ignoring all these polls that show how unpopular the press is because of those things I mentioned. The press is seen as exploiting people, as invading people's privacy. I mean of course reporters are also criticized because they're often the deliverers of bad news, which is an important role that has to be done, but in ordinary life, just because you happen to be a victim of a crime, rather than being a politician who's done something crooked, the public isn't anything like as keen on [total disclosure] as the press is. The confusion comes because those stories sell well, and what I always say is, you know you can put a box of donuts in front of people, and they'll eat it, but that doesn't mean that's really what they want for dinner, or that's all they want. They can't resist it because it's sugary and easy to go down, but that doesn't mean they don't want something more nourishing as well. You can always sell a sensational story, but that doesn't mean you're actually satisfying the public. The opinion polls about the press show that it's not satisfying them, because the public is constantly criticizing the press for not getting into the issues more, for exploiting people, for being vulgar, for dwelling on the wrong things, and so on....

You talk about how editors and writers, during the Jennifer Levin case, in some ways almost identified with [Levin's murderer] Robert Chambers, but you don't go very much further into how that might work, or the possibility that some reporters or editors might be perpetrators themselves, that behavior they see being condemned might be behavior in which they've indulged at an earlier time, date rape say, or sexual harassment. For instance, during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, when there was a spate of stories on sexual harassment in the workplace, one of the workplaces that was almost never mentioned was the newsroom. Do you see male reporters and editors being threatened by the stop-rape movement, by the thought of being suddenly held accountable for their behavior?

I don't like to say that. I don't think that's fair, I really don't. For one thing, it makes all men the enemy. It's like saying, the reason you men don't like to face rape is because you're all secretly rapists yourself, and I absolutely refuse to go that far. No doubt there are some men I talk to whose sexual behavior has been unpleasant for women, but I have no way of knowing which ones, and I prefer to have the attitude that this issue is an issue of rapists versus non-rapists.

What would you see as the most effective way for people who aren't reporters or editors to affect the quality of reporting on sex crimes? How can we have an impact on our local papers?

They can certainly write in and point out offensive or biased language. Write letters to the editor, or call, and also write to the local papers to do more background and explanatory stories about sex crimes, their prevalence, the real dangers versus the mythological dangers, or articles on educating children to not be sexist. If people wrote in to the local media with stories they'd like to see, not only would editors love to have some fresh story ideas coming in over the transom, but then you might be able to have an affect. I think that might be a positive way of approaching it.

Are there significant differences between the way the American press handles these kinds of crimes and, say, the European press? Well, I haven't studied the European press very much, but what I do know is that Europe on the whole is way behind America in its understanding of rape and incest. Some places are more behind than others - incest got a lot of attention in England recently-but on the whole it's behind, and so I assume its coverage is behind too. The few stories I've seen, that people have sent me, have been very much along the worst lines I describe.

The coverage is certainly behind when it comes to women in general. There's a women professor I know, who was in Europe with her husband, and they're the same age, and she was raped, and in the news story he was described as an eminent scholar, and she was written up as a pretty young woman. But that's all I know. I haven't really studied it.

Do you have any other projects in the works right now, any other books planned? At the moment I'm writing a novel, because I'm a fiction writer as well, and so it's back to fiction for the time being. I have two main specialties: One is all this sex crime stuff, and the other is the literary world. It was my interest in literature that gave me the idea of analyzing the press through its language. I took a literary critic's approach to newspapers and analyzed their sex crime coverage in that way. But my fiction is social realism, and focused on the nitty-gritty side of reality, so to that extent the two tend to overlap.

Finally, were there any major surprises while you were writing the book, anything that happened, or anyone you talked to who changed your thinking about the topic in a radical way?

I think the only surprise really, which was a pleasant one, was how receptive most of the reporters were to my criticisms, how open they were to discussing how they could have done better. They were very willing to be self-critical and to improve. Some of the New York reporters were more defensive, but the majority of them were extremely pleasant to talk to and very open minded, and it did actually give me some optimism, while I was doing the book, because I felt that these were not consciously prejudiced or bad people by any means. Their intentions are good, and therefore that gave me more hope for change.

 


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