Guilty As Charged: How the American News Media Blithely Destroys Men Accused of Rape

by pierceharlan on December 15, 2010

I founded one of the few Web sites in the English-speaking world dedicated to giving voice to persons falsely accused of rape, The False Rape Society.  Among other things, I closely follow the way the American news media covers rape accusations. I write today to tell you that it isn’t pretty. In the false rape milieu, this is an important topic warranting an extended discussion.

When I review news reports of alleged rapes, I often predict to myself whether I will be reading a story in a few days announcing that the accusation was false. My “correct” score in predicting the many that turn out to be false is infuriatingly high. Not only is the lie infuriating, too often, so is the way the initial accusation was reported.

News Reports Typically Credit the Accuser’s Story as the Truth

Mainstream news media reports about garden variety “he said/she said” rape allegations are routinely unfair to the presumptively innocent men accused. Not all are covered unfairly; some are covered with even-handedness. But overall, false rape claims do not fit the news media’s preferred narrative, so in a variety of subtle, and not so subtle ways, news reports of alleged rapes typically credit the accuser’s story as the truth. Reporters often act as little more than stenographers for police; police, who are trying to build a case against the accused and not exonerate the accused, tell reporters only what the accuser has told them, leaving out the parts that don’t add up.

It is not hyperbole to assert that when it comes to “he said/she said” rape accusations, the “she” side is typically wrapped in the mantle of truth and victimhood, and the “he” side is dismissed as the mendacities of a rapist.

The result is what we saw in the infamous Hofstra false rape case last year. (The Hofstra case is detailed here:,) In that case, reporters didn’t just rush to judgment; they did a 60-meter sprint in record time. The headline of a New York Post story read as follows: “Nightmare gang rape at Hofstra.” The first two sentences of the story left little doubt for readers that a rape certainly occurred, even though it didn’t: “An 18-year-old Hofstra University co-ed was gang-raped by five men on campus, cops said last night. The shocking attack took place Sunday at around 3 a.m.”

The names and line-up photos of the four scared “rapists,” young men barely older than boys, and the lurid tale of their supposed vile gang rape, were splashed all over the newspapers for the world’s titillation. In contrast, the accuser’s identity was guarded with greater tenacity than Clark Kent protects Superman’s.

But it was TV reporters who were best equipped to foment a little old-fashioned rape hysteria. Typically, a television reporter’s idea of covering a rape case amounts to passing on what the police told her without challenge and without doing her own investigation. Then the reporter grabs a few passersby to say how frightened they are that a vile rapist is on the loose.

In this case, television reporters described the supposed crime with a gravitas usually reserved for the death of a president. The Associated Press’ television report started off with these chilling words: “She was tied up in a men’s bathroom stall where five men, one by one, would rape her.”  The report proceeded to impliedly credit the accuser’s far-fetched tale as factual – don’t trust me, watch if for yourself — never bothering to point out that the evidence for the alleged rape was nothing more than the evolving narrative of an 18-year-old woman groping for victimhood, and that her story had more holes than the basketball net at the Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on campus. Nor did the report make clear that the young men she accused provided police with consistent and adamant accounts that flatly contradicted the accuser’s tale.

If the report had provided a balanced account of the evidence, viewers likely would have concluded the same thing the district attorney concluded later the very day the story aired: the accuser’s account was a lie. In the aftermath of the Hofstra debacle, Carol D’Auria of 1010 WINS said this: “We [reporters] need to move slower.” She added: “But I don’t see that happening.”

No Reciprocal Coverage When the Lie is Revealed

The Associated Press’s television news report about the Hofstra false accuser’s recantation was much shorter and lacked the over-the-top Chicken Little drama of its initial report suggesting that a rape had occurred. It was delivered in the hurried, matter-of-fact style of news reports that the news team knows won’t be of much interest to viewers. Presumably, rapists are scary; false rape accusers are only scary to the people, and their families, who’ve been falsely accused.

Likewise, when Dallas Cowboys stars Erik Williams, an All-Pro offensive lineman, and NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, were falsely accused of rape, the same thing happened. ”The media was too quick with covering this in a huge way — the play the news got, the sensational page-1, top-of-the-newscast story,” said Anantha Babbili, then-chairman of the journalism department at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. ”There was a given in the tone and the tenor of the media that Irvin and Williams were guilty until proven innocent.”

And when the charges were dropped, the media reaction mirrored Hofstra. Mr. Williams explained: “Did you notice that no bulletin flashed across all these sport channels declaring that Michael Irvin and I were innocent? Where was the coverage? I bet you no one stopped ‘Baywatch’ or pulled the prime time movie to tell those same people the truth. Michael (Irvin) was right — nobody was interested in the truth.”

News Media Transforms Accusers into “Victims”

Hofstra was a microcosm of how presumptively innocent men are smeared by the “fair and objective” American news media, often viciously. Many news reports of rape claims that turn out to be false start off with words similar to these: “Police say a college student was raped in her dorm room last night. 19-year-old [male’s name] was arrested in connection with the crime. [Male’s name] held the victim down and threatened her with a knife, police say.”

Reporters have no compunction about labeling rape accusers as “victims,” blinking at the fact that if she’s a “victim,” the man she accused, by necessity, must be a rapist. I believe that words matter, especially when it comes to serious things like rape charges. I complained to the New York Times last year about an on-line story that dubbed a rape accuser as the “victim,” and the story was immediately changed to add the crucial “alleged” before the word “victim.”

But another time when I complained about the use of the term “victim” in a story reporting on how a rape charge had been dropped, the reporter went all high and mighty on me: “Journalistically, I can’t quite go far enough as you. The prosecutor made it clear that she’s not prosecuting the girl for false claims, and her case against [the man accused] could’ve been dropped for lack of evidence, not just because he was falsely accused. Of course, prosecutors’ word isn’t golden, but given that no one has proven the girl made a false claim here, I can’t take away her “victim” status. There are tons of questions, though. Thanks for reading.”

I read the response several times to insure it wasn’t a joke. Here’s how I responded: “I appreciate your response, but precisely who elevated this girl to the status of a ‘victim’? She is, in fact, a self-proclaimed “victim,” and I am unaware of any journalistic standard that justifies the use of this nomenclature for someone whom the objectively verifiable facts tell us likely is NOT a victim. The falsely accused man seems every bit as much — and more so — a ‘victim,’ does he not?

“At worst, we have one person’s word against another’s, with ample circumstantial evidence for rejecting out-of-hand the young lady’s account. It is wholly inappropriate to attach sanctity to her tale for no reason other than the fact that she made the claim. That is offensive to a man who is supposed to be presumed innocent, and who the facts tell us in all likelihood is innocent.

“We owe it to all men falsely accused of similar crimes to stop presuming their accusers are ‘victims’ when, because of the nature of the crime, it may never be possible to disprove the accuser’s account beyond any conceivable doubt.”

Nevertheless, the reporter refused to change the word “victim.”

False Rape Claims Stick Like Skunk Odor

Even though the young men at Hofstra were declared to have been falsely accused, it is impossible to say the story had a happy ending.  The typical reader and viewer of the news coverage did not realize that accounts of the purported “rape,” gussied up as fair and objective journalism, were nothing more than the accuser’s naked allegations. The men themselves immediately realized they were damaged goods because of the news coverage. “Anytime anyone Googles my name, rape is going to be right there beside it. My name is forever tarnished,” said one of the 19-year-old men. “What if I am applying for a job or whatever in the future? I feel like I am always going to have to offer some explanation.”

Readers will recall that in the aftermath of Duke lacrosse, even after the state’s attorney general went so far as to declare the young accused men outright “innocent” of the charges, there were still people who insisted “no one knows what really happened that night,” even though we do know what happened that night – a woman lied about being rape.

What effect does this coverage have on innocent men? One need not look to the hanging trees in the Old South to know that the public scorn from false rape claims has caused more damage to innocent people than the scorn connected with any other type of false claim. False rape claims have caused innocent men and boys to be killed and to kill themselves; to be beaten, chased, spat upon, and looked upon with suspicion long after they are cleared of wrongdoing. They lose not only their good names but often their jobs, their businesses, and their friends. It is often impossible for the falsely accused to ever obtain gainful employment once the lie hits the news: for the remainder of his life, a falsely accused man will have prospective employers Googling his name and discovering the horrid accusation.

A More Dangerous Problem: Jurors Improperly Rely on the Skewed News Accounts

Last year, the New York Times reported that in a major Florida criminal trial, not one, but nine – nine — jurors had been doing their own internet research about the case during the trial, resulting in what the Times called a “Google mistrial.”  It turned out this was just the tip of the iceberg.

During a child sexual assault trial in England, a juror was torn about how to vote, so what do you suppose she did? “[S]he posted details of the case online for her Facebook ‘friends’ and announced that she would be holding a poll. After the court was tipped off, the woman was dismissed from the jury.” J. Browning, When All That Twitters Is Not Told: Dangers of the Online Juror, 73 Tex. B. J. 216 (March 2010). Because nothing says “justice” better than a Facebook poll.

During another Florida criminal trial, a juror looked up the defendant’s “rap sheet” on the Internet, and shared the information with his fellow jurors, resulting in a mistrial. R. Artigliere, J. Barton, and B. Hahn, Reigning in Juror Misconduct: Practical Suggestions for Judges and Lawyers, 84 Fla. Bar J. 8 (2010).

These disturbing instances of juror indiscretion are not isolated examples. They point up a grim problem that judges and lawyers are only beginning to understand occurs more than anyone cares to admit: “Jurors accessing the Internet before and during trials to learn or talk about the parties, witnesses, and legal issues they are confronting–conduct that violates the universal legal principles that jurors should judge the case on the evidence and law presented in the courtroom and not discuss the case or consult with outsiders until the jury is discharged.” H. Dixon, Guarding Against The Dreaded Cyberspace Mistrial and Other Internet Trial Torpedoes, 49 Judges’ Journal 37 (Winter 2010).

For every case where juror impropriety is discovered and a mistrial declared, it can reasonably be assumed that many go undiscovered.

What does this mean for rape cases? Given the way the American news media reports rape accusations, the implications for presumptively innocent men are chilling. Rape trials frequently devolve to “he said/she said” disputes over whether the accuser manifested consent to engage in the act.  Jurors looking for any help they can get to sort out thorny fact disputes might Google the defendant’s name to learn the “real” story behind the case. What they will find, more often than not, are skewed, and sometimes grossly unfair, reports of the case masquerading as objective news reports, as described above.

It’s bad enough that the news media typically rushes to judgment to suggest the guilt of the presumptively innocent, destroying their reputations and sometimes causing them to be physically beaten and worse. Now, when presumptively innocent men are on trial for rape, they can be deprived of their liberty simply because a jury relied on some reporter’s wickedly skewed recitation of the facts.

What To Do?

The outcry over this latest trampling of men’s due process rights has been muted, at best, and there have been no serious calls for routine sequestrations of juries in rape cases. Nor has there been an outcry over the reputational damage to the falsely accused generally caused by routinely reckless journalism.  In short, there is virtually no recognition of the unconscionable and severe harm to our falsely accused sons who’ve been publicly identified as potential rapists. 

In contrast, we are quick to protect our daughters’ good names when they accuse men of rape by cloaking them in anonymity.  It is reasonable to argue that anonymity for accusers and accuseds is dangerous in a free society.  It is also reasonable to ask, why is the victimization of our daughters deemed more worthy of our protection than the victimization of our sons? 

What can we do to help? For starters, all of us need to call out journalists who report rape accusations as fact, who credit the accuser’s story as truth just because she said it, and who blithely destroy the lives of our sons without airing their sides of the story.  In short, all of us need to complain about the mad, morally grotesque rush to judgment.

Today, it may not be your son who’s been falsely accused.  But someday it might.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know that other fair-minded fathers care about his fate, too?

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