American media and oppressor narratives

July 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm (Mass media, Politics)

About six weeks ago, a few days after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) allegations surfaced, I received my latest subscription of TIME Magazine (Asia). The cover read “Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs”. Knowing fully well what the content is about, I put it on my shelf fully wrapped and decided that I would only read it after DSK is vindicated (or proven guilty – but I thought that would be extremely unlikely).

Today, as DSK’s accuser is expected to be charged with perjury after admitting to lying under oath, I finally unwrapped the magazine and read the cover article. There is not much that I can say, besides my sincere and unrealistic hope that the author loses her job; frankly there is not much that I was surprised by. Here are a few quotations from the article:

“How can it be, in this ostensibly enlightened age…that anyone with so little judgment, so little honor, could rise to such heights?”

“And so he sat in a cell at Rikers Island, a short flight but a long fall from his $4 million Georgetown home…” (emphasis mine)

“Paris lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat recalls a young woman who told him of a violent encounter with Strauss-Kahn. “She wanted to know whether I thought what I heard would form the basis for a solid legal case,” Pierrat says. “I told her I did.” In the end she decided to drop the complaint, fearing the media circus, the very good chance she’d be accused of being a liar or worse.(emphasis mine)

“the political challenge facing DSK was less his lechery than his lifestyle; it’s hard to be a Socialist icon living the life of a plutocrat. Photographs of him climbing into a friend’s $142,000 Porsche caused a furor…”

“conspiracy theorists were quick to suspect a setup…they argued…Admirers were more likely to throw themselves at him…”

On the next page, a massive chart showing how “stupid” or “hypocritical” certain acts of famous men were. No attempt was made to distinguish between ongoing allegations and cases where guilt is proven. Right next to DSK were Roman Polanski, Mike Tyson and R. Kelly, all of whom were accused of raping children or teenagers (one was convicted, one was arrested and fled, and one chose to settle).  

“The defense escalated into all-out cultural battle: On the one hand, it was the French who came up with the notion of droit du seigneur, the special sexual liberties that the ruling class can enjoy. Social critics in the U.S. condemned the code of silence that prevented women from speaking up, the mentality that replaces Bourbon Kings with bureaucratic functionaries whose academic pedigree…confer an automatic halo upon them.”

“the most fragile and vulnerable among us will seem to have been [DSK’s] preferred targets, in this case a maid who, had this happened in Paris rather than New York, would likely have thought long and hard before daring to report even a violent attack by a man in a $3,000 suite…”

Immediately following this article is another essay titled “The Turning Point: Finally, French women start a conversation about inappropriate sexual conduct.” Thankfully, this is published as an opinion (“Viewpoint”). Here are a few quotes from this essay:

“France is having its Anita Hill moment…”

“France, where powerful men have traditionally treated sex as a right and used it as a weapon, is now embroiled in its own battle of the sexes, involving a powerful man who could have been President and a single mother who works as a hotel maid…” (emphasis mine)

“Dominique Strauss-Kahn has denied the charges against him, of course. But…French women have begun to speak out about an atmosphere that condones sexual conduct that crosses the line and may even be criminal.”

“The French tend to blur the line between what is acceptable – and even desirable – in the workplace and what is not.”

“France is still a male-dominated society…”

“Increasingly, there is more compassion for the hotel maid as the real victim of the affair…” (emphasis mine)

“activists are calling for the taboo on the discussion of rape to be lifted…”

My comments:

First, TIME Magazine is a fabulous news magazine. I do not intend this to be an attack of TIME’s credibility; to the contrary, I grew up reading TIME (literally), and I can attribute a great deal of my writing skill and knowledge of current events to TIME. This is exactly why I chose to use TIME as an example of what I found so problematic and so pathetic about the American mass media. If TIME can publish such nonsense, there is no doubt that most of American journalism is much worse.

Now, back to exactly why the two essays sucked:

First of all, they turned out to be completely wrong. Both of the authors recognized that DSK denied all the charges, but both were clearly and vocally assuming that he is guilty. One cannot read the articles and not come away with the impression that DSK is a monster, full of guilt and that conviction and imprisonment are only seconds away. This is exactly the stance that the mass media took following the Tawana Brawley case, the Duke lacrose case, the Hofstra case, the WABC-TV incident, and the two accusations on Ben Roethlisberger. Eventually, in four out of the six cases, the accuser admitted to lying; in the other two cases, one of the accused was vindicated by a grand jury, and the other was not charged. Given the numerous cases of false rape allegations in recent years and the damage they have done to the victims, it is unforgivable that the media would make the same errors this time.

Second, neither article was actually about the DSK case; both authors used it as a lead-up to their personal opinions on social issues. The first article quickly went from a discussion of the case to a diatribe against men, the French, rich people, and intellectuals. The author did so even after admitting that none of the allegations have been proven and that all the evidence presented were potentially untrue. To her, what mattered more was that the accuser was poor (“fragile and vulnerable”) and the accused was rich (hence the numerous quotes about the accuser’s wealth).

As for the second article, the author did not even bother to present the case. Apparently the most important part of the unproven allegations was that the accused was French. Previously, the author was quick to label the French antiwar movement, which contained a fair amount of Arabs and Jews, as racist and “anti-Semitic” (see this article); yet now she seems perfectly comfortable with associating the alleged criminal act of one white Frenchman to the entire 60 million nation.

None of this would pass as acceptable journalism in an introductory college class, but somehow they manage to be published by one of the top news magazines in the world, and the authors both have doctorate degrees in a humanities field. The author of the first article (Nancy Gibbs) was even a professor of writing at Princeton.

What’s worse, even as the case is unraveling, the American mass media is holding on to its story, insisting that the reactions to the allegations (largely created or manufactured by the American media) is more important than the veracity of the allegations itself! Yesterday, Seattle Times published an article titled “French reaction to Strauss-Kahn case marks cultural shift“. It began thus:

Even if the sexual-assault case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is faltering, its repercussions in France are not. Many Parisians said Saturday that the allegations would remain in their heads no matter the legal outcome, and a country long tolerant of politicians with wandering eyes — and other body parts — is becoming less so. (emphasis mine)

The whole incident reveals some fundamental problems with the American mass media: its reliance on tabloid-style scandals and the quickness to assume guilt; its love of narratives and superficial tales rather than accuracy of facts; its exploitation of populist perceptions even as it is controlled by corporate powers itself. But all of these are well-known and perhaps not unique to the United States. What’s most daunting and shocking is how far feminism has fallen from its noble cause of gaining equal rights and justice for women to a lowly, vulgar attack on wealth, education and accomplishment.

You can barely find a feminist today that does not also claim to be a fan of Marx and Foucault; that, to me, is the greatest tragedy. The reactions to the DSK case, as with the reaction to the Duke lacrosse case and to Lawrence Summers’ comments, reveal the fundamental truth concerning much of the feminist movement today: it is not truth or justice or rights that they are concerned about; it is a desire and an obsession to create struggles, to be seen as virtuous and progressive social critics, to be seen as on the side of the oppressed even as they live comfortable upper-middle class lifestyles.

I’ll end with a link to one of the best reflections about the case so far, written on Huffington Post none the less: “You Can Be Rich, Powerful, Arrogant, Horny and Right”.

Addendum: The problem is not just that the media is obsessed with an oppressed-oppressor narrative; the larger problem is that in many cases, these narratives do not apply at all. For a current example, consider the Western reports on Yingluck Shinawatra’s victory in yesterday’s Thai elections. Every report noted that she is the first female PM; many claimed that this is a victory of women’s rights, even though she won mostly because she happened to be the sister of a former PM. None mentioned that she and her opponent are both Chinese. In fact, all the Prime Ministers of Thailand in the last 35 years (excluding temporary military rulers) were Chinese.

If there is real oppression here, it would be the fact that 10% of the country’s populace controls its entire political and economical machinery. But obviously this is harder to explain to the typical American reader; it is much easier to frame the entire situation as the oppressed women struggling against the privileged men.

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