Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sex News is its Own Fettish

These must be good days to be in the news business.

Forget the carping by print newspapers and our legacy television networks that their old days of raking in the advertising revenue are over.

Sex sells, sex scandals sell even better, and we've got plenty of both to keep our national media's accountants happy for quite a while.

A few days, anyway.

First, there was the unraveling of the Herman Cain presidential campaign by the steady trickle of sexual harassment gossip. Now, we've got the horrific predatory crimes at Penn State that could precipitate an implosion of its storied sports department.

The press thought they'd hit the gold mine when then-president Bill Clinton claimed he had not had sex "with that woman." Of course, then we learned it all depended on what your definition of "is" is.

That was at the dawn of the Internet.  These days, our media works overtime in print, on television, through the Internet, and smart phone messaging to provide Americans with breathlessly wall-to-wall coverage of these stories.  Unfortunately, this has all revealed more bad things about our society than good.  Not just that bad stuff happens - or, more accurately, that people get caught doing bad stuff.  But that plenty of people like learning about the bad stuff other people do.  We Americans have developed a salacious thirst for details - but even when we get the details, we often end up treating alleged victims as sideshows.

Details, it seems, interfere with our ability to process facts.

Even the press isn't immune.  Take, for example, the audacity of reporters at last night's press conference in Pennsylvania when it was announced that legendary coach Joe Paterno had been fired effective immediately.  Some members of the media immediately bellowed their protest, which reeked of unprofessionalism at best and outright contempt for morality at worst.   Even if the media has a right to express their opinions at a press conference, why didn't they yell with outrage when the district attorney announced its grand jury report on Sandusky?

And the mini-riot in State College last night after news broke that Paterno had been fired?  Students overturning a media vehicle and taunting police officers trying to keep the peace?  Where was this fury at the news Paterno contributed to a cover-up regarding allegations against a favored assistant coach for years?

And speaking of assistant coaches, why isn't the Penn State crowd outside Mike McCreary's home right now, demanding to know why, when he claims to have seen a crime being committed against a child in the athletic department's showers, he didn't man-up and go rescue the child?  According to what he told the grand jury, he had to go home and consult with his father about whether - and how - he should respond.

Seriously?  We can live with the fact that an assistant coach on a college football team doesn't have the moral compass to instinctively know how to react when he sees a crime being perpetrated against a child?

Is it because these were supposedly disenfranchised kids to begin with?  That their stories cannot be trusted because they need the attention they know they'll get by making these types of accusations?  Sure, the number of school teachers accused of sexually abusing students is much longer than the list of those actually proven guilty.  But at Penn State, we have a witness; we have one coach saying he saw another coach commit a felony, and a third coach doing the bare minimum in terms of reporting the incident to keep things as low-key as possible

Then there's Herman Cain, who's standing behind his lawyer and neo-con talk show hosts as the firing line over sexual harassment allegations only gets more fierce.  To his credit, Cain may truly be innocent of some or all of these charges, but his initial sloppiness with the facts when they began to trickle out - at first flatly denying that any allegations had ever been made, then eventually denying the allegations made against him had any basis in fact - severely weakened his credibility now when he says women like Sharon Bialek are lying.

Perhaps Bialek herself doesn't appear to have a lot of personal integrity, considering her past relationships and finances.  But doesn't Cain realize that blasting her reputation with a scathing press release describing her desperate need for money also lends credibility to her claims?  Think about it:  if Cain knew she was in such financial straits, couldn't it have been easier for him to assume that she might be more open to accepting his sexual advances towards her, in the hopes that he could get her a good job?

Making fun of women claiming sexual harassment isn't a very noble way of defending one's self, either, so for Rush Limbaugh to be making fun of Bialek's name, and using the pejorative term "babes" to describe the women accusing Cain, smacks more of desperate defensiveness than personal integrity.  Yet it's this type of language that our nation laps up, brings good ratings for big mouths like Limbaugh, and helps dilute the credibility of the accusers - whether accurately or not - in the court of public opinion, so that the next time a prominent figure harasses women, the ante has been upped for victims who need to report their attacker.

Let's face it - claiming to be the victim of a sexual predator isn't glamorous.  It's embarrassing, and enough fraudulent claims have been made by now that the he-said she-said nature of sexual harassment tends to make us not trust either party.  Whether they're public figures we think we know well, or private citizens we've never heard of before.

And then everyone turns to the media, and blames the reporters covering these types of stories for blowing them out of proportion.  More than one rowdy demonstrator in State College last night blamed the press for forcing JoePa's termination.  Cain's camp has been blaming the media for days now, unwilling to admit that it is Cain's own fault that this story has dragged on for as long as it has.

But is the press really at fault?  Yes, there have been situations that the media couldn't resist smothering to death.  And then there are other times when we, consumers of the news, demand that the media satiate our appetite for sexcapades, and we rationalize away the titillation under a guise of the public's "right to know."

How safe is that assumption, however, that we're merely educating ourselves on cultural anomalies when it comes to sex in the news?  Might there be a danger of our society becoming that much more jaded and disillusioned by real tragedy the more we expect these stories to be heavily reported?  We've obviously not become a more enlightened society.  At least, if the bawdy dismissal of genuine victims in Penn State's travesty by students angry at the university's leadership is any indication.

Or the fact - still incredible to me - that the guy who witnessed one of the events in question actually left the scene of the crime without intervening and had to ask his father what to do.

Whose backside is more important here?

Yes, it's a vulgar question, but that's the issue here, isn't it?  We need to reclaim a moral high ground for the benefit of our society, which means we'll need to wean ourselves from destructive behaviors, including college football hero worship, political grandstanding, and maybe even our own latent sexual perversions, all of which have contributed to these miserable spectacles parading before us in the media.

Granted, the case in Pennsylvania is a lot more cut-and-dried than the Cain debacle, but in reality, they're both similar in that they contribute to the future denigration of sex crime victims and our society's ability and willingness to address these crimes and allegations in responsible ways.

Or maybe the press really is just making all this seem worse than it is.

Some women from Cain's past have been trying to tell us that, no, the press isn't making their story worse than it is.  Who knows if we'll ever determine whether they're right.

I'm afraid, however, that the kids in Pennsylvania we'll be learning about in the upcoming days won't need to tell us the press is making their stories worse than they are.

Obviously, these are not scenarios with quick fixes.  At least in Paterno's case, and McCreary's, had they sought justice for the young victim they knew of immediately, their reputations would still be intact.  In terms of preventing child abuse in whatever form it takes, however, our society has a long way to go.

How far we progress on that journey depends in large measure on our ability to decipher right from wrong, and how well we cultivate a moral instinct that can tell us when rioting against JoePa's firing and calling alleged sex crime victims derogatory names are wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In fact, as wrong in God's eyes as the crimes we blame the press for sensationalizing.

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