CNN is not promoting ‘rape apology’ and ‘rape culture.’

No, CREDO action. They are not.

Two teenage high school students from Steubenville, Ohio were found guilty of rape and will be labeled as sex offenders for life. Almost everyone who pays the slightest attention to social media and American national news is aware of the media coverage prior to the trial, the allegations (which led to convictions), and now reporting from CNN anchor Candy Crowley who is being lampooned – particularly by feminist websites, feminists, so-called ‘social justice bloggers’ and left-leaning internet petitioning circles. A trove of links showing evidence of these accusations is not necessary, but some are included in this piece.

Depending on who you happen to read, CNN is promoting ‘rape culture,’ engaging in ‘rape apologetics,’ ‘blaming the victim,’ ‘grieving for the perpetrators,’ ‘sympathizing with rapists,’ or doing all of these things at the same time. Are these claims tenable? A skeptical, charitable approach should not lead people to believe that CNN is promoting ‘rape culture’ or ‘rape apologetics.’ I will argue that ideology is driving people to find messages where they don’t exist, offer more plausible explanations in defense of the reporting, and briefly argue against the concept of ‘rape culture.’

Comments from Candy Crowley currently under the microscope are taken from a short clip from CNN’s 24-hour news cycle. Crowley, in reference to the convicted teenagers, talks of “young men that had such promising futures, star football students, very good students.” Crowley also said, about the trial, that it must have been emotional – she “could not imagine” it. More of the six-minute clip in question from the reporting discusses the trial and ‘focuses’ on the accused teenagers. According to Raw Story, this reporting is indicative of “CNN griev[ing].” According to CREDO action, the reporting was “outrageous,” “disgusting,” and included “rape apology” and should lead to suspension (!) of CNN staff.

It is not clear to me what is so “outrageous” or “disgusting” about the coverage. Crowley, like reporters do, reports and states facts about the trial. Obviously such a trial is emotional and can be quite unimaginable. Can anyone seriously doubt the emotional nature of the trial which ‘gripped an entire town’ and was blighted by allegations of ‘rape culture’ and rape – a matter which can (and does) quite easily stir emotions.

Is there reason to believe Crowley was grieving? I think not. Crowley states facts – that the teenagers had promising futures, were good students, and were star football players and recognizes — as almost any human being would — that such a verdict will have tremendous implications on their lives. Crowley has empathy, at the very least, and is talking about the emotional nature of the trial. Should she be blameworthy for this – even if she does feel sorry for the teenagers and expresses some sympathy? After all, if we are really living in a ‘rape culture’ shouldn’t we feel sorry for the teenagers who, according to some feminist writers, need to be taught that rape is not okay?

Some commenters argue that Crowley is at fault for not focusing on the victim. A lack of such focus, some argue, is indicative of ‘rape culture’ and ‘rape apologetics.’ To better understand, it should be first important to define terms. Rape culture, according to a Wikipedia article, is “a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, or even tolerate rape.”

I don’t find the concept of ‘rape culture’ to be coherent or even helpful to describe anything. What, exactly, are people talking about when they use this term; what is this ‘culture’ and who are these people within this culture who are allegedly normalizing, excusing, and tolerating rape and sexual assault which is common? What evidence can be marshaled to show that this concept is tenable or not? Do attitudes of some people, arguably in a minority, constitute a ‘rape culture’ in the United States – a nation in which criminals are prosecuted and rape is believed to be one of the most heinous crimes imaginable (even worse than murder for some)? Can pointing to laws and attitudes of people contrary to ‘rape culture’ falsify ‘rape culture?’

A theory which is immune to falsification, as philosophers of science such as Karl Popper will tell us (this is well-explained by Naomi Chambers in reference to ‘patriarchy theory’), is not a good theory because it can never be shown to be false. ‘Goal-posts’ can always be shifted and the theory can always be ‘saved’ by ad-hoc (after the fact) explanations. Additionally, ‘rape culture’ seems to be a theory which aims to explain everything, but explains nothing; it can be applied to any given situation and does not allow us to garner useful information outside of what is proposed by the theory itself. Further, it is extremely difficult — if not impossible — in many cases to gauge the attitudes of the persons who allegedly promote ‘rape culture.’ As we see with CREDO action and Raw Story, malicious motives are assigned as if they know what other people are thinking.

We see that the teenagers are also convicted of rape – which seems to provide evidence against this alleged ‘rape culture.’ Regardless of laws in place against sexual assault and societal views which do not tolerate rape, the theory of ‘rape culture’ seems to be preserved in the minds of some while compelling contrary evidence exists. Besides, when considering attitudes of persons who may be ‘supportive’ of the convicted teenagers, ‘football culture’ seems to be the more plausible explanation – people deify football players in high school communities and may often turn a blind eye in an act of irrational tribalism. In the case of college football, we certainly saw this with Penn State…

In response to allegations that CNN is not focusing on the victims (and thus is promoting ‘rape culture’) it does not seem to be the case that there is a lack of focus on the victim when considering the whole picture. It may be quite easy for people to select a short news clip out of a 24-hour news cycle and claim that the network or the reporters within the network are not focusing on the victim; they ignore the ‘misses’ and pay attention to the ‘hits,’ it seems, to conform with their pre-established notions.

It would be quite unreasonable to expect a news network to pay attention to just one part of a story and completely neglecting to comment or focus on other aspects of the story. There are good reasons to cover the entire story or many parts of the story: the audience likely wants to know about the fate of the accused and the on-the-scene reporting including the environment of the courtroom, what people are saying, and what the accused teenagers had to say. Focus on the victim, anyway, can be found right from CNN’s website. Even if there is a large lack of focus on the victim, what is the problem with this? CNN, like other news reporting agencies, will focus on aspects of the stories they want to focus on and even select the stories they want to cover. At any time, it seems, one can unfairly lob accusations of ‘rape culture’ at CNN simply because they failed to discuss a victim of rape [whether they cover other aspects of the story or not].

What seems to be going on here is that people are clinging to a certain ideology — that the United States is a ‘rape culture’ with reporters who offer ‘rape apologetics’ — and ignoring contrary evidence while not looking into the matter – perhaps just taking Raw Story’s or CREDO action’s ‘word for it.’ Rather than considering possible alternative hypotheses which are more plausible, in the case of Candy Crowley’s reporting, people jump tot he worst possible conclusions. It is my whole “Blame and Intent” post all over again… Let’s be skeptical and not jump to conclusions because of our ideologies which we ought to reexamine and ‘keep in check.’ Let’s not find a misogynist in our toast. Let’s please embrace skepticism, call our beliefs into question, and not ‘run on automatic’ with feminist dogma.

I have, then, some simple questions for people who believe CNN’s reporting was inappropriate or even “disgusting” and “outrageous” as CREDO action claims:

1) Should CNN completely fail to comment on or investigate any part of the story which is not directly focusing on the victim?
2) Is there any evidence which can show ‘rape culture’ to be false?
3) Is it morally blameworthy for someone to feel empathy and/or express sympathy for people found guilty of a crime?

As always, feel free to leave answers to these questions (for those who agree with CREDO action and Raw Story) and/or your comments pertaining to this matter below.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.