Editor’s Note: Soraya Chemaly is an author, activist and Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last Friday, E. Jean Carroll, a popular advice columnist, alleged that President Donald Trump (then a businessman) had raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman changing room in 1996. Carroll joins a long list of women to name Trump as a sexual predator. He denies the allegations. On Wednesday, two of Carroll’s friends backed up her account to New York Times reporter Megan Twohey.
Trump’s dismissal of Carroll’s allegation is numbingly rote by now: “it never happened;” he never met her (a lie, given a published photograph which he appears with her and his ex-wife, Ivana Trump, who similarly described his violently coercing her into having sex while they were married). Carroll isn’t “his type,” Trump said, a particularly ugly self-defense.
But who cares what Trump says about these allegations? To date, the media has documented his more than 10,000 misleading statements and lies. On a good day, his words seem little better than empty gibberish.
What matters isn’t what Trump does or says or thinks, but what the rest of us do. A pronounced lack of impact or demand for accountability in the wake of Carroll’s claims seems to indicate that we, as a society, can’t be bothered to seriously respond to the fact that the President is a potential rapist who shames and blames victims of sexual assault and harassment. In fact, that he shames and blames victims confirms popular rape myths that perpetuate the idea that victims cause their rapes because of the way they look or behave.
Our national shrug at this new allegation of sexual assault goes beyond “compassion fatigue” or “Trump exhaustion.” It is a symptom of profound societal misogyny. Trump flaunts his alleged abuses in a specific cultural context that includes persistent institutional tolerance for rape as a private matter of individual wrongdoing.
For example, in revelations of sexual misconduct on college campuses, in the military, in Hollywood and elsewhere, there are individuals who perpetrate sexual crimes. It is, however, the widespread historical tolerance of the institutions that they are part of that enable those crimes to take place.
In the past decade, these changes in how media covers sexual assault suggest a better understanding of rape as a social issue and abuse of power. In many important cases, narratives have successfully shifted from the narrow frame of “he said/she said” to consider context, namely, that some institutions have for decades been welcome spaces for predators. The problem now is in realizing how these abuses of power relate to women’s status in society more broadly. This seems to still be a significant challenge in media.
Consider, for example, the treatment of Carroll’s assertions. The media’s initial treatment of her claims demonstrates that, even if her allegations are true, certain media decision makers haven’t considered them important enough to spend time or money on, or have actively suppressed them.
The day following the publication of the excerpt, most of the nation’s major newspapers did not put the story on the front page. The New York Post ran two pieces covering the story but removed them within hours after adviser and former editor Col Allan demanded they be taken down. This left readers with 404 errors on both stories. Allan is a Trump supporter and Rupert Murdoch acolyte. (When CNN reached out, the Post declined to comment.)
The Chicago Tribune did run a heart-tugging story about a male American Eagle facing the difficult prospect of solo parenting, however. And the New York Times only mentioned the story as part of its book coverage. Executive editor of the Times Dean Baquet has acknowledged, “we were overly cautious” in the initial coverage of Carroll’s detailed accusations. He should have said, “we were overly careless.”
Outlets that covered the story often led with Trump’s denials in headlines, a practice long criticized for its assumption of his (thoroughly debunked) honesty. Sunday’s top-rated TV news programs barely mentioned Carroll’s rape story; anchors largely failed to ask pundits and politicians to comment on its relevance.
The political world is similarly not fazed. The Republican Party hasn’t addressed Carroll’s vividly recollected allegations against the leader of their party in any significant way. When asked, several Republican legislators have opted for a variant of “no comment.” One of the odder responses, considering that the issue is a harrowing rape description, is Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s: “I haven’t read it. I look forward to reading it.” On the left, the primary attitude was summed up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “We know Donald Trump’s character. And it’s revealed every single day. There aren’t any real surprises.”
Some people believe Carroll’s testimony empowers her, but what does that even mean? Empowerment is not power. Power is power. Empowerment may be saying out loud, “this man raped me and I’m OK,” but power is the ability to have those words be socially and politically consequential. In other words, Carroll might be “empowered” by telling her story, but we, as a society, chose to give Trump, and others like him, power.
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Carroll’s is by far the most violent of allegations made against Trump to date, yet we live in a world where media outlets just add it to the running tally of women who have accused the President of sexual assault. We are often careless with individual victims and their rapes, but everyone pays for this discrimination – since it undermines our democratic values and ideals and ensures that men like Trump continue to act, both on individuals and society, with malice.