New York Times Gang Rape Story ‘Lacked Balance,’ Says Public Editor; Race Issues Flare


The case of an 11-year-old girl gang raped by as many as 18 men and boys in Cleveland, Texas has been a source of horror, anger and confusion since it made national news on Tuesday, with some critics of the media coverage believing that everyone from the Houston Chronicle to the New York Times engaged in victim-blaming. Quoting members of the community, who put fault with the girl’s parents or style of dress, the reporting was called “appalling” and one petition requested that the Times provide “a published apology for their coverage of this incident and publish an editorial from a victim’s rights expert on how victim blaming in the media contributes to the prevalence of sexual assault.” See the Times‘ reaction inside Press Clips, our daily media round-up.

Rape Controversy Continues: As we noted yesterday, the Times published a Letter to the Editor on Thursday, which called the article “disturbing,” on multiple levels. We wondered if Times public editor Arthur Brisbane would address the controversy from his place of power and today he did in a blog entry titled, “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance.”

Brisbane noted the popularity of the story, which topped the Times‘ most-emailed list, at least in part “because of the intense outrage it inspired among readers who thought the piece pilloried the victim.” Right away, Brisbane concedes: “My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.”

Brisbane explains that even if everyone in town sides with the suspects, “it becomes important to report on [the other side] as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.”

While it’s disappointing that Brisbane’s thinking on the matter is relegated to the blog instead of the print edition (or so it seems), he does well to side with critics of the initial article. He praises the AP story on the matter, but notes that the Times is also working on a follow-up, which might better illuminate the complex issues at play.

Unfortunately, those issues have grown thornier in the town of Cleveland, which has had already existing racial tensions exacerbated by the issue because all of the men and boys charged are black, while the victim is Hispanic. Quanell X, a community activist in Houston, told the Chronicle that Hispanics “have a right to be angry with black men who ravaged a young girl … but the first house you need to stop at is her Mama and Daddy’s house!” Meanwhile, white men in trucks are shouting, “Kill all the niggers.”

The difficulty then, as voiced in Brisbane’s reaction, is to give voice to the community members, however twisted or buried in rape culture as their logic may be, while also balancing that with care for the young girl and the other legions of sexual assault and rape victims.

Elsewhere in the media universe…

@Innovations: The Washington Post has launched an official Tumblr with the tagline, “The future of news. Right now.” It looks complicated!

You’re Fired: The lay offs at AOL today, which everyone knew were coming, are being called “disgusting” by at least one employee, who notes that, “They pulled 20-30 people into a conference room and told them they ‘Don’t have roles at AOL anymore.’ [Severance is] 1 week for every year worked.” Meanwhile, hours after CEO Tim Armstrong sent the email alerting his company about the impending trimmings, he spoke at a summit about his editorial mission. “We’re trying to serve magical content experiences and use technology to help do that,” he said.