Two weeks ago the New York Times absolutely bungled coverage of a highly disturbing rape case in the small town of Cleveland, Texas. The story of the repeated gang rape of an 11-year-old was told through community members intent on blaming the victim, wondering about her style of dress (“older than her age, wearing makeup”) and asking, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” After a public outcry about the handling of the story, and at least one well-circulated petition, the Times‘ public editor chimed in, calling the article “disturbing” and saying it “lacked balance.” He noted that the newspaper was working on a follow-up story and today it arrives, sad as ever.
Nineteen boys and men have been charged so far in the case. The victim is described as “an outgoing honor roll student, brimming with enthusiasm, who went on hikes and planted trees with a youth group here.”
She became less “bubbly” in the fall of 2010, as sixth grade began and she entered puberty. Around that time, according to police, she was raped at least six times, from September 15 to December 3. The story of the poor town of Cleveland is tragic on many levels, with parents out of work and children already collecting criminal records. Accounts cobbled together from police records of the actual abuse are chilling.
But the paper is careful in its wording, attempting to accurately portray the situation in the troubled town without blaming the victim or over-sympathizing with the accused. Whereas the first article quoted a town resident saying, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives,” the updated article quotes an aunt of an accused teen with a more measured reaction: “Our younger generation is running rampant,” she said. “The devil is in full control.”
But still left unaddressed are the racial issues in town, as noted by local papers. The victim is Hispanic, while all of the men and boys charged are black. One black community activist told the Houston 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!” As the news spread earlier this month, white men were reportedly seen in trucks screaming, “Kill all the niggers.”
The Times‘ decision to skip that angle, which seems like it would be hard to ignore, might speak mostly to the need to ignore more controversy.