The Sexist

Rape Coverage and The New York Times‘ Daddy Issues

I really appreciated this recent New York Times piece detailing the ways in which New York City police fail to adequately respond to rape reports. I also appreciated its companion story, which highlighted the experiences of four women who reported their rapes to the police, only to have their cases dismissed, their assaults downplayed, and their stories disbelieved by the cops. I was less impressed by the way John Eligon chose to describe the fourth victim in the story:

Eligon begins by recounting the woman's assault, and its aftermath:

Elizabeth Pressman recalled sitting in her bedroom last year drinking tea and chatting with an acquaintance of 20 years when he snapped. The man began choking her, trying to force her to perform oral sex and shoving his fist in her mouth, she said.

Somewhat in shock the following evening, Ms. Pressman, 51, said she let the man back into her apartment to pick up belongings he had left there. He attacked her a second time, she said. The next day, she went to a hospital and reported the attacks to the police.

Ms. Pressman, a news researcher who formerly worked for The Times, said the officers who interviewed her at the hospital had told her that because she had invited the man in, it would be a “he said, she said” situation and that she did not have a case.

The matter was referred to a detective, who interrogated her, Ms. Pressman said. After she described what had happened, Ms. Pressman said, the detective told her, “Sounds like rough sex gone awry.”

Manhattan prosecutors eventually determined that there was not enough evidence to proceed, Ms. Pressman said. (The prosecutor’s office declined to comment on her remarks.)

In Eligon's story, we don't learn much about Elizabeth Pressman. We learn her age and gender and that she drinks tea, details which help us place her as a specific character in our minds. We learn that she was raped twice by a longtime acquaintance and that police dismissed these assaults, facts essential to Elgion's story. And we learn that Pressman is a "news researcher who formerly worked for The Times," a disclosure which covers any potential conflict of interest in Elgion's reporting of the story.

But then, Elgion closes the story with this odd kicker:

“If I were to speak to a woman about reporting a rape, I would say: ‘Don’t put yourself through it. Don’t put yourself through the humiliation and the abuse,’ ” said Ms. Pressman, whose father is the veteran television newsman Gabe Pressman. “It’s horrific what the cops do to you. It’s not worth it. Be ready to be raped a second time.”

Why? Why, at the conclusion of a story about a woman's traumatic assault and the humiliating and abusive police response that followed, is it necessary to note her father's name and occupation? Does the Times think Pressman is a more credible rape victim because her father is an accomplished journalist? Was the newspaper worried that we'd walk away from the story of this woman's rape with the nagging suspicion that she is somehow related to a man we've seen on television? Personally, I can't find any appropriate reason for derailing a woman's thoughts about her own assault in order to talk up her dad.

  • Ward 5

    unbelievable

  • Theresa

    I'm not excusing it, but I think it's just because the father is kind of famous in New York. If there was a famous person in the family, they would mention it. I'm not sure why, but I've seen it before.

  • k not K

    Amanda, this is OT but is there a way to get in touch with you by email?

  • Kit-Kat

    I think they just ended up putting the information in a bad place. I agree with Theresa that they were just including it because her father is a longtime broadcast journalist in New York City, not because they thought it affected her credibility or anything. It's a pretty usual newspaper practice to note if the subject of an article has a famous parent or spouse or child or something. Given that the stories and the article detailing complaints about the NYPD's handling of rape cases are otherwise good, I'm inclined to blame sloppy writing, not nefarious motives.

  • Lizrd

    Well OBVIOUSLY a women is not truly defined unless she is characterized in relationship to the accomplishments of the men in her life. Cause you know, its not like she's her own person or anything.

    The Times and I haven't been getting along as of late.

  • http://bikegroggery.blogspot.com groggette

    k not k,
    There's an "E-mail Amanda Hess" link at the end of each post.

  • Richard

    I'm with other folks that's its sloppy writing.

    I think clearest reason why the nefarious defining women by men's accomplishments seems unlikely is that the part describing her appeared earlier rather than later in the article. ("a news researcher who formerly worked for The Times")

  • PD

    Agreeing that the name-drop seems inappropriate and incidental, but at least it was tagged at the end rather than put right at the beginning, when readers would be more inclined to define the victim in terms of her semi-famous father. Ultimately, though, it was completely irrelevant to the story and should have been omitted.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    "But the paper did not intend to value rape victims based on their fathers' accomplishments" doesn't work for me here. Regardless of the paper's intent, the inclusion and placement of the detail has that effect. The Times needs to be less sloppy when writing about sexual assault.

  • Emily

    I was also disturbed by the closer, but because by having that quote as the last word of the piece, NYT seems to be endorsing the "give up, don't even bother" attitude. I get that a woman who has been through that abuse and trauma would have that sort of dejected outlook, but it seems like NYT is endorsing the dismal status quo instead of calling for change or at least condemning the status quo.

  • Kit-Kat

    I disagree that the inclusion and placement of the detail necessarily has the effect of valuing rape victims according to their fathers' accomplishments. (I also think that the Times should be less sloppy in general, not just about sexual assault, although I suspect that the lack/quality of copy editing staff is the culprit.) When I read it, I didn't see any value judgment going on, intentional or not. I guess you can read it that way, but that involves the otherwise non-judgmental attitude that the Times shows to all four of the victims, as well as the manner in which they handled the other story and the topic in general.

    Maybe someone at the Times thought of it in terms of a kind of conflict of interest disclosure, since her father is a really well-known broadcast journalist, on whom the Times did a profile in April of this year. There was also a female victim who was a journalist who was discussed in the other of the pair of stories, so maybe they just had journalists on the brain. Maybe Ms. Pressman volunteered that information, which also has the effect of showing that even status and connections don't protect a woman from rape or from mistreatment by the police when she reports her rape. I mean, her story was listed last, she was the only person whose father's occupation was listed, and it was a rather throwaway detail.

  • Kit-Kat

    Sorry, that should have read "that ignores the otherwise non-judgmental attitude...."

  • kza

    Did the other three examples mention famous fathers? Unless they did I don't see the problem...except for putting that tidbit in a bizarre spot in the story.

  • Keith B

    Checking in for weekly "The Sexist gets mad about inconsequential shit" post. If the victim's mother/daughter/sister were famous instead, they probably would have named dropped them. Read/watch/listen to the news much? Any time someone sorta-famous' family member is up in the news, the connection gets mentioned. Is the bolding your work or theirs?

    Maybe Gabe Pressman isn't famous enough for your taste to bear mentioning, but I'm sure most New Yorkers don't know who Maureen Bunyan is, for example.

  • squirrely girl

    i read that a bit as "and just in case you were wondering, no she's not a slut, she comes from a good background, and she doesn't have any daddy issues"

  • Lizrd

    @squirrely girl: That's a valid point. I hate when articles about sexual assault survivors feel the need to "validate" the character of their survivors in some way.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    @Kit-Kat

    "Maybe someone at the Times thought of it in terms of a kind of conflict of interest disclosure, since her father is a really well-known broadcast journalist, on whom the Times did a profile in April of this year."

    If this was a conflict of interest (it's not), the Times would have been responsible to not only disclose that her father is a well-known broadcast journalist, but also that the Times had previously covered him. Otherwise, how is the reader to know there's a conflict of interest in terms of coverage?

    There's not a conflict of interest there, of course. It's not a conflict of interest for a newspaper to cover topics that are tangentially related to one another; that's actually to be expected of a paper that exhaustively covers a city. When the Times covers Gabe Pressman in the future, should it have to disclose that "Gabe Pressman's daughter is Elizabeth Pressman, whose rape the Times reported on last year"? Hope not.

    "There was also a female victim who was a journalist who was discussed in the other of the pair of stories, so maybe they just had journalists on the brain."

    ?

    "Maybe Ms. Pressman volunteered that information, which also has the effect of showing that even status and connections don’t protect a woman from rape or from mistreatment by the police when she reports her rape."

    A journalist's job is to decide which details are important and which aren't, regardless of who "volunteered" the information. You wouldn't write a story saying "John Doe, who witnessed the fatal crash, has been really into the new Vampire Weekend lately," no matter how relevant John Doe thinks that information is. If the Times intended to make the point that "even status and connections don’t protect a woman from rape or from mistreatment by the police when she reports her rape"---which I think would have been an interesting point---it would have had to establish not only that this woman has connections, but that they came in to play in this case. It would have had to establish that anyone involved was even remotely aware of them. It's not enough for only the reader to be aware after the fact.

  • Keith B

    When the Times covers Gabe Pressman in the future, should it have to disclose that “Gabe Pressman’s daughter is Elizabeth Pressman, whose rape the Times reported on last year”?

    If she becomes more famous than him, maybe, though that would be beyond tasteless. Do you really not see yourself grasping at straws here, Amanda? One person of four in an article, happens to have a famous parent. And the reporter, as they are wont to do, name-drops said famous parent. But it's her father--source of all things patriarchal! Squawk!

  • Kit-Kat

    Look, I said that I thought the detail was irrelevant and poorly placed. I just happen not to find it offensive, partly because it was tucked into a dependent clause near the end of a substantial article, the story didn't dwell on it, and partly because it's a one-off. The Times happened to mention that one of the people it wrote about has a famous dad. So they name-dropped. It does not mean that the Times thinks that Ms. Pressman is more credible because of her father, or her story is more worth telling, or anything like that. In fact, the article included three other stories of women without famous fathers, or husbands, or sons, or brothers, or boyfriends. You liked the rest of the article, and the accompanying article, and nothing in either of those supports your claim that the Times is sexist and patriarchal and insensitive on this topic. So this one little detail is being asked to support a conclusion that it just doesn't support.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    @Kit-Kat I totally respect your opinion that the detail is insignificant and inoffensive, though I disagree with you on those points. But your list of excuses for why the Times might include the detail don't hold up from a journalistic standpoint, and it's important to point out why. I see now that you find the detail irrelevant, but when you invent baseless journalistic rationales for including the detail, you argue that it's actually quite relevant. And it's not.

  • Keith B

    The Sexist arguing something from a "journalistic standpoint"? I thought you only argued things from a snarky lolcat-speak blogger standpoint. This is sort of implying you have standards now, isn't it?

    But how about your colleague Mr. McKenna, and his post about an NBA player's crappy treatment of his girlfriend? "Mathis, the daughter of political columnist/TV pundit Deborah Mathis, first appeared on our basketball radar in 1998 ..."

    Does Dave have mommy issues?

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2010/05/24/chris-bosh-wont-touch-the-washington-wizards-cheap-seats-daily-explains-why/

  • Saurs

    The companion piece is strangely terse, and I wonder whether its tone, its almost startling lack of (heavy-handed) editorializing, and its bizarre accompanying photographs bother me because I'm not used to reading the New York Times -- meaning that it's always difficult to acclimatize that quickly to stilted, crap writing -- or because Eligon was trying to walk a fine line writing about actual women's experiences and had a much easier time in the longer piece because it involved talking to cops and dudes in charge and requesting police reports and stuff.

    I originally interpreted the bit about Pressman's father as a truly ludicrous attempt by the writer to lend legitimacy to Pressman's claims ("surely a news researcher and the daughter of a journalist wouldn't lie about something!"), but that's probably not an entirely fair interpretation of Eligon's intentions and, anyway, I'm sure he's aware that people who are prone to disbelieving rape victims can always rationalize the assumption that the victim is lying, and probably would have no difficulty assuming journalists and other meeja folk are capable of making shit up, irrespective of their lineage.

    We have to assume Eligon knows that a lot of readers are going to immediately delve into both articles with skeptical eyebrows raised, looking for an excuse to dismiss a bunch of women's claims. I mean, there is no other crime committed in which the more claims there are, the more the victims are accused of lying and conspiring to ruin innocent people's lives or reputations. So, I can understand that Eligon, writing a couple stories about systemic abuse and negligence by police in New York, has got to be careful with his wording. But isn't it always the way, that victims of sexual assault (and, in this case, their proxies) have to gently break the truth to strangers, lest said strangers simply dismiss their experiences out of hand as those of hysterical or scorned women?

    The longer article discusses claims made by a woman, Debbie Nathan, whom Eligon also identifies as a journalist who has contributed to the Times. Eligon handles that information in a much more straight-forward manner. I still kind of think Pressman's story was deliberately placed at the end, as a means of buttressing the other women's testimony. Why Eligon might think Pressman is the more credible witness may have to do with her tea-drinking proclivities (lard knows I love my tea, too, and consider it a truth drug) or with her profession, or because daddy is known for his honesty and integrity and would not have allowed his daughter to talk to the press without having vetted her story himself.

    Anyway, I agree with Hess, as usual. Amateur hour.

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