Following media, political, and cultural issues not only rapidly produces outrage fatigue – see 2000 through 2008, when merely treading water and keeping up with the barrage of scandals, graft, cronyism, corruption, maladministration, and disregard for the Constitution was nearly a full time job – but it also raises our outrage threshold over time. As the average teenage fan of violent videogames, Marilyn Manson, and horror movies can testify, something is shocking the first time it happens, somewhat novel once or twice more, and totally mundane thereafter. Making a career out of being "outrageous" means constantly having to up the ante to find new ways to shock people who have already seen, internalized, and normalized everything thrown at them so far.
It is not the intent of the media to shock us in most instances, and we may safely assume that they are not going out of their way to shock us with their raw incompetence. Nonetheless, over the past 30 years we have become numb to their complete inability to understand the basic tenets of journalism. It no longer shocks us to see basic spelling/grammar errors in major media outlets. Or press releases / product advertisements published unaltered as news items. Or water-carrying for corporate interests. Or victim-blaming crime stories. Or obsequious deference to elected officials. Or willful ignorance of social problems that should be major news stories. The media fails to do its job so regularly that nothing shocks us anymore. You can look at the final product and say "My god, this is ridiculous" but you cannot honestly say that it shocks you. It's just expected.
Somehow, despite the numbing repetition of embarrassing journalistic failure over the years, something comes along and shocks me every few months.
Tuesday's New York Times (and we could say "OMG! Even the NYT?" if not for, you know, Judith Miller and Jayson Blair and all that) ran this story entitled "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town". A brief summary of the underlying story:
(An explicit cellphone video) led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys on charges of participating in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the abandoned trailer home, the authorities said.
Five suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the basketball team. Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member. A few of the others have criminal records, from selling drugs to robbery and, in one case, manslaughter. The suspects range in age from middle schoolers to a 27-year-old.
Wow. The phrase "vicious assault" in the headline is actually an understatement. I should be glad to see a major newspaper covering this kind of story, right?
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act? “It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
(T)he assault started after a 19-year-old boy invited the victim to ride around in his car. He took her to a house on Travis Street where one of the other men charged, also 19, lived. There the girl was ordered to disrobe and was sexually assaulted by several boys in the bedroom and bathroom. She was told she would be beaten if she did not comply, the affidavit said…they then went to the abandoned mobile home, where the assaults continued. Some of those present recorded the sexual acts on their telephones.
OK, I get that part, where the victim was gang raped by a dozen-plus males, but…
Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said. "Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?" said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. "How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"
Yeah, see, this is the part that isn't registering.
Now many of you are probably seeing this as run-of-the-mill Asking For It / Dressed Like a Whore / She Totally Wanted It argument. We have seen this enough times in newspapers and on TV that it should no longer surprise us. At this point I need to remind you, however, that this story is about an 11 year old girl who was gang raped on video by as many as 12 to 18 males.
As I reached the part of the story that describes how the 11 year old girl dressed (whorishly, of course) my mind raced to one of my favorite stand-up bits: Bill Hicks' description of Mark Fuhrman and Stacy Koon testifying at the Rodney King trial. "And the courtroom gasped…'Jesus! What balls!'" I don't suppose it helps to make light of this sad state of journalistic affairs, but the sheer balls required to play the "wanted it / dressed like a whore" angle on an 11 year old girl getting gang raped is, even by American mainstream media standards, pretty shocking. That this kind of crime could happen and the news story, particularly the comments of the interviewees, would focus on the plight of the perpetrators of the crime – Those poor boys! – is surprising enough. That this is only the second most fucked-up thing about the way this story is reported crosses the line from routine bad journalism to legitimately shocking.