What Reporting on Tara Reade’s Allegations Against Biden Says About Rape Culture in Media
by Lauren Hutton
In the years following the popularization of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement and in light of recent sexual harassment allegations against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, reporting on issues of sexual violence is becoming increasingly common in Western media. Unfortunately, much of this reporting, through ignorance or malicious intent, is incredibly damaging to not only the survivors in question, but also to the community of sexual violence survivors at large. In using Tara Reade’s allegations against Biden as a case study, I hope to illuminate the ways in which the media is rooted in rape culture. From the headlines to coverage of criminal trials to the interviews with survivors, the media’s approach is generally one in which sexual assault is normalized and trivialized. Regardless of whether the allegations against Biden are true or not, the trends in reporting reveal a darker story: one that systematically looks to blame victims, excuse perpetrators, and justify violence.
Rape Culture in Headlines & Story Approaches
The coverage on Reade’s accusation against Biden set her up to fail from the start. Rape culture in reporting can take the shape of victim blaming, questioning victim credibility, and showing empathy for the alleged perpetrator — all of which can be seen in the coverage of Reade’s allegations. Most of the articles on the issue aim to discredit her as an individual, rather than questioning the validity of the allegations themselves. The Washington Post highlights how Reade’s “credibility is challenged,” and the New York Times echoes that her “credentials are questioned.” CNN goes so far as to cite “A complicated life,” and “conflicting accounts” in one of their headlines casting doubt on Reade. Buzzfeed News leads with “Senate Staff Recall Disconnect with Tara Reade,” rather than the many friends who have vocally supported her or could testify to her character in a positive light. While Reade’s story should be investigated, as any criminal complaint would be, the emphasis placed on discrediting the victim reflects a larger trend in sexual assault cases that is extremely harmful and often paints an unfair picture. Here’s why:
Citing conflicting accounts or a lack of credibility in a headline makes it seem as if the accuser, in this case Reade, is untrustworthy. This frames the story to suggest they aren’t telling the truth and subliminally places readers on the side of the alleged perpetrator. Unfortunately, in cases of sexual violence, survivors’ accounts often shift over time. While folks who have been sexually assaulted may have vivid memories of certain details of the attack, they may struggle to recall the specifics such as time of day or the exact order of events. Often, they contradict themselves in an attempt to tell their story — the exact kind of thing prosecutors and journalists use to discredit witnesses. Unlike normal memories which include a general sense of what was said, seen, and physically embodied, and how those details fit together, traumatic memories are laid down differently in the brain. The influx of stress hormones results in a focus on specific details in a state of panic that doesn’t allow the survivor to gain a sense of the bigger picture — in the moment or in the days, months, and years to follow. The result is often a changing or incoherent story, but not because the victim is lying or is an untrustworthy individual.
Lauren Wolfe, a Women’s Media Center (WMC) journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence in conflict originated by Gloria Steinem, states, “Survivors often have fragmented memories,” and that “they are often unable to create whole narratives in ways that traditional journalistic standards demand” in an article for WMC. Survivors often dissociate during a traumatic event, which also contributes to this fragmented recollection of what actually occurred. Given this information, which has been backed by a multitude of scientific studies for years, journalists must recognize how their role differs from that of a prosecutor and stop suggesting survivors are lying when stories don’t completely add up. Survivors can be telling their truth even if it doesn’t meet the requirements of a criminal justice case.
The headlines which suggest Reade’s “complicated life” play a role in her accusations against Biden speak to another problematic trend in reporting on sexual violence: the use of non sequitur details to derail someone’s account. The CNN piece cites a complicated life in the headline but fails to elaborate which part of Reade’s life they find so complicated in the following run-down of her story. Is it the restraining order she was granted against now ex-husband Ted Dronen in the wake of his abuse against Reade and her 15-month-old daughter, at least one incident of which he admitted to and apologized for, or her subsequent name change for protection purposes? Perhaps it was the limited number of people she shared her alleged harassment with that proves so complicated — but how many folks would shout their sexual harassment from the rooftops? It is fair to report on the details of Reade’s life; it is not fair to take unrelated details and use them to cast her as a “complicated figure” before readers have the chance to read the story. So often the public expects survivors who come forward to be “perfect victims,” to have dressed “appropriately,” reported immediately, distanced themselves from their perpetrators, have a pristine track record and a never-changing story, and even be the right race to gain the public’s sympathy. There are no perfect victims; there are imperfect survivors who deserve a chance to be heard.
Perhaps the most malicious trend in these headlines is the tendency to blame the victim. Buzzfeed’s article leads with the disconnect fellow staffers evidently felt toward Reade. This is not to say positive details about Reade don’t exist. “Friends described Reade as a kind, lively and cheerful person who loved animals and acting,” according to the previously discussed CNN article. The framing of a piece can hugely bias a reader and focusing on Reade’s outsider status is a calculated decision. Her lack of interest in socializing or inability to fit the mold of “a khaki-and-blue-blazered DC professional,” as one Buzzfeed piece puts it, don’t signify anything in the way of her allegation’s truthfulness, and yet they are repeatedly emphasized. Many of these pieces also quote Reade’s co-workers who evidently do not remember her but are quick to support Biden. Reade claims her complaints about Biden’s behavior, both verbal and filed, led to her being shoved out of the office. Individuals working with Biden at the time claim in one breath that that was categorically not the reason Reade was fired and in the other state they largely don’t remember her. That signals a somewhat blind defense of Biden. For instance, one woman said “When you work on the Hill, everyone knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and Biden was a good guy,” but does not remember working with co-worker Reade. If you can’t remember Reade, you likely can’t remember what she spoke up against or experienced, either, and at that point, perhaps you shouldn’t weigh in at all.
Ultimately, while the headlines discussed are not necessarily inaccurate, they often make suggestions that aren’t fair in alleged sexual violence cases and the consequences are significant. The articles that speak to Reade as a disconnected character never go so far as to say she wasn’t liked, and it reads as if the media is grasping at straws to make her seem unreliable or problematic in the workplace. To date, no one can truly decide why she was let go, but the media’s best guess is sure playing a role in coverage. Since when are journalists allowed to speculate? Let’s stick to the facts and spare potential survivors the heartache.
Damage Done When Survivors Who Speak Up are Villainized or Dismissed
While in criminal justice cases prosecutors often seek to discredit the witness, this can be hugely damaging in cases of sexual violence. Survivors who have their stories scrutinized and torn apart are often retraumatized and this systematic behavior discourages genuine victims from coming forward. The media’s obsession with the survivor in these cases, even when working from an empathetic standpoint, can ultimately prove harmful. According to a study on victim-blaming in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, coverage that focuses on the survivor’s story may increase the likelihood of a victim-blaming response from readers. Stories that instead focus on the alleged perpetrator are less likely to cause that response. So why has the media coverage spent, relatively, so little time on Biden?
Powerful men are routinely protected as illuminated by Weinstein’s payoffs or cultures of silence created by the likes of people like Roger Ailes. And anyone who wants to see Trump defeated this fall has a vested interest in protecting Biden. But we live in a country where a man with multiple, proven sexual violence allegations is currently in the White House; our political ambitions cannot be used to justify anything other than a full investigation of Biden. Still, by and large, the headlines don’t focus on Biden’s character. In the stories themselves, they mention him in passing, talking positively about his reputation and emphasizing what he has to lose. This sympathy for accused perpetrators of sexual violence is not uncommon and speaks to what seems to be accepted behavior at this point: news media attacks a woman’s character and degrades her reputation while remaining acutely aware of the accused’s reputation, cradling it and choosing their words carefully. Clearly, they understand the consequences of ruining someone’s reputation. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that it is always the survivor in question who is left torn apart by the process.
So, what are the consequences of these coverage decisions? Ultimately, more unaddressed sexual violence. In the first ever long-term study of rape culture, published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science in 2018, researchers found that where there is more rape culture in the press, there is more rape. The coverage does not cause this rise, but rather reflects the societal norms and attitudes that allow for the perpetuation of these kinds of acts. When survivors take the fall and fail to be heard and find justice, perpetrators feel no shame in continuing their acts of violence. Similarly, when the media feels comfortable discrediting Reade, sometimes in cruel ways, the public is quick to follow. Reade has received an onslaught of horrific feedback from strangers, including a multitude of death threats. You may believe Reade is lying. You may believe Biden is innocent. But what about other survivors who may want to come forward with their stories? The treatment of Reade, regardless of whether you ultimately decide to believe her or not, sets a dangerous precedent in which people who speak up are systematically shut down. They are told they are liars before it is proven. They are told to die because their stories threaten political goals. They are told the professions and livelihoods of their alleged perpetrators are more important than their own livelihoods — or what is left of them. The toxic and vindictive environment in which survivors are hunted down by media corporations will only encourage further violence; victim blaming in the media means that future survivors won’t speak up, perpetrators won’t be held accountable, and the cycle of violence will continue.
While democrats have historically been more vocal on women’s rights issues, they have yet to disembark from the trend of smearing accusers and disbelieving an assault purely because they politically support the accused. Most of the news outlets discussed in this piece are liberal in nature which just goes to show the way we report on sexual violence isn’t a partisan issue — it’s a societal one.
In a Women’s Media Center survey of 14 of America’s most widely circulated newspapers from 2018, the number of articles dealing with the #MeToo movement and sexual violence increased by 52 percent from May 2017 to August 2018. Clearly the prosecution of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer brought to light the abuse of power within a multitude of industries and the true extent of sexual violence in many individuals’ day-to-day lives. But if we accept that as a nation we must be prepared to keep talking about sexual violence and that the conversation is far from over, let’s start talking about it in the right way. Journalists play an essential role as watchdogs for this issue, digging for injustice, proving it, and bringing about change: Ronan Farrow did it right: Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey did it right: Ramin Setoodeh and Elizabeth Wagmeister did it right. No survivor’s story, true or untrue, should be treated as a political weapon. Sexual violence has a long history of being weaponized, but it is up to both consumers and creators of media content to treat it as the epidemic it is and to treat survivors as trauma victims, not pawns to be disproved, shamed, or otherwise manipulated.