Why Isn’t Getting Harassed “Motive” Enough?

How the media helps undermine the credibility of women who make allegations of misconduct.

Does it matter that Lucy Flores voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary?

By Tyler Kingkade

When radio host Leeann Tweeden came forward to publicly accuse Al Franken of sexual harassment, Abby Honold knew she had to call the Democratic Senator’s office.

Franken was days away from introducing legislation named for Honold, who was violently raped in 2014 by a fellow student at University of Minnesota. Honold had been working with Franken since 2016, shortly after her rapist pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. The case attracted statewide attention when newspaper reports revealed that police initially backed off from charging her rapist, but later indicted him after a new officer took over the case and found a second victim.

The Abby Honold Act would improve training for police officers interviewing sexual assault victims. In light of Tweeden’s accusations — the first of several to come—Honold insisted that someone other than Franken should carry the bill. She wrote an op-ed explaining that the senator had done great work putting the legislation together, but that the issue was too important to get caught up with his personal behavior. For that, Honold received a litany of death and rape threats, and was accused of being a Russian bot. She recently shared with me screenshots of messages from people shaming her for not supporting Franken, who told her to “keep your fucking mouth shut” and called her a whore. Two people she knew personally accused her of being paid by a political operative to damage Franken.

“People have both good and bad inside of them — all of us do,” Honold told me. “The fact that we can’t allow that for politicians is frustrating because it does end up harming the people who speak out.”

Having gone through that experience, Honold was horrified at the reaction earlier this month to women who publicly complained about the behavior of Joe Biden, another politician who had worked to pass legislation helping sexual assault victims. Pundits quickly tried to decipher what the women’s political motivations were, and whether the allegations were an attempt to keep him out of the presidential race. “Are we allowed to bring up that Lucy Flores is a huge Bernie person?” asked Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” referencing that Flores, the first woman to say something about Biden’s behavior, had supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. The insinuation was repeated from “The View” to Fox News, and as more women came forward with no connection to Sanders, Axios reported that Biden’s advisers believed the coverage was being “stoked by rival Democrats.”

No evidence was offered as proof that women said something about Biden’s behavior due to hidden political agendas, but it was a textbook example of an argument that’s been made repeatedly over the past three decades whenever a prominent public official has been accused of inappropriate behavior, particularly sexual harassment. And media ethics experts and advocates for victims of sexual misconduct say it does a disservice to readers.

“There’s always a way to take the woman’s story and minimize it by assigning a motive to her,” Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute, a media ethics nonprofit, told me.

Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Sanders, forcefully denied that their team had anything to do with the women saying something. Speaking to The Daily Beast, Shakir observed that “it is deeply disrespectful and shameful that any time a woman comes forward to tell her story there has to be some kind of intimation or suggestion that that person is doing so out of some political agenda.”

The women who said Biden acted inappropriately were clear that they didn’t consider the behavior to be sexual misconduct. But the suggestion that they spoke out for political reasons follows a pattern that’s been consistent since law professor Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, then-nominee for the Supreme Court, of sexual harassment in 1991.

Supporters of Thomas insisted Hill’s allegations were sprung last minute to pursue a political agenda. Conservative lobbyist and activist Phyllis Schlafly argued that Hill was part of a feminist mob using dirty tricks to stop Thomas from being a “pro-family” vote on the Supreme Court. A Washington Post columnist suggested that Hill “was essentially a stooge for Democratic activists,” as the Columbia Journalism Review put it. After Thomas was confirmed to the court, Hill was harassed, and conservative politicians in Oklahoma, where she taught as a professor, called for her to be fired. “I became the messenger who had to be killed,” Hill later remarked.

The strategy of accusing women of harboring hidden political agendas continued in the 90s as more politicians were accused of sexual misconduct. People who defended Bob Packwood, a GOP Senator run out of office in 1995 after 29 women publicly accused him of sexual harassment, similarly insisted it was a partisan witch hunt, and noted that he had long bucked his party to support women by fighting against Republican attempts to criminalize abortion. When Mel Reynolds, a Democratic Congressman, was indicted on child sex abuse charges, his lawyer claimed in 1994 that the case was an attempt “garner publicity against a politician of the opposite party.”

“It’s a just an iteration of the same old thing — we just don’t believe women to be experts on their own life and what their experiences were,” said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

If anything was different about the reaction in Biden’s case, Houser said, it was that people didn’t dispute whether the stories were true. The claims of political bias also tended to come from moderate liberals who believed the women preferred candidates with more leftist positions than Biden.

Megan Duncan, a Virginia Tech professor who studies news credibility and audience engagement, sees similarities to how sports fans react to articles relaying negative information about their favorite teams. There are two things happening, Duncan explains. First, when folks notice something get a lot of coverage and know that others are going to see it, they worry that people won’t process the news the way they think they should. Second, there is a tendency by people to remember the parts they didn’t like when they read or watch news coverage about something they feel involved in. Combine those two together, Duncan said, and you have “the idea that any bad coverage is going to have an outsized effect on other people.”

Which may help explain why people tried to dig up whatever thread they could find to cast suspicion on the individual women.

Caitlyn Caruso said that Biden placed his hand on her thigh in 2016 after the vice president heard her speak about being a sexual assault survivor. Caruso went public with a tweet on April 1, then spoke to the New York Times the next day, partly to offer support to Flores.

Caruso, who is from Nevada, told me that she’d met Flores several years ago. Caruso and other teen activists lobbied the Nevada legislature for better sex education in public schools. Flores, as a Nevada Assemblywoman at the time, shared a personal story about getting an abortion as a teen during a debate over a sex ed bill. But Twitter users found it suspicious that Caruso and Flores tweeted at each other during that time. Other Twitter people insinuated Caruso was in cahoots with Flores because they spoke at the SXSW festival the same year (there are around 5,000 speakers each year at the event).

“It’s disappointing because we should be able to express our boundaries and what makes us uncomfortable,” Caruso told me. “My intent has little to do with his actual political career, I decided I wanted to speak out to make sure there’s nuance. Really, my intention here is to start a conversation about the ways we give passes for uncomfortable behavior every day.”

Instead, much of the coverage focused on counting how many women said Biden touched them inappropriately, and how it would impact Biden’s impending presidential campaign. The conversation seemingly became a debate as to whether Biden should be president, or expelled from public life. There was little focus, especially on TV, about why incidents that the women did not consider to be sexual harassment or assault still left them feeling uneasy.

“I actually think where we’re falling down is not stitching these stories together and examining the larger narrative,” McBride told me. “I’m more interested in the culture of political campaigns and political appointments, and how women have navigated that in the past, and with that type of behavior, what the impact has been on women.”

There at least 138 government officials accused of some form of sexual misconduct during the 2018 election cycle. If the #MeToo movement has shown anything, it’s that this stuff isn’t going to be kept in the shadows as much as it has in the past. While it may be difficult for journalists to do anything to stop trolls from harassing sources on social media, the news media could avoid giving them ammo by simply committing to a couple things.

If someone says a politician behaved inappropriately, cable news hosts like Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC shouldn’t insinuate without proof that the accuser has an ulterior motive. And journalists like Mike Allen at Axios shouldn’t publish stories quoting unnamed advisers to the accused politicians suggesting the accusations are a conspiracy if they don’t have evidence either.

“It’s not doing anything to create a more informed public about the issue,” Houser said. “They might be more informed about the rumors, but it’s just the culturally-ingrained, sloppy, bad behavior of not believing victims.”

Tyler Kingkade, formerly of BuzzFeed News, is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @tylerkingkade

Production Details
V. 1.1.0
Last edited: April 22, 2019
Author: Tyler Kingkade
Editors: Alexander Zaitchik, Jeff Koyen
Artwork: CNN