By David Clohessy
I feel sorry for headline writers. I really do. They've got so little space to both summarize long stories AND attract readers' attention.
So I cut them lots of slack. But it's tough to see headline writers at three news outlets get one story SO wrong as the recent one involving Boston Rabbi Barry Starr who allegedly sexually exploited a teenager and then apparently misled and stole from his flock to conceal his crimes.
The Boston Globe's headline read
“Rabbi allegedly misused funds to keep liaison with teen quiet”
The Raw Story opted for
“Boston rabbi accused of misusing $480K in temple funds to pay off gay sex accuser”
The Jewish Daily Forward went with:
“Boston Rabbi Barry Starr Paid Teenage Boy $500K To Cover Up Affair”
At best, these headlines miss the point. At worst, they're dreadfully misleading.
Let's go one by one and examine the problems here.
--When adults have sex, it's a “liaison.” When an adult sexually exploits a 16 year old, it's a crime. Words like “affair,” “liaison” and “relationship” imply consent. And a child cannot consent to having sex with an adult (even if the predator is gentle and convinces the child that it's “love”).
–The word “gay” here is wrong. For starters, it too implies consent. (Contrast, for example, the phrase “gay sex” with the phrase “heterosexual rape.”) It also suggests that the rabbi may be gay, which may or may not be the case. (Abuse, most therapists say, is about power, not about sexual orientation.) It suggests that the victim may be gay. And finally, it's irrelevant (Why not say “rough sex” or “naked sex?” Because this has no bearing on the crime itself: a grown up sexually exploiting a youngster. )
And how about the word “accuser?” As I read these articles, the rabbi never denies that he “had sex with” a sixteen year old. So doesn't the word “accuser” also minimize or mischaracterize what happened here.
Finally, there's the question of emphasis. If a bank robber parked improperly during his crime, the headline would not read “Alleged criminal parked illegally and robbed bank.”
So why did some coverage stress Rabbi Starr's alleged financial crimes and minimize his sexual crimes? Shouldn't the headline have read something like “Rabbi is accused of child sex abuse and theft?”
It helps predators and hurts victims when we describe child sex crimes in ways that diminish or downplay these crimes.
You’re getting warmer…. The problem with most people is that they refuse to think that things are worse than they appear on the surface. For example: “At best, these headlines miss the point. At worst, they’re dreadfully misleading.” What should be said is:
“At best, these headlines are dreadfully misleading. At worst, they’re knowingly deceitful”.
Sound too extreme? The truth will be revealed in full upon the Day of Judgement.
Sometimes, the reporting of the crimes of child sex abuse seems to be being done by a “bored” and “disinterested” team of reporters that often remind me of an “ol’ boys network”, a network that we began to define as such, way back in the beginning of the peace movement and woman’s lib and the civil rights movements. The “ol’ boys network” of men and now, women, just seem to be so “afraid” of having both the criminal and the criminal’s crimes actually publically defined and named. I am reminded of so often hearing tv news reporters and police officers referring to arrested suspects (who for all intents and purposes appear to be very obviously criminal men), “gentlemen”.
I’ve noticed that too often this attitude and mis-use of words, terms and definitions seems to be true in all the venues where the exploitation and torture of children is occuring around the globe. It seems that this misprepresentation occurs more often than not; and generally very often goes undisputed or corrected to the point that many of us forget to notice that we have just been “hoodwinked” by it.
What a sad mess all of this is.
Mr. Clohessy, I don’t know how often your blogs on SNAP are published as letters to the editor of major US publications, but this blog is certainly one of yours that I would be very glad to know was made public on a large scale.