Thursday, October 11

Media Ignorance and Sensationalism on Display in Alleged Sex Abuse Coverage

Note: This column was written shortly after the news broke of the sexual abuse allegations of Ohio State wrestlers, but was never posted to the blog.  Given the latest sexual abuse allegations and the same inept media coverage, is releasing a slightly edited version of its original column.

The media's sensational columns regarding alleged sexual abuse expose its collective ignorance and smack of sensationalism and hypocrisy. 

Ray Blehar
October 11, 2018, 11:21 AM EST

Sensationalized media reports on the investigation into sex abuse allegations at Ohio State mirrored prior reports by NBCNews and the New York Times revealing the ignorance and hypocrisy of the media who covered the Larry Nassar case.

While ESPN, NBC, the NYT and others were on a full out witch hunt to find those at Michigan State University (MSU)  and USA Gymnastics (USAG) who "knew" about Nassar's crimes and "enabled" his behavior, there was not a similar level of gusto in finding out the same at NBC News regarding the alleged serial sexual harassment by Matt Lauer.

Lauer, unlike Sandusky and Nassar, was a seemingly well known harasser at NBC and the breaking news of his misdeeds did not come as a surprise to some of his co-workers.  That stands in stark contrast to Nassar and Sandusky, whose criminal allegations shocked everyone who knew them.

While Nassar's and Sandusky's crimes led to the ouster of high ranking officials at both Universities, Lauer's acts did not result in similar firings at NBC or its news division -- nor was the media out to publicly lynch any of the officials there.

Interesting that when the shoe is on the other foot, the "crimes" are isolated to the criminal...and that applies to others in the entertainment industry as well.

Has the media called for the resignations and/or firings of everyone associated with Harvey Weinstein?   Of course they haven't.

The Weinstein case started the #Metoo movement.

And while the #Metoo movement's main objective is for every accuser's voices to be heard, that does not mean every accuser has the right to be believed.  The media should not lose sight that it is fundamental to a civil society that every individual has a basic right to due process.

Due Process

Rachael Denhollander, one of Nassar's victims, stated that people need to believe the victims.  However, what Denhollander apparently doesn't understand is that if allegations are believed before they are verified, then due process has been ignored.

The lives of three Duke lacrosse players, three Penn State administrators, Richard Jewell, and Joe Paterno were ruined when unsubstantiated allegations were trumpeted by the media as fact.

The unsubstantiated allegations that ruined these men's lives were later proven to be false.

Does the media and Denhollander really want to live in a society where someone can pay a civil attorney to file a frivolous lawsuit alleging sensational claims of sexual abuse that will be believed 100 percent of the time?

If so, not a single person's job and livelihood is safe.

The sad fact of these sexual abuse cases is that the media should know better, but has set aside that knowledge in order to pursue sensational stories about those who knew and enabled serial criminals.

The media  knows, or should know, that serial offenders can only be serial offenders because they are highly skilled at developing methods of operation to avoid detection.  Nassar and Sandusky, among other serial criminals, hide in plain sight.

Interestingly, reporters could have learned those things from the Jerry Sandusky case but didn't because they all fell in love with the ridiculous, false narrative that people at Penn State "knew" of Sandusky's sexual abuse of children and "turned a blind eye" to protect the football program.

Seemingly, the only thing the media learned from that case was sensationalism trumps facts -- especially when someone with name recognition can be roped in.

The media was not satisfied with isolating the MSU case to Nassar and gymnastics, so it went digging for dirt to try to rope in the highest profile Spartan coaches -- Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio.  Fortunately, the media was unsuccessful.  Dantonio and Izzo stood up for themselves and the local media got behind them to fend off the national media horde.

The media narratives in serial sex abuse cases come about as a result of hindsight bias, ignorance of the processes for conducting investigations and failure to admit the inherent difficulty in detecting serial criminals - and especially those who are Pillar of the Community/Nice Guy offenders.

Serial Criminals

It is a fact that serial criminals are able to perpetrate crimes over long periods of time because they have developed methods to avoid detection.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies provide highly specialized training to their agents and investigators in how to detect and apprehend these criminals.  In most cases, it is only after a string of seemingly unrelated crimes are tied together by other evidence that a serial criminal can be brought to justice.

The media coverage of the Nassar and Sandusky cases ignored these facts about serial offenders in favor of a sensational false narratives that people knew of the crimes, didn't act, and actually enabled the crimes.

There have been many cases of serial sex offenders in the national news over the last 40 years.  John Wayne Gacy,  Ted Bundy, and Gary Ridgeway were all serial rapists and murderers who went undetected over long periods of time.

Interestingly, the media didn't accuse Gacy's neighbors of "knowing" about his crimes even though 29 bodies were buried under his house. Gacy was a Pillar of the Community offender and no one suspected anything when they saw him in the company of teenage boys.

The same went for Jerry Sandusky.

He was always around a gaggle of boys because of his founding and operation of The Second Mile charity.  To be clear, Sandusky didn't need access to PSU's football facilities to attract boys -- he was the attraction.

It was also normal for Larry Nassar to access young girls in his role as a gymnastics doctor.

Many of the victims went to these men willingly at a young age.  Sometimes they were too young to understand what was happening to them was sexual abuse.  By the time many realized it, they were too embarrassed to or to afraid to speak up.  It's not easy to take on a famed doctor or an upstanding member of the community.

Who would believe them?

Parents didn't.  Police didn't. Case workers didn't.  Doctors didn't.

But for obvious reasons news reporters -- and civil attorneys -- will train their sights on large institutions like OSU, PSU, MSU, and USA Gymnastics because that's where the "money" is.  The civil attorneys didn't sue local police and child welfare agencies who also failed to detect Sandusky and Nassar.

The phrase that will be often repeated by civil attorneys who have sued or are suing OSU, PSU, MSU, and USAG is that those institutions "knew" or "should have known" about the serial criminal's behavior.

The truth is that few people on our planet are trained or equipped to deal with a serial criminal who expertly uses deception to perpetrate his crimes....

...Deceptions that fooled parents, police, caseworkers, doctors, and coaches.

Dealing with serial criminals is the job of law enforcement and it usually takes a multi-disciplinary task force to bring them to justice.  Individual police departments failed to apprehend Nassar in 2004 and 2014 and Sandusky in 1998. 

Sandusky was accused again in 2008 and law enforcement dragged its feet for two years before putting a task force together to conduct an investigation. 

Why does the media excuse the failures of the police or child protective services, who are more qualified and able to detect sex offenders, but then turn around and condemn University administrators and coaches (untrained laymen) their failures?

Answer:  Because blaming high-profile people and institutions drives more headlines than blaming unknown government servants.

Hindsight Bias, Emotion, & Misplaced Blame

The media coverage is also shaded by hindsight bias because it has the benefit of looking at the crimes of a serial perpetrator as a collective, rather than looking at the reports as isolated incidents.

Reports against Nassar and Sandusky were spread out over decades and not connected until years later.   However, the media doesn't take that into consideration and assumes that with numerous allegations occurring -- all within the span of a paragraph or two -- that someone had to "know" about them and cover them up.   These reports, condensing years of crimes into a few lines in a column, drive moral outrage and emotion to the point that all logical thinking is abandoned.

In November 2011, the Harrisburg Patriot News used journalistic license to mix an array of unsubstantiated allegations into a pattern of inaction (or a cover-up) by adults in the Sandusky case.

These dates spanning 13 years share two common threads that run through the entire grand jury presentment. At each stage, boys voiced concern or pain or alarm at the conduct of Jerry Sandusky — or adults witnessed behavior they found troubling or alarming.
And at each stage, other adults dismissed, minimized or failed to act upon those concerns."
Upon reading this story, the public became outraged over the lack of action even though there is no evidence that the accused (i.e., PSU officials) had knowledge of each incident nor could they have any idea that there was a pattern of victimization.
Note: The 1995 date refers to a custody hearing that was not part of the grand jury presentment.
A  New York Times column about the Nassar case also treated isolated incidents as a collective and alleged a cover-up MSU and USAG.

"Issues had cropped up: a parent raising concerns about his behavior at Twistars; a female athlete or two at Michigan State complaining to no avail about inappropriate exams. In 2014, a university investigation of another complaint cleared Dr. Nassar of misconduct, but he was now required to have a third person present when treatment involved sensitive areas of the body — and to wear gloves."

Still, the doctor was trusted enough to conduct his procedures — including one called “intravaginal adjustment” — without supervision when treating the country’s best gymnasts at the Karolyi ranch, the exclusive and secluded national team training camp, about 60 miles north of Houston. Gymnasts of international caliber, like Ms. Nichols, of suburban Minneapolis, would spend a week each month at the ranch, under the exacting supervision of the revered coach Martha Karolyi."

In writing with the benefit of hindsight, the NYT infers that MSU should have warned USAG about Nassar even though he had convinced the police and University administrators that "intravaginal adjustment" was a legitimate medical procedure. 

To be clear, had MSU "warned" USAG about Nassar in 2014, its instructions would have been to monitor Nassar to ensure someone else in present while he gave treatment and to ensure he wore gloves.

That "warning" would not have stopped Nassar from sexually assaulting the gymnasts.

In short, the NYT column provokes an emotional response directed at MSU for its failures to protect gymnasts, when the reality was the warning would have been ineffective.

Going back to the PSU case, the media, spurred on by the press conference remarks made by former FBI Director, Louis Freeh, insanely wrote that PSU could have stopped Sandusky from victimizing children by banning him from campus in 1998.

This is yet another example of the media's complete disregard for the facts and its willingness to push a preferred narrative.  To wit:

1.  In 1998, Sandusky was investigated and found not to be a threat to children (by CPS).

2.  University administrators were told that nothing Sandusky did was criminal or even rose to the level of child abuse.  They had no legal basis to ban him from the campus.

3.  Seemingly overlooked by Freeh and the media was that Sandusky was still employed as the Defensive Coordinator on the football team in 1998 and would continue to coach for one more year after that.  He needed access to the campus to do his job. A ban would have been completely illogical in 1998 and/or at the time Sandusky officially retired prior to coaching the 1999 season.

4.  The June 2012 trial of Sandusky provided evidence that Sandusky committed crimes off-campus all along and especially after he retired from PSU. As such, a campus ban would not have stopped him from victimizing children.

To this day, many in the media and the public still believe that a 1998 campus ban of Sandusky was appropriate and necessary, even though PSU had no legal or logical basis for doing so.

In conclusion, when the media attempts to cover high-profile sexual abuse cases, the only thing you can be sure of is that logic and facts will be thrown out the window in favor of sensationalism and a false narrative -- unless the case involves one of their own.


  1. I agree with most of this but it seems an exaggeration to say "Does the media and Denhollander really want to live in a society where someone can pay a civil attorney to file a frivolous lawsuit alleging sensational claims of sexual abuse that will be believed 100 percent of the time?"

    In all the cases you mentioned, it was law enforcement who brought the cases to public attention, not a lawsuit.

    The Duke lacrosse rape case was somewhat of an outlier because it was driven by an unscrupulous prosecutor, DA Mike Nifong, who hid exculpatory evidence to get publicity for his reelection campaign. Nifong lost his DA job, was disbarred and jailed for one whole day so the system eventually worked. The lacrosse players got a big settlement from Duke University one from the City of Durham. The NC Attorney General also publicly exonerated the three lacrosse players.

    I do agree the news media tends to just parrot law enforcement instead of objectively evaluating the evidence for themselves. The prosecutors cultivate that relationship because it forces even innocent defendants, like Curley and Schultz, to take plea deals.

    Although they lost jobs and reputations, I wasn't aware that anyone has been criminally charged with enabling Nassar. That's a big difference between the Nassar and Sandusky cases.

    1. Tim,
      Thanks for your comments.

      You are correct that the PSU and MSU false narratives resulted from criminal investigations, however, later allegations, some of them patently false, were brought forth by civil attorneys in the Sandusky case. The media bought them hook line and sinker because they reinforced the false narrative that JVP turned a blind eye to child abuse.

      You are also correct that the media parrots law enforcement most of the time, though I can think of a few exceptions when the media strongly advocated (wrongly) for the perpetrators (who were later convicted).

      At MSU, Kathy Klages was charged with lying to investigators. Though I haven't done the legal research, I assume that her inaction in 1997 was outside the statutes of limitation for child endangerment and that Michigan's AG actually follows the law.

    2. I had missed the arrest of Klages in August, 2018. It didn't get big news coverage since she wasn't famous. She was charged with lying to the police about knowing about Nassar's abuse as much as 20 years earlier.

      Without knowing exactly what the police asked her and what she answered, it is hard to judge if she was lying, had a poor memory or truthfully answered the questions asked but didn't volunteer more. I'm not sure it is lying if Klages, like everyone else at the time, believed Nassar was performing legitimate medical procedures.