Media gets some things right in covering the arrest of IMF head

Dominique Strauss-Kahn Like many of you, I’ve been following news of the arrest of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn with great interest.

You’ll remember that Strauss-Kahn was arrested over the weekend for sexually assaulting a 32-year-old chambermaid in the luxury suite of a Midtown Manhattan hotel where he was staying. He was apprehended Saturday when police boarded a plane set to depart for France.

He has since been placed on suicide watch at Riker’s.

As Jos mentioned in her original post on this topic, Strauss-Kahn led one of the most powerful economic institutions in the world, and was also the expected frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election in France.

In short, he was one of the most powerful men in the world, whose victim was a working class immigrant and woman of color. So although she hoped to be proven wrong, Jos feared for the worst in anticipating how coverage of this story would play out in the press and popular conversation.

Which is why I’ve been cautiously, tentatively, but pleasantly surprised by most of the media coverage surrounding this event. Amidst news that Strauss-Kahn’s accuser will testify against him, and that she plans to reject any accusations that she consented to sex with him in her testimony, I can’t help but notice: victim-blaming following the arrest of the IMF head has not been as common as it has been in past similar situations.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions. The NY Post published a terrible article this morning suggesting that Strauss-Kahn’s victim is perhaps HIV positive. It displays blatant disrespect and disregard for the victim’s confidentiality and perpetuates stigma and discrimination against HIV positive people.

And of course, various figures have predictably and infuriatingly come out of the woodworks to defend Strauss-Kahn and inevitably engage in victim-blaming. Or as Jill describes it over at Feministe, “my-friends-can-do-no-wrong-ing”. The best example being Bernard-Henri Levy’s article in the Daily Beast explaining why Strauss-Kahn should not have the suffer the indignities of the American justice system because, of course, the woman who accused Strauss-Kahn of assault is probably lying. (He was also a defender of Roman Polanksi.)

But my impression is that articles and reactions like this have been, for the most part, the exception and not the norm. And since we spend so much time and energy criticizing the media when they get things wrong, I think it’s also important to take a moment to acknowledge what they’re doing right.

For the most part, prominent media outlets have respected the victim’s confidentiality and steered clear of providing details that would undermine her credibility or prompt victim blaming.

The New York Times has focused their coverage on Strauss-Kahn himself and the implications of his arrest, as is appropriate. When they do mention the victim, they mostly speak to her status as a working woman and immigrant, including ultimately mundane quotes like this one:

“She’s a wonderful, hard-working woman, that’s why she’s in pain,” said the man [the victim's brother], who added that he and the victim’s daughter were the only family she had in the country. He would not provide any details on her condition, but said that his sister was resting in a secure location and that “she is coming back normally” with the help of her lawyer.

This Reuter’s article even acknowledges the frequency with which men of power are accused of abusing maids or nannies, implying a connection between their vast power and their treatment of women they perceive to be weaker or less powerful.

“…The charges against him also shine a light on how diplomats and international officials have been accused of abusing maids or nannies in the United States, and have largely escaped prosecution.

Foreign diplomats have been the subject of at least 11 civil lawsuits and one criminal prosecution related to abuse of domestic workers in the last five years, according to a Reuters review of U.S. federal court records. The allegations range from slave-like work conditions to rape, and the vast majority of the diplomats in these cases avoided prison terms and financial penalties…

A common theme in many of the incidents involving alleged abuse of maids and nannies is the elevated legal status of the foreign officials, which some experts say can lead to an improper sense of superiority and make them believe they are unaccountable. Also, most of the alleged victims come from countries where women have few rights, making them easy prey. “In short, diplomatic immunity means diplomatic impunity,” says Mark Lagon, former head of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.”

Even in this article, which announces that Strauss-Kahn may claim consensual sex as a defense, mentions of the victim’s character seem to carefully and pointedly avoid inspiring blame or skepticism. Information about her is stated factually, not sensationally, and details of her life are mostly presented as they were provided by her lawyer.

Of course, this is all still unfolding, and it is too soon to tell how ugly things may get. How have you found the coverage of this case? Feel free to leave outstanding examples of coverage, both good and bad, in comments.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

Read more about Lori

Join the Conversation

  • Kevin T. Keith

    The factual coverage has not been entirely bad, but the right-wing opinioneering is repulsive.

    Ben Stein published a piece yesterday that was almost a clone of the Bernard Henri-Levy piece that Jill quoted, right down to ”Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes?” and ”How do we know that this woman’s word was good enough . . .?” and ”Hadn’t he earned slightly better treatment . . .?”. The shock through the ruling class – that one of their own could actually be held answerable to the law like a common . . . citizen or something – is palpable.

  • Joyanna Eisenberg

    This article at The Atlantic caught my attention with the title, “The Plausibility of Strauss-Kahn’s Alleged Sex Crime.”

    I would say it’s not a WONDERFUL article, but it does point out that some of the generalizations being made about “there’s always a cleaning brigade” and not just one maid and that there are “always people passing by” the hotel room are FALSE, based on the journalist’s own experiences staying in a suite in the same hotel in Manhattan.

    The journalist concludes that based on the circumstances, the crime is “plausible,” but also points out that the victim has “nothing to lose” by reporting the crime. I feel like that part of the article is a different topic altogether — about how it’s difficult for women reporting sexual assaults to avoid shame or professional consequences — and that bringing it up in this particular article, to me, seems a little dismissive of the victim, although I’m not sure that’s its intent.

    Overall, I’m happy with The Atlantic’s coverage, but it is a testament to our victim-blaming culture that we even have an article with that title in The Atlantic.

  • leah

    My only concern with the coverage of this is that the media has given quite a bit of attention to the “quality” of the victim’s character. In this case, it seems that this will work in her favor – she is responsible, religious, hardworking and honorable — everyone can agree that she didn’t deserve to be raped. But anytime I hear about a victim’s background in a rape case, it gives me pause. On the one hand, we can all let out a collective sigh of relief – she will have an easier day in court if defense attorneys can’t dredge up damaging background information on her. However, character-based arguments that render victims undeserving of rape implicitly support character-based arguments that render victims deserving of rape, and therein lies the problem for me. If he had raped someone our society deems deserving of rape, such as a sex worker, and the media was reporting on her background in the same way they are now, I think we’d all be up in arms…

    • Natalie Longman

      I guess I agree, but I think the media’s motives are more mercenary than political in this case. Quite simply, sympathy sells in cases like this.

      Speaking of money, does anyone know if a legal fund has been set up for the victim. I read that she is presently not able to return to her job because she would be mobbed by reporters.

    • boxoatoc

      I rarely subject myself to mainstream media, so I can’t comment much on this.

      I will say, though, that I was in a public place where “The View” was playing. (I also can’t discuss “The View” generally — just report this one episode.)

      While the women on the show were supportive of the victim and never once outwardly questioned her motives or credibility, they definitely took time and care to note that she was a single mother, a Muslim, and had followed her job protocol to the letter when she was assaulted (i.e. left the door open, etc.).

      The implication in bringing up her background and what she had done or not done that day is, of course, that had something been different then she would be a likely liar — or deserving of assault. I’m not sure which characteristic[s] is the straw that broke the back of the media in taking an assaulted woman’s side, for once, but I suspect that the support is fleeting.

      “The View” then moved on to discussing Schwarzenegger — as if extramarital sexual assault and consentual extramarital affairs had something to do with one another.

      Again, I can’t speak to media or “The View” generally, just what happened on Tuesday’s show.

  • A’isha

    What has bothered me the most aren’t the articles but the comments I’ve read on some news sites. So many people are saying things like “No way he did it. He’s so rich and powerful he could have any woman he wants.” And “Why would he risk all of his power and wealth to rape an immigrant maid?” It’s as if they know nothing of what rape is…this is 2011, right?

    • Steven Olson

      The “No way he did it. He’s so rich and powerful he could have any women he wants” is a line that pisses me off so much, because, if you assume that its only a slight exaggeration, then he would feel entitled to sex with basically anyone he wanted and its ‘easy’ to see how someone in that situation might use force once their original advances are rejected. Now, of course, that is just speculation, but it follows the same logic as the statements that are bothering you (and also bother me!).

      Now, forgive me for being cynical here, but part of me wonders if the reason the media is doing a better job with its coverage here is not because they are learning about a better way to cover rape, but because the accused is French, and in general, english north america doesn’t like the French. Being in western Canada, I see a lot of hate towards the french everyday (both for people from Quebec and France). I hope I am wrong and just being cynical, but I am having a hard time shaking that feeling.

  • Bruce

    Moralist Ben Stein must not escape unscathed for his reprehensible slander of hotel service workers as a category.

  • Julianabritto

    I completely agree! I actually posted about this too, because I was surprised to find that I couldn’t find anything really to criticize the media for around this case. I’m not sure it will continue this way, but so far the victim blaming has not come from the US media, from what I understand. yay!