In law school, we spend a lot of time thinking about the “theory of the case”: what’s the problem, who’s the victim, who’s the villain. It turns out that how you define the problem directly informs the kind of solution that a judge, a lawmaker, or, say, the readers of the New York Times, are primed to accept.
Here’s the lede of The New York Times’s story on Matt Lauer’s harassment of his co-workers:
The fast-moving national reckoning over sexual harassment in the workplace toppled another television news star on Wednesday . . .
The downfall of Mr. Lauer, a presence in American living rooms for more than 20 years, adds to a head-spinning string of prominent firings over sexual harassment and abuse allegations.
Here’s The Washington Post:
The wave of sexual harassment allegations roiling American society broke over a familiar figure, “Today” host Matt Lauer . . . . Lauer, 59, may be the best-known, and perhaps best-liked, of the men whose highflying careers have crashed in the wake of accusations besetting the news media, the government and the entertainment industry over the past two months.
America woke up without another one of the most recognizable faces in morning television Wednesday, as the rapid-fire sexual harassment allegations that have been rocking Hollywood and Washington brought down one of the most prominent figures to date.
Matt Lauer was “toppled” like a tree unlucky enough to be caught in the path of a “fast-moving” tornado. Matt Lauer was “broken over” by a “wave”, like a surfer in the ocean. Matt Lauer (the best-liked of men!) got stuck on the bad end of a “rapid-fire” firing squad intent on bringing him down.
To state the obvious: Matt Lauer isn’t a victim of circumstance, a puppy caught in the eye of the storm. Like all the other Harveys, he made choices. He decided to exploit his subordinates. He opted to harass people with less power than him. He used a button under his desk to lock women in his office.
The language we use to tell these stories matters. It’s not only that whole swaths of people in this country, including actual victims of violence, don’t get to be humanized by the press in this way, but also this: lazy, sexist writing that paints aggressors as victims and victims as aggressors fuels the idea — already gaining steam across the right and left alike — that two months of accountability is a “witch hunt”, a “sex panic”, “anti-male sexual McCarthyism”.
We can grapple with the complexity of violence in our lives — perpetrated by people we may love — without turning these “fallen” men into tragic victim-heroes.
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