The march on March 24th. Nathan Chan/The Varsity

Content warning: this editorial discusses the intersection of journalism and sexual violence.

It has been almost a year since #MeToo became a viral social media movement, through which survivors exposed a slew of sexual misconducts, harassments, and assaults by high-profile perpetrators, among others. Yet a number of the powerful men exposed in the #MeToo movement are now attempting to make comebacks in the public arena.

Last month, comedian Louis C.K. performed an unannounced set at the Comedy Cellar in New York. He made no reference to the accusations that had ostensibly ended his career. He received a standing ovation before he even began performing. 

Also emerging from the shadows, though, are those whose ‘silences,’ a natural consequence of public scandals, have stretched beyond the #MeToo movement. These individuals are being aided by media organizations that choose to enable them to tell their side of the story.

On September 14, The New York Review of Books (NYRB) published an essay entitled “Reflections from a Hashtag” by disgraced CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi. In 2014, allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Ghomeshi became public. He was fired by CBC, but following a high-profile trial, he was acquitted of all charges in 2016.

On September 16, New York magazine profiled Soon-Yi Previn, wife of director Woody Allen, in which she described her adoptive mother and Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow as an abusive parent. In response, Previn’s adoptive brother, Ronan Farrow, accused Previn of “planting stories that attack and vilify my mother [Mia] to deflect from my sister’s credible allegations of abuse” — referring to the longstanding allegation that Allen sexually assaulted his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow.

Both of these cases have resulted in backlash because they provided a platform for alleged perpetrators, or defenders of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence. The backlash is entirely justified: the NYRB and New York should not have published the pieces. In the era of #MeToo, the responsibility of media organizations is to report and publish in accordance with a sharp awareness of the power dynamics that underlie voice and narrative.

In the context of sexual violence, survivors are often pushed into positions of shame and silence. If they choose to come forward with their stories, they risk being treated with skepticism, disbelief, harassment, and threats. In contrast, perpetrators are shielded by public sympathizers who demand the legal principle of ‘innocent before proven guilty,’ and who criticize the ‘court of public opinion.’

The voices of survivors, then, are often not heard and are often overpowered by their abusers and their supporters. Given the risks, they already have less access to the media. For media organizations that seem to attempt to ‘level the playing field’ by publishing the perspectives of high-profile figures like Ghomeshi, their decisions reflect a false sense of journalistic balance that is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, dangerous in its reproduction of trauma for survivors.

Given his connection to Toronto, Ghomeshi’s case warrants a closer examination. In his essay, Ghomeshi manipulates the reader through a ‘self-humanizing’ narrative — a narrative that dismisses the stories of his accusers as “inaccurate” and fails to portray any genuine remorse. He attempts to rally sympathy by sharing how he became an “outcast”; how he was “weeping in shame”; how he has been reduced to a “singular, sexualized identity”; and how he has felt “hopeless,” “pathetic,” and “suicidal.”

Most reprehensible, though, is how he manipulates his identity as a person of colour. Indeed, he has, and wrongly so, received racist backlash from those who associate his behaviour with his cultural background. However, describing oneself as a victim after abusing others is a deflection tactic whereby a position of power is used to appropriate the status of the abused. This complicates the otherwise straightforward narrative that they are the perpetrators and should accept responsibility.

Rather than take responsibility, Ghomeshi largely blames the structures around him for his mistreatment of women, pointing to careerism and the attainment of success as a broadcaster. He describes how he tried to use fame to impress and manipulate women. “Dating and having sex became another measure of status.”

The conclusion of the essay suggests that anonymity — no longer manipulating his fame or being “a Somebody” — is the way forward. Indeed, perpetrators should pursue the route of silence and cede space for the voices of those who have long been voiceless as a first step toward rehabilitation.

But the reality of Ghomeshi’s essay contradicts this very suggestion. Ghomeshi emerged from his silence last year with a podcast commentary series, The Ideation Project, with no acknowledgement of the circumstances surrounding the downfall of his career, just like Louis C.K. He decided on the terms of justice and unilaterally made a comeback. And with this essay, he demonstrates that he still capitalizes on his fame — or infamy at this point — to draw an audience and attempt to polish his image. He may no longer be abusively “dating and having sex” to attain status, but by manipulating his status, he challenges the naive assumption that #MeToo would be a turning point in existing power dynamics.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of the essay are also troubling. Following backlash against the essay, the editor, Ian Buruma, felt forced to resign after the threat of an advertiser’s boycott. However, Buruma continues to stand by his decision to publish the essay.

Furthermore, the NYRB amended the essay with a preface stating that they should have made an acknowledgement of the allegations against Ghomeshi, and that the following issue would feature letters to the editors in response to the essay. Yet this preface does not reflect any remorse for having published the essay in the first place. There is therefore concern as to whether it was the financial threat of an advertiser’s boycott, rather than the ethics and responsibilities of journalism, that compelled the NYRB to take action.

Last year, alongside the emergence of the #MeToo movement, The Varsity Editorial Board noted that the role of the media is to ensure that journalism “does not further contribute to the conditions that make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult.” Ultimately, it is difficult to understand what media organizations hope to achieve by featuring the perspectives of alleged perpetrators. It does not advance meaningful conversation about sexual violence; rather, publications like these undermine it by confusing perpetrator for victim.

The Varsity’s mission statement expresses a commitment to the “provision of meaningful, just coverage for our readership.” A diverse range of opinions, perspectives, and stories, and reasonable debate and discussion between them, is what renders media coverage holistic, fair, and credible. However, coverage must also be committed to justice.

For publishers and editors of influential media organizations, meaningful journalism means making principled choices. The heart of ethical and responsible journalism is to amplify the voices of those who have not spoken, as opposed to those who have always spoken. By locating the maldistribution of power in society, media can recognize that, sometimes, to not publish and provide platform is itself a worthwhile ideal of journalism. 

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required

Tags: , , , ,