This past week, close to 150 women and girls stood up in court and read statements detailing the abuse, and its aftereffects, that Larry Nassar had inflicted upon them. Up until this point, unless you were a devoted reader of the local newspapers in the area, you could be forgiven for never having heard of Nassar’s name, never mind the massive case that has been building up against him since late in 2016. The case finally reached international consciousness when these women stood up in court and reminded Nassar of what he had done and how it had affected them. It shouldn’t have taken that to get people to listen.
Eren Orbey pointed out in the New Yorker this week that the certainty of Nassar’s charge, and the ever-increasing certainty that he would spend life in prison, meant that the media could focus its attention on the testimony of the victims, appropriately giving them the spotlight instead of Nassar. This is true, yet the spotlight that the media finally thrust upon the survivors was too late, it should have been there all along.
The study by Media Matters that Alex Putterman cited in The Atlantic shows the full extent to which Nassar’s victims went unheard. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, had collectively spent less than twenty minutes covering the case up until four days before the statement of Aly Raisman, a gold-medal winning Olympic gymnast who has recently become the face of the case after her testimony was printed in full by the New York Times. It is only this week that the news has been covered in full by more than the local news.
And yet the case has been public since 2016, when Rachel Denhollander came forward. Before that, complaints stretched back to 1997, when Nassar first began working at Michigan State University. The media silence has not gone unnoticed to the victims. Morgan McCaul, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, told Huffington Post “I remember when the Penn State scandal was talked about at length for months and months and even years. This is nearly five times the size and no one knows about it.”
The Penn State scandal McCaul is referencing is the case against Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach at Penn State University’s football team who was found guilty of 45 charges of sexual abuse of young boys in 2012. He had met the boys through the charity The Second Mile, a charity he founded to serve Pennsylvania’s at risk and underprivileged children. The Sandusky case is frequently compared with the case against Nassar, particularly the difference in coverage both received. Pete Vernon wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that “unlike the firestorm surrounding the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, Nassar’s actions and the failure of those in positions of authority to deal with him, haven’t dominated SportsCenter or led nightly news broadcasts.”
The difference of coverage between both cases can be attributed to a number of factors, the most commonly cited seeming to be the difference between the sports they involved. Jessica Luther wrote for Buzzfeed that “when it happens somewhere less exalted than college football, it’s a different story…that lack of coverage and concern is because the Nassar case involves gymnastics, a sport that most people only care about for one week every four years.” College football certainly has a higher profile than women’s gymnastics, but this in itself is not an accident, and certainly well short of an excuse.
Women’s sport in general receives terrible coverage. Catherine Taibi in her article for Huffington Post, highlighted just how poorly women’s sport has been covered recently: “In examining 934 local network affiliate news stories from 2014, researchers found that only 32 segments were on women’s sports — amounting to about 23 minutes of coverage — while 880 stories featured men’s sports and 22 segments featured gender-neutral sports.” Taibi goes even further: “Over a six-week period in 2014, “SportsCenter” dedicated just 2 percent of its highlight program to women’s sports. KCBS was worse: During that same period, there was just one story — or 0.2 percent of the network’s total sports coverage — featuring female athletes.”
If women’s sport receives so little coverage, it is automatically demoted to second-rate, and as a result less attention is paid to developments within it. Hence the outrage and coverage around the Sandusky scandal, a scandal on the hallowed ground that is American college football, and the silence surrounding the Larry Nassar case, a case primarily surrounding women’s gymnastics.
Another factor cited is the President. Donald Trump gets extensive coverage every day, mainly because of his unpredictability. He has brought the media in so close because they fear that if they look away, they will miss the blunder that finally finishes him, they will miss the tweet that finally goes too far. But Trump knows this, and he likes the attention. It’s easy to keep the media close, he only needs to say one wrong word, or send one inflammatory tweet, and there is a race to publish in every outlet.
But as Kyle Pope points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, this needn’t be the case. Pope highlights where the media have been going wrong, saying “we continue to spend our days, and our audience’s time, reacting to the president’s bumbling with a level of disbelief and outrage that has boiled over into a stinking froth.” And he rightly states that this doesn’t have to be the case. The media can exist as its own entity and should decide what is important news.
It doesn’t have to spend all its days reacting to Trump’s outbursts and blunders, outbursts and blunders that get less shocking by the day. It can focus on stories that need attention, such as the Larry Nassar case, before they get to court, and the victims have to force the world to listen. The media has the ability to focus on women’s sport more, so that it doesn’t have to be called women’s sport, and so that scandals and court cases within it don’t get ignored for so long. And it has the ability to turn its attention from the President for more than a minute, so that stories more important than tweets get the notice they deserve.
Photo Credit: Reuters.