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Why CNN Botched the Steubenville Rape Verdict: You Go With the Emotion You Have

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Let's get right into it. Yes, CNN's coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville rape trial, whether entirely intentional or not, came off as more than a little biased in favor of the teenagers who were on trial for the crime rather than either extending the same courtesy to the victim or, even better, remaining objective and dispassionate. Now, if you can't see why this is, why CNN did what it did, you've apparently forgotten that this is the same network that went completely ape-shit over a stranded cruise ship last month, putting every available reporter on it, at the exclusion of a lot of other important news, and blowing up what was essentially a nonsense story that affected exactly nobody in the audience into the second coming of the Hindenburg. How CNN didn't print up t-shirts with a picture of a cruise liner and the words "2/15 - Never Forget" on them is startling when you consider the amount of resources and airtime the network dedicated to the Carnival Triumph "disaster."

The point is this: Emotion and stories that play on emotion -- stories that seek a visceral reaction from viewers rather than a cold, analytical response -- make for great TV. Television is a visual medium and the angle of the story with the best visual element will almost always win the day. And because the victim in the Steubenville rape case was shielded from the press and therefore wasn't available to have her emotions splashed across the airwaves and otherwise exploited by the coyotes of the media -- because she couldn't be put on camera and we couldn't see her cry -- the focus of the story became the people whose reaction we actually could see: Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond. Is this wrong? Yes. In a case like this, offensive? Absolutely. This, unfortunately, is how it is, though.

I'd really like not to be able to pin something like this on new CNN chief Jeff Zucker, the man almost entirely responsible for the Carnival Triumph debacle -- not the cruise itself, the obsessive-compulsive cruise coverage -- but it's hard to ignore the ethical and journalistic bankruptcy of Zucker's overall news philosophy. Keep in mind that before he ran NBC completely into the ground, he was the wunderkind who turned the Today show into a ratings and revenue goldmine by treating fluff with the kind of gravitas normally reserved for real news and staging gimmicky "event" programming designed to get people talking around the water cooler. Zucker loves emotion. He loves it a lot more than real, honest-to-Christ news, which can occasionally be wonky, unwieldy and impossible to distill down to an instantly memorable soundbite or the image of the crying mother of a missing kid.

I'm not saying that a specific edict came down from Jeff Zucker notifying the CNN talent and producer corps that they should concentrate on the pain and suffering of Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond instead of that of the unnamed victim as the Steubenville rape trial finally came to a decision. But the boss's worldview instantly becomes the staff's worldview, and it wouldn't surprise me if a kind of robotic groupthink kicked in and even some of CNN's best and brightest, like Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow, succumbed to it without even realizing it. When there's upheaval in a newsroom -- or any other place with a new person in charge, for that matter -- everyone tends to overcompensate in favor of doing what he or she figures the boss wants, even if that person isn't acutely aware of it.

If you're talking about something silly and superficial, like, say, beating the story of a stranded cruise ship to death because it's a great picture and you're sure to get powerful soundbites when the thing finally docks, it's not the end of the world. It's baffling and ridiculous, sure, but not unforgivable. But when you're talking about the story of a young girl who was dragged around from party to party and defiled in unspeakable ways -- and an aftermath in which the arrogance and imperiousness of a local football program left many trying to cover for the boys responsible for the prolonged attack -- it's despicable to slobber all over the tears you can see rather giving due deference to the grievous wounds you can't.

There's nothing wrong with pointing out the tragedy of young lives that went horribly astray, or the systemic corruption that didn't simply allow it to happen but encouraged it, or the greater lesson about what's expected of boys and men who live in a civilized society in which women are to be respected rather than treated as objects, or what the entire case says about kids and the culture of self-exhibitionism in the internet age. All of these are worthwhile subjects for discussion in the wake of what may be just the first trial to come out of the Steubenville rape case. But none of these is the main subject.

The main subject, particularly in the immediate aftermath of this verdict, is the victim. Just because she can't be seen doesn't mean her presence shouldn't be heard and felt. That's the job of a journalist: to give voice to the voiceless. It's not to fall back on the easy emotion that any idiot can put a camera on and stick a microphone in front of. That's just being lazy. And, in this case, damn unethical.