Did the Times Take a Sympathetic Stance in Story About Texas Child Rapists?

In this March 8, 2011 photo, trash sits outside an abandoned trailer in Cleveland, Texas where authorities say an 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in November 2010. The arrest of four suspects means that 17 have now been accused in the sexual assault. The arrests include two players on Cleveland's state-ranked basketball team. A total of seven have been charged, as well as 10 other males no longer in school and ranging in age from 18 to 27. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan) Photo: Pat Sullivan/AP2011

In a disturbing story in yesterday's Times, writer James McKinley recounted the tale of the alleged rape (caught on film) of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, and the eighteen young men and teenagers implicated in the crime. But some of McKinley's flourishes disturbed the women bloggers at Slate XX and Jezebel. Like this, for example:

"It's just destroyed our community," said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. "These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives."

That's the first quote in the story, one that expresses sympathy for the alleged child rapists.

The basics of the crime are this: The child was lured to a friend's home by a 19-year-old, where several boys forced her to take her clothes off and sexually assaulted her, threatening to beat her if she resisted. When a relative turned up, the group dragged her through a back window and took her to a mobile home in a rough neighborhood called the Quarters where the assaults continued. Portions were recorded on cell phones, which the perpetrators later showed off at school. When a classmate told a teacher about what she saw, law enforcement became involved.

Here's the next quote from the Times story, also from Harrison:

"Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?" said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. "How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"

"Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands ... said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months," explains McKinley. "They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s." These quotes disturbed some readers, especially when combined with a portion of the writer's intro where he noted:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

"As if they were tricked into gang raping a child," Jezebel's Margaret Hartman seethed. "Any attempt to gain emotional distance on rape by transferring just a tiny portion, just one percent, of the blame onto the victim is an absolute moral wrong," wrote Slate's Libby Copeland.

"We are very aware of and sensitive to the concerns that arise in reporting about sexual assault," a Times spokeswoman told us by e-mail. "This story is still developing and there is much to be learned about how something so horrific could have occurred. But nothing in our story was in any way intended to imply that the victim was to blame. Neighbors' comments about the girl, which we reported in the story, seemed to reflect concern about what they saw as a lack of supervision that may have left her at risk."

"As for residents' references to the accused having to 'live with this for the rest of their lives,' those are views we found in our reporting. They are not our reporter's reactions, but the reactions of disbelief by townspeople over the news of a mass assault on a defenseless 11-year-old."

Go and read the piece. What do you think? Was the Times playing into the community's feeling of protection for all of its young people, not just the victim?

Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town [NYT]
Reporting on a Gang Rape in East Texas [Slate XX]
Media Blows It With Pathetic Gang Rape Coverage [Jezebel]