Why Does the Media Keep Giving Abusive Men Platforms for Redemption?

By
Woody Allen at Cannes.
Woody Allen at Cannes.Photo: Tristan Fewings

Yesterday in The Hollywood Reporter, Ronan Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, came forward to make a public statement regarding how he and the media had treated his sister Dylan Farrow’s sexual-abuse allegations against their father. In 2014, Dylan had written an open letter, published to Nicholas Kristof’s blog on the New York Times’ website, accusing her father of sexually abusing her when she was 7 years old. To defend his good name, the Times then gave Allen twice the space and a prominent spot in the print edition to deny Dylan’s allegations. As Ronan noted yesterday, this imbalance in the platform afforded to the abuser and the abused was “a stark reminder of how differently our press treats vulnerable accusers and powerful men who stand accused.”

Farrow’s piece centers on his own guilt about waffling over the accusations against his father and his initial inability to take a hard line on Bill Cosby, whose accusers multiplied from 1 to nearly 60 in what seems like record time. The essay circulated widely because of his position as a well-known reporter and popular figure. He can now say things he feels unequivocally — like “I believe my sister ”— because he is in a position of comfort and power. But even as a person with a wealth of privilege, Farrow faced a challenge in deciding to speak at all: “Confronting a subject with allegations from women or children, not backed by a simple, dispositive legal ruling is hard,” he wrote. “It means having those tough newsroom conversations, making the case for burning bridges with powerful public figures. It means going up against angry fans and angry publicists.”

He was right about the angry-publicists part. After the piece was published, Allen’s publicist forbade The Hollywood Reporter from attending the lunch event for Allen’s new film in retaliation for publishing Farrow’s essay. Because of the strong stance Farrow took on a family member’s alleged abuse, an entire publication’s access was denied. That’s exactly what the media fears: If we say anything, we’ll lose something. Passing judgment on men’s bad behavior, or covering it at all, could put a publication’s access at risk, so they often default to staying silent. Woody Allen’s new film premieres at Cannes (which, full disclosure, New York Magazine has been promoting, as well). The cycle continues.

But there is, and always has been, a simple way around this predicament: What if we stopped covering abusive men in the first place? If you don’t like the way powerful men have treated women, but you can’t take a hard line or make a judgment call (or even give an abused woman 936 words online to tell her story), just cease to cover their work. These men will survive, they will probably even continue to prosper. But deciding not to cover a man’s work sends a message to women that they deserve to be believed, that their stories will not go unheard. That we are not intimidated by the power of a canon.

When the trailer for Chris Brown’s documentary about himself was released in early April, numerous outlets breathlessly covered the preview: Billboard, Us Weekly, Vibe, Complex, the Daily Mail, TV Guide, USA Today. Many if not most of them referred to the moment in the trailer when Brown describes feeling like “a fucking monster” for physically assaulting Rihanna. The clip is difficult to watch, while the language writers used to describe it seems awfully forgiving. (In the years since the Rihanna assault, Brown has been the subject of other allegations of assault and has callously dismissed a woman’s suicide attempt.) Reporters love a redemption story. But they seem to forget that there is no reason that we must engage. Feel uneasy about Chris Brown’s history? Don’t cover him.

Only a few weeks earlier, ESPN aired an interview with Greg Hardy, an NFL free agent who was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in 2014. Hardy told interviewer Adam Schefter, “I’ve never put my hand on ANY women … In my whole entire life. No, sir,” though images and testimony from the incident contradict that claim fairly definitively. After the interview, Adam Schefter said that he believed Hardy was a “changed kind of guy” (a phrase he now says he regrets). Hardy’s ex-girlfriend, Nicole Holder, said in a statement after the interview aired that she, too, had changed: “I have relocated twice, changed my phone number more times than I can remember — I’ve even considered legally changing my name.” But who got to go on ESPN to have their image rehabilitated, their words given weight? Hardy. Women don’t get a chance to heal and reestablish their lives. But powerful men do.

At the premiere of Allen’s film yesterday, Kristen Stewart, who acts in the movie, said of her decision to participate, “At the end of the day, Jesse [Eisenberg] and I talked about this. If we were persecuted for the amount of shit that’s been said about us that’s not true, our lives would be over. The experience of making the movie was so outside of that, it was fruitful for the two of us to go on with it.” Stewart’s argument is the one that encourages the media to promote and even celebrate men like Brown, Hardy, Allen, Sean Penn, R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, Kobe Bryant, Charlie Sheen: We cannot say with certainty what happened behind closed doors, so we must give these men the benefit of the doubt. Their talent is enough for us. We believe we must continue to promote them and encourage them because if we don’t, we take on the role of accusers ourselves. But if we’re too afraid to say something either way, we shouldn’t voluntarily give these men a platform for redemption. Don’t cover their work. Don’t engage.

Of course, it’s easier for a news organization to decline to grant Hardy an interview — the specific goal of which is redemption — than it is to decline to cover someone’s work at all. In Woody Allen’s case, the decision has higher stakes: He’s making movies, and many people would say the world would be worse off if publications abstained from writing about them. But both a comeback interview and a film announcement provide abusive men a platform for promotion. Both tell women they aren’t valued, that art made by predators is more important than their experiences.

One in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime, in most cases by an intimate partner. It’s high time to start taking survivors seriously. So no more platforms for abusive men. No more indulging redemption stories and speculation. No more interviews that make viewers roll our eyes at the lack of substantive questions. There are 10 million different stories that can be told — online, in print, on TV, to each other. Let’s start giving the microphone to someone who actually deserves it.