There has, admittedly, been a sort of assumption of guilt from the media in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair—the brutal tabloid headlines, the half-hearted insertions of “allegedly” and “innocent until proven guilty” into otherwise damning copy, the listings of his past indiscretions and womanizing ways. And there is a serious discussion to be had about the way the media reports on a story like this: big nasty crime, big foreign guy, yet still entitled to some due process, both legally and journalistically.
But two pieces today, which both seek to address issues in the media coverage of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, show an unbelievable level of tone-deafness on their way to opening up this discussion. The first comes from French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, writing for The Daily Beast; the second comes from Ben Stein writing at The American Spectator. CJR’s Felix Salmon summed up the near-consensus reaction to both pieces with this tweet published after he read Stein’s column:
I would call it more a tie.
The problem is not that these two writers have called for some balance in the debate, it is the way they have done so: both seem to be embodying the more cartoonishly womanizing attitudes the tabloids have attributed to Strauss-Kahn and going at the victim like a particularly abhorrent defense attorney on a lesser episode of Law and Order: SVU.
Take this awfully speculative and insinuating paragraph from Lévy:
I do not know—but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay—how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a “cleaning brigade” of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet.
It is only matched by this later paragraph, in which Lévy cross-examines another alleged victim, Tristane Banon, who has come out publicly about an alleged past assault.
I hold it against all those who complacently accept the account of this other young woman, this one French, who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape, who has shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television.
It would be tempting for some to dismiss this kind of awful dross as a certain brand of Frenchness—this is part of the problematic tact some tabloids have taken with the whole story—but Stein, an American, has offered an equally offensive defense.
Again, the notion of a defense is not the problem. But the unique way in which Stein intermingles sheer idiocy with his attacks on and dismissals of the alleged victim is something to behold. Stein shares eight thoughts on the matter, all numbered, each as haphazardly reasoned and awful as the other. Here’s number three:
The prosecutors say that Mr. Strauss-Kahn “forced” the complainant to have oral and other sex with him. How? Did he have a gun? Did he have a knife? He’s a short fat old man. They were in a hotel with people passing by the room constantly, if it’s anything like the many hotels I am in. How did he intimidate her in that situation? And if he was so intimidating, why did she immediately feel un-intimidated enough to alert the authorities as to her story?
Well, of course he couldn’t have done it—he’s too portly!—and look how untrustworthy this “chambermaid” is: she’s intimidated by her supposed attacker more so when she’s in the room with him than when she’s not.
Oh, and there is this:
What do we know about the complainant besides that she is a hotel maid? I love and admire hotel maids. They have incredibly hard jobs and they do them uncomplainingly. I am sure she is a fine woman. On the other hand, I have had hotel maids that were complete lunatics, stealing airline tickets from me, stealing money from me, throwing away important papers, stealing medications from me.
Also: Stein says we need to bear in mind that events follow patterns, and you know, there haven’t been many heads of massive nonprofit economic accused of violent sex crimes in the past. So
Now, there may be something to the charges that the media is unfairly trying Strauss-Kahn, attacking him, and vilifying him. But a reasonable discussion about that issue does not begin with vile sideswipes at the faceless woman claiming he attacked her.