When kids are caught chewing gum in class, teachers normally say something like, “I hope you have enough to share with everyone.”
One could say the same for the newsrooms that have published headlines labeling Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore an “accused child molester.”
It’s not that the headlines are inaccurate. The GOP candidate indeed stands accused of trying to initiate sexual encounters with at least two women when they were minors. It’s that these newsrooms now have to apply similar labels to all public figures credibly accused of sexual misconduct or run the risk of further eroding of the public’s already dwindling trust in the press.
Nine women have spoken out against Moore. Almost all of them allege the former state judge sought relationships with them in the late 1970s when he was in his early- to mid-30s. A few of the women say Moore was merely off-putting or creepy. Two women allege specifically that Moore provided them with alcohol when they were below the legal drinking age in Alabama.
Two additional women claim Moore sexually assaulted them when they were 14 and 16 years old, respectively.
The GOP candidate hasn’t attempted a convincing refutation of the women who’ve accused him of assault or harassment, or the more than 30 people who have corroborated their stories. Instead, Moore has responded by alleging a conspiracy by the press, a conspiracy by the Democratic Party, and a conspiracy by the Republican Party.
The Alabama candidate's varying responses to allegations have also included some holes. He has gone from denying everything to acknowledging he dated a couple of his accusers when they were teens, to denying he knows any of the women.
The press’ overall coverage of these accusations, especially the ones involving minors, has been brutal.
“Trump backs accused child molester over Democrat,” read a recent CNN chyron
MSNBC published a headline online that reads, “Trump fully endorses accused child molester Roy Moore.”
“‘Go get 'em, Roy': Trump backs accused child molester Moore for Senate,” reads a Guardian headline.
Vanity Fair published a story of its own, titled “Trump endorses accused child molester over ‘liberal person’ Doug Jones.”
“The Republican Party is back on board with accused child molester Roy Moore,” reads a Vox headline.
The headlines are neither inaccurate, nor do they do the accusing. They are carefully worded and they’re reflective of accusations leveled against a senatorial candidate.
That said, if this is how we're handling these stories now, it would be only fair going forward that these newsrooms use similarly accurate and well-worded headlines to identify former President Bill Clinton as an “accused rapist.” Or would that be expecting too much?
This gets at the heart of what the American Right dislikes most about the press.
People who lean to the right aren’t anti-media merely for the sake of being anti-media. Conservatives actually admire a number of journalists, such as CBS News’ Mark Knoller and CNN’s Jake Tapper. What the right-leaning crowd dislikes most is the flagrant unfair treatment their leaders get from a powerful industry with thousands of deafening megaphones.
They see Dan Rather’s botched hit on George W. Bush, and they rightly see unfair treatment. They see ABC News’ Brian Ross misreporting that a tea partier was responsible for the 2012 Aurora, Colo., theater mass shooting, and they rightly see unfair treatment. They see the New York Times’ editorial board repeat the false charge that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin inspired the 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shooting, and they rightly see unfair treatment.
If they see a newsroom label Moore an “accused child molester,” and meanwhile they see no such damning designation for Bill Clinton, who has been accused of several terrible acts of sexual assault, they will be right to see unfair treatment.
Newsrooms are setting a new precedent for handling accused public figures. Going forward, they’ll need to weigh whether the accusations are credible enough as to merit tagging the public figure as an “accused,” and then they’ll be asked to show their homework on why they did or why they didn’t include the tag.