Last week the writer and famed advice columnist E. Jean Carroll alleged that the president of the United States raped her. The claim came in an excerpt of her soon-to-be-published book and is the current cover of New York magazine. But the anecdote in question appears toward the end of a recitation of other crimes men have committed against her, situating the assault in the list that all women have to some degree: Here are the men who have abused me.
Carroll's is not the first allegation of misconduct, nor the second, nor the third, nor the fourth, nor the fifth, nor the sixth, nor the seventh, nor the eighth or 10th or 12th against the president. Depending on the count, between 15 and just under two dozen women have accused Donald Trump of some form of sexual misconduct.
I wrote about Carroll’s accusation as soon as her account was published. On Friday I wrote, “The problem isn’t that it’s unbelievable. The problem is that his base doesn’t care.” But as it turned out, not only did Trump’s base not care about the claims, but most mainstream newspapers barely covered it, treating it (in at least one prominent case) as book news, instead of breaking news. The most powerful man in the world was accused of rape. The most powerful media outlets in the world blinked.
As Media Matters’s Katie Sullivan pointed out, Carroll’s claim did not make the front page of Saturday’s New York Times, Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, or Chicago Tribune. The Washington Post did accord it that placement, but the paper did not lead with it. On Monday the New York Times, which at first covered the accusation in its books section, issued a sort of mea culpa and acknowledged that even the paper’s executive editor “said he had concluded that it should have been presented more prominently, with a headline on the Times’s home page.” That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t forgive the initial impulse.
Worse still, when outlets did cover Carroll’s claims, most seemed to lead not with her harrowing account, but with Trump’s denial of it. A representative headline on CNBC reads: “Trump responds to E. Jean Carrol’s sexual assault allegations: ‘Shame on those who make up false stories of assault.’” Seems generous, given that by even the most conservative math, Carroll is at least the 15th woman to come forward with an accusation against him. And then there was the Washington Examiner, which ran an even friendlier take: “Trump issues blistering denial of E. Jean Carroll's rape allegation,” its headline read. Awfully liberal, considering that Trump’s full rebuttal included this patent untruth: “Regarding the ‘story’ by E. Jean Carroll, claiming she once encountered me at Bergdorf Goodman 23 years ago. I’ve never met this person in my life.” But Carroll’s piece includes a photo of Trump talking to her and her ex-husband. In the frame is also his ex-wife, Ivana, who as it happens also accused Trump of rape, but later recanted.
Blistering? What’s so blistering about obscuring the truth?
But perhaps the most disappointing coverage (or lack thereof) came from the major network Sunday shows. As HuffPost put it, “ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC―the networks that make up the ‘big five’ of Sunday morning talk shows―boasted major political players in their lineups,” with Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) both on air for interviews. Not a single one of them was asked to address Carroll’s allegations. The Columbia Journalism Review also drew attention to a piece about Carroll’s allegations that ran on the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post but has since been deleted. (Murdoch is a Trump supporter, and CNN reports that an old lieutenant of his who has returned to the paper as an adviser is the person who ordered the piece be removed.) When reporters in the newsroom were asked why the story was taken down, one told CNN, “Nobody needs to explain why. We already know.”
So what happened to the story of E. Jean Carroll? Trump’s base seems, as expected, completely immune to accusations of even criminal behavior when it comes to Trump. But what happened to us, to the media?
Are we just too desensitized to these allegations? Are we so exhausted by the constant hum of sexism and corruption that is Trumpworld? Is it true, as Trump once himself claimed, that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote? Or is it as Ryan Cooper in The Week posited: It’s not about who Trump is. It’s about who we are. “One answer is probably the freshness bias built into the news business," he said. "Shocking new stories are more interesting and hence get more attention. So while a sexual assault allegation against a politician who appears scandal-free would be new and interesting, the 22nd one is simply another entry in a boring routine.”
Having now given it about 72 hours of nonstop thought, I do believe Carroll’s age was a factor. True, we have been trained not to listen to women, period. But older women have been rendered the most invisible. Their humiliations become background noise, and slights against them almost fail to register. When The Hill asked Trump about Carroll's allegations, Trump responded, “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type.” It’s not a surprise, but it is worth a mention: The president here has chosen to imply that Carroll isn’t attractive enough to rape. Not that rape is itself a crime.
The media’s (lack of) attention to Carroll is at best a cautionary tale of what not to do with a rape allegation and at worst a terrifying indication of where we are as a country. As feminists have stressed since Trump entered the race for president, he is a symptom, not a cause. He didn’t have to pass laws to ensure that news outlets don’t cover a rape allegation against him. He could count on the norms that made his rise possible: The media, which powerful men more or less still control, proved the bigger point of Carroll’s piece. It’s not just one hideous man who’s the problem. It’s the list of them. It’s the system of them.
On Monday, RAINN, which operates the national sexual assault hotline, said in an email release that it saw a 53 percent increase in calls after the Carroll’s excerpt was published. If the media won’t amplify our voices, we’re just going to need to form a bigger chorus.
Molly Jong-Fast is the author of three novels. Follow her on Twitter @mollyjongfast.
Originally Appeared on Glamour