How Not to Write About a Serial Rapist

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Daniel Holtzclaw in court, December 2015. (via NPR)

There's no way around this: Media companies, in the year 2016, are rushed. If you're gonna get paid, you've gotta get clicks, and if you're gonna get clicks, you've gotta churn out content -- quickly.

That is one part of one explanation for how this, a sympathetic 12,000-word profile of convicted serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, came to be published today on SB Nation, a sports news website under the Vox Media umbrella.

As of this writing, the story has been pulled from the site. In its place is a note from the site's editor, Spencer Hall, apologizing for the piece, calling it a "failure," and declaring that its publication "represents a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process at SB Nation." So. Okay. That's a good apology. That's how you do it. We'll talk about the wording in a moment.

Holtzclaw, you will recall, is a former Oklahoma City police officer and onetime NFL hopeful who was convicted in December 2015 of the sexual assaults of 13 women over the span of around six months. He appeared to target women with existing criminal records, running background checks to determine if there was information he could use to coerce sex, and trusted that these victims would be too fearful to report a crime by a police officer to the police -- or that no one would believe them if they did.

If you don't have the time to slowly become nauseous over the course of 12,000 words of breathless writing about a sexual predator who preyed specifically on women of color (with some absolutely mind-blowing theories floated on top about how either getting hit on the head or maybe just not getting drafted into the NFL can turn you into a serial rapist), let's just say the story aims to dig into Holtzclaw's background, with an apparent goal of getting at "who he really is": Writer Jeff Arnold talks to former teammates of Holtzclaw's from his college team; he talks to his family; he talks to his lawyer. The vast majority of the voices in the story -- the opinions placed in quotes, the people who get speaking time -- are people who believe Holtzclaw is innocent.


If it seems like this repetition simply amounts to a chorus of "But he's a really good guy!", please understand that is not just bad writing. It's a strategy, one usually used by writers who have an obligation to be objective, when they want other people to say their opinions for them. Often it takes the form of quoting people from both sides of the story, but then letting the favored side get "the last word." But why do that when you can just ignore other opinions entirely?

Wait, you might say. There are also scientists in this story! Scientists like Dr. Fred Berlin, the director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University.

"Berlin said given what on the surface appears to be a very natural appetite for sex may have gone off the tracks if Holtzclaw exhibited abnormal sexual fantasies of being in control of or coercing women, which followed a pattern of behavior in most of the complaints against him," writes Arnold.

"If that was true, Berlin surmised, it may be possible that some type of disorder may have been in play during the six-month period when the crimes took place in 2013 and 2014 when, without the potential of an NFL career to suppress his behavior, Holtzclaw seemingly became a completely different person."

Without the potential of an NFL career to suppress his behavior. 


Without the potential of a six-figure book deal to suppress her behavior, Silvers seemingly became a completely different person. Look for my totally explainable murder spree, forthcoming in 2017!

Okay, so it turns out I have neither the time nor the stomach to parse every batsh*t-bonkers sentence in this piece. Suffice it to say, yes, this was a massive failure, and the site's editor was right to call it that. The phrasing "a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process" is interesting to me, though, because the less official way to say it is this piece slipped through the cracks. This happens. I've worked at publications where this has happened, to varying degrees. Here are the situations in which things slip through the cracks: When a publication is understaffed or rushed or both. (Most are both.) When a publication is hungry for edgy, shareable content at all costs. (Again: more than you might think.)

And also: When the tenor of a piece -- the bias, the tone-deafness, the bad reporting and worse word choices for which an editor will later have to apologize -- is not really that out of tune with the rest of the words we breathe in and out over the course of a day of being on the internet, watching TV, or bullsh*tting about current events with our coworkers. The approach of "How could this former football star, who by all accounts was a super normal dude, who worked his way into a position of authority as an officer of the law, have done these things?" feels pretty regular because we see it with regularity.

The suggestion of "maybe he didn't" is one of many things that took this piece an extra step over the line. But the way the question doesn't ring in our ears as off-key in the first place says something about our misunderstanding of rape; our underestimation of exactly how common violence, sexual assault, and attacks of all kinds on those in society with the least amount of power really are; and our misconceptions about the most common perpetrators. About our steadfast refusal to internalize that yes, you can behave a like a normal guy in your regular life and also be a violent rapist, and it probably has less to do with football than with living in a culture that encourages you to see women's bodies as things you deserve. It's an approach to entitlement, and to monstrosity, that expects people to wear easily identifiable monster suits if they're going to do bad things.

I know that SB Nation isn't exactly known for its compelling and nuanced discussion of gender politics, but it is a site widely read by young men, so this is more than dumb and embarrassing. The moment we learn to stop positioning "nice normal dudes" as the diametric opposite of "rapists," we can maybe start to have a real conversation. That begins with calling out this framing when we see it, with making it sound wrong (because it is), and, yes, with not letting it slip quite so easily through the cracks.

Bonus for journalism: Far fewer crow-eating apology notes to grade. It'd be a good thing all around.