former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Post Op-ed Gained Attention but Not Respect

In Blog on September 4, 2013 at 11:33 am

I guess if The Washington Post was attempting to provoke strong reader reaction to an op-ed questioning whether sexual relations between teachers and minor students should be criminalized, the paper got when it sought. My daughter brought my attention to the opinion piece, published August 30th, and by the time I looked at it on September 1st, it had more than 3,000 reader comments.

But surely attention shouldn’t be the only goal for the opinion pages of what is still considered one of the nation’s most prestigious papers.  I often read Post op-eds and disagree with them, but this op-ed was written by someone who seemed to have no actual data or expertise around which to marshal her pretty outrageous arguments.

The news peg of the op-ed was the very light sentence a Montana teacher, who pleaded guilty to non-consensual sex with a 14-year-old student- or what many would call a rape- received in August.  Two years after the assault that student committed suicide, an event her mother felt was brought on by the trauma of the rape.  The teacher, who had failed to follow through on a plea deal that included mandatory treatment for sex abusers, was hauled back into court and the Montana judge gave him a 30-day sentence.  The judge averred that since the sex didn’t involve extreme violence or a stranger, it really didn’t count as a “forcible beat-up rape,” and implied that the 14-year-old in question may have been  more Lolita  than an innocent victim. (The judge did apologize for some of his remarks, but stood by his sentence.)

The judge received much criticism, including a very good editorial from the Washington Post, calling for the judge’s resignation.  For reasons I can’t fathom, The Post then decided to give very valuable column inches to a non-expert, described as a “writer and former lawyer” to rebut its editorial position. She opined that she had lots of friends in the sixties and seventies who had sex with teachers in high school, college and law school, and they’re in her estimation, just fine. To be a law student and have sex with a professor is unwise, but surely it can’t be compared to being a 14-year-old having sex with a teacher.

She also observed that teenage girls are interested in sex, something that we never would have assumed. But the fact that teenage hormones are often raging and unmanageable makes the teenagers more vulnerable, not less, to predatory adults.

She also suggested that it wasn’t the sexual assault that traumatized the Montana teenager to the point that she opted to kill herself, but the needless trauma of the court proceedings attempting to bring her attacker to justice.  Of course, that suggestion wasn’t supported by a scintilla of evidence.  And she urged that teachers who have sex with students should not necessarily be considered criminals, that it was possible for under-age teens and teachers to have consensual sex.

It isn’t that this viewpoint has no place in a newspaper.  But one would expect it to be backed up by more than personal experience.  Many of us, particularly parents, would contend that a minor simply doesn’t have the maturity to consent to sex with someone in authority over him or her, and that a teacher  who engages in any type of sexual behavior with a student knows that the relationship is, on its face, an unequal and exploitative one. Many of The Post readers who posted comments pointed this out, and raised thoughtful critiques. I was struck by the comment of a teacher who stated in her experience teacher-student relationships always harmed the student.

If The Post had retained its ombudsman, this would have been an ideal target for the ombudsman’s scrutiny.  How do editors choose op-eds? What vetting do authors get? What are the standards we as readers ought to expect?

Journalists defend their profession by claiming that they can present unbiased fact and thoughtful opinion, separating the wheat from the chaff in a world drowning in unfiltered information. But The Post’s legacy and the profession of journalism is tarnished when the paper opens its opinion pages to viewpoints that are no more than the personal views and subjective impressions of a deft writer who opts for a contrarian position.

Every day The Post writes stories and editorials that cry for expert rebuttal.  Last month, the paper ran a story about the growth of government that could have been based on the assumptions of the most ardent Tea Party supporter – that government by definition is too big.  The story also used statistics in ways that seemed to buttress its assumption, but that could be read far differently by economists, a fact that New York Magazine deftly pointed out.

And yet the irony is that The Post routinely rejects op-eds that deserve to run. It’s been my experience as a public interest lobbyist working in this town for the past 17 years, that The Post rarely gives those with well-documented and well-written opposing views the opportunity to rebut the paper through an op-ed.  Heck, even getting a letter to the editor published isn’t easy.

Actually my suspicion is that the editors at The Post knew that this op-ed would drive a lot of traffic to its site.  Perhaps, in the run up to the sale of the paper, they want to  expand their audience any way they can. If so, they got their wish.


Updated to add that the Montana judge has ordered a new sentencing hearing. Even he, it seems, may have been persuaded that Stacey Rambold’s (the teacher) actions caused more than “bruised feelings.”


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