Two recent news happenings are indicative of the media’s selective interest in dealing with the cultural problems associated with sexual corruption and misbehavior.
The trial and conviction of Hollywood bigshot Harvey Weinstein generated saturation coverage from all major news outlets. The Weinstein story, which broke over two years ago, helped bring attention to the “Me Too” movement. This sort of news coverage of a serious societal problem was long overdue. Reporting of sexual assault and other predatory behaviors need focused media attention if the nation is ever to confront and effectively deal with this ill. The Weinstein case helped get this topic onto the nation’s news agenda.
Last month, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation released its “Dirty Dozen List,” featuring twelve entities determined by the NCOSE to be “major contributor[s] to sexual exploitation.” The list includes media outlets such as Netflix, Amazon and Sports Illustrated for producing what the NCOSE views as sexually graphic and exploitive content. Internet/social media sites such as Google, Twitter and TikTok are on the list because the NCOSE says they facilitate distribution of coarse content, often with insufficient efforts to protect youth from porn or “grooming” efforts of online predators.
Also included is the Visa credit card company, which allows processing of payments to pornography companies peddling themes of sexual violence, incest and other destructive content.
The state of Nevada also earned its place in the dirty dozen. Legalized prostitution in that state plays a dangerous role in sex trafficking.
In contrast to the journalism industry’s keen focus on Weinstein, news coverage of the “Dirty Dozen List” was practically zilch. The news industry collectively yawned to the broad evidence provided by the NCOSE that corporate and institutional forces are combining to degrade the culture. This broad-based corporate negligence plays a key role in normalizing a culture of sexual exploitation, giving permission to and creating countless Weinsteins across the nation.
NCOSE Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach Haley McNamara acknowledged in an interview that the organization’s release of the “Dirty Dozen List” didn’t receive broad-scale national attention.
“Our culture today is uncomfortable recognizing that mainstream corporations are supporting sexual exploitation,” she said, “People can recognize a particular case of sexual violence but are slow to recognize how institutions contribute to this problem. They would rather focus on one or two boogeymen such as Weinstein than do the macro analysis that needs to happen.”
McNamara is correct, of course, and the journalism industry must shoulder the responsibility of not providing that broader perspective of how unnecessary and inappropriate sexually exploitive content is harming every town in America. It shouldn’t take a high-profile case like Weinstein’s to generate news coverage of cultural pollution. Weinstein’s case is instructive and certainly heinous, but news coverage of one miscreant doesn’t put into full context the nature of the scourge that is sexual violence and exploitation. Big media corporations have helped create this cultural sleaze and news outlets have failed to hold accountable their media brethren, treating the corporate wrongdoers as sacred cows.
The NCOSE has compiled volumes of research explaining how the cancerous spread of pornographic content is doing real harm to the nation. The harm is moral, of course, but sexually inappropriate content also is a threat to the nation’s physical and mental health. That’s why sixteen states have now passed legislative resolutions declaring pornography a public health hazard. Alabama is the latest state to join the ranks.
Four members of Congress wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr in December, urging him to direct the Department of Justice to renew initiatives to combat obscene content.
The federal government has done basically nothing in the last ten years to stop the flow of obscenity. Former Attorney General Eric Holder disbanded the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force early during the Obama Administration. Barr has been preoccupied with many other issues in recent weeks, no doubt, but he should take this request seriously. As the members of Congress point out in their letter, there are still laws on the books against the making and distribution of obscene material. Obscene communication is not protected by the First Amendment. The challenge, of course, is how to define obscenity, but that shouldn’t be impossible. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s standard of “I know it when I see it” can be workable.
The nation has operated in recent years under the absurd notion that the media industry can infuse culture with sexually bankrupt entertainment in film, music, television and social media and somehow not have that vulgarity operationalize into sexual misbehavior in schools, workplaces, and homes. There are consequences to having a media-created cultural sewer.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University. He is a recognized authority on media and journalistic ethics and standards, having been interviewed and quoted by over 125 newspapers.