Tag Archives: media

Bernie Sanders Knows What He’s Doing and Is Doing It Quite Well

According to Politico, House Democrats booed Bernie Sanders during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, July 6.  They would like him to officially end his presidential campaign and were frustrated that, in response to calls to endorse Hillary Clinton, he stated that his goal “is to transform America,” not just “to win elections.”  This reaction was unsurprising; as Politico noted, “House Democrats overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary fight,” and the idea that winning elections might be a means rather than an end “plays better on the campaign trail than in front of a roomful of elected officials.”  Even one of Sanders’ few congressional supporters during the primary, Raul Grijalva, has argued that a Sanders endorsement of Clinton has “got to happen prior to the [Democratic] convention.”

What doesn’t make any sense at all, however, is the argument many of Sanders’ detractors have been advancing for quite some time about why they think he should drop out.  The idea that “he’s squandering the movement he built” by withholding his endorsement (advanced by a “senior Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity”) is obviously incorrect, but has been repeated over and over again by numerous journalists and pundits, including:

  • Gabriel Debenedetti and Sahil Kapur, who penned pieces entitled “Sanders loses convention leverage” (for Politico) and “Sanders’ Long Refusal to Endorse Clinton Hurts His Leverage” (for Bloomberg), respectively, on June 17;
  • Joan Walsh, who argued in The Nation on June 27 that “Sanders may…be setting himself up for less influence in Philadelphia, rather than more;”
  • Jamelle Bouie, who contended in Slate on June 28 that “the leverage [Sanders] held at the end of the primary just isn’t there anymore;”
  • Stuart Rothenberg, who wrote in The Washington Post on June 30 that “Sanders is not yet irrelevant[, but] he reached a point weeks ago when his stubbornness became counterproductive;” and
  • Joshua Green, who asserted in Bloomberg on July 7 that “Sanders increasingly looks like an afterthought who’s squandering an historic opportunity.”

Their arguments boil down to the following: The more Sanders waits to endorse Clinton, the more he alienates her team, encouraging them to ignore parts of his platform that they’d be otherwise inclined to support and to rely on other politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, for progressive credibility.  Sanders’ “first and most prominent supporters have jumped off the bandwagon, congratulating and in some cases endorsing Clinton,” Debenedetti notes, and Bouie adds that Sanders has lost his chance to “claim credit” for the “natural movement to Clinton among Democratic primary voters” that has already begun to take place.  Bouie believes Sanders could have taken “a starring role in the campaign against Trump,” opening “the doors to lasting influence,” but in the words of Rothenberg, “Clinton doesn’t need Sanders anymore.” If “Sanders delivers a late or halfhearted endorsement,” Walsh argues, Clinton may even turn to Republicans for votes.

Yet these claims are belied by recent events.  As Jeff Stein observed in Vox, the draft Democratic party platform, released in full on Friday, July 1, “shows Sanders winning on at least six signature issues that reflect long-held goals of his movement…on top of victories Sanders [had] already won over the platform.”  Bouie is right to point out that “Team Sanders…lost out” in platform discussions about “more contentious” issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and environmental regulation, and Green isn’t far off when he says the platform is “a purely symbolic document,” but it’s also undoubtedly the case, as Stein notes, that the party is still “moving [Sanders’] way on several key issues.”  Though Politico’s unnamed senior Democrat and Green ignored it, Clinton also just announced a new plan to make college free for families making under $125,000 a year, a proposal that isn’t quite as good as Sanders’ but represents a striking reversal from her earlier campaign rhetoric.

The reason for these concessions is simple: Clinton wants Sanders’ endorsement.  Yes, some Sanders supporters already seem poised to vote for Clinton, but even they often have negative perceptions of her and are unlikely to volunteer and/or donate in the same way they would have if Sanders was the nominee.  Clinton knows that generating the enthusiasm and votes necessary to beat Donald Trump in November would be easier with Sanders on board and the possibility that he won’t be is the best bargaining chip Sanders has got.

If winning more concessions from Clinton is a key objective for Sanders, he’d be crazy to give that chip up prematurely.  It’s hard to believe that Sanders would have secured the gains he already has if he had followed the pundits’ advice and tried to ingratiate himself to Clinton.

At the same time, winning concessions from Clinton is not Sanders’ – or Grijalva’s, or many other Sanders supporters’ – only or even primary goal.  Sanders has explicitly prioritized making “certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly,” as Bouie pointed out, and Sanders has both said that he will vote for Clinton in November and suggested that an endorsement may be imminent.  That position isn’t unreasonable; though the differences between Trump and Clinton are often overstated, Clinton is undoubtedly the lesser evil facing those who believe in power-balancing policy.  But it also deprives Sanders and his voters of a whole lot of bargaining power.

In fact, Clinton can court a growing list of Republicans not because of the delayed endorsement by Sanders that Walsh has feared, but for precisely the opposite reason: as one Republican strategist has explained, many Sanders supporters “have already shown, by and large, that they’ll fall in line and back” Clinton despite policy positions they dislike.  The loss of bargaining power that pledging to vote for Clinton entails is also apparent in pressure from Wall Street about Clinton’s choice of a running mate: “moderate Democrats in the financial services industry argue that Sanders voters will come on board anyway and that Clinton does not need to pick [Elizabeth] Warren to help her win.”  A commitment to lesser-of-evilsism is indisputably accompanied by a loss of leverage in situations in which you and the candidate you’re backing disagree.

Some Sanders supporters have already decided that a united front against Trump is more important than that leverage.  Others believe that fixing a Democratic party that is seriously broken is a more pressing concern and that the concessions Sanders has won, while not meaningless, are very different than binding commitments Clinton would be likely to adhere to if elected; we wish Sanders had maximized his leverage by seriously entertaining a third-party run.  Sanders, on the other hand, has been attempting to balance his attention to both goals, to influence the Democratic party platform as much as possible without materially affecting the Democrats’ chances in the fall.

It’s perfectly fine to disagree with his relative weighting of priorities.  But let’s stop pretending that he’s making a strategic blunder.  Sanders knows exactly what he’s doing, and despite assertions to the contrary from media and “top Democrats,” he has actually done it quite well.

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There’s a Reason People Think the Democratic Primary Was Unfair and Undemocratic: It Was

Journalists have been cautioning Bernie Sanders against “suggesting the entire political process is unfair,” insisting that doing so could have “negative and destabilizing consequences.”  They contend that he must “argue to his supporters that the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” so that he can convince them to vote for Hillary Clinton.  According to several recent articles, this argument should be easy to make because “The Democratic Primary Wasn’t Rigged” and “Bernie Sanders lost this thing fair and square.”

The problem, however, is that the Democratic primary was anything but “fair and square.”  It may not have been “rigged” in the narrow sense in which some of these writers have interpreted that word (to mean that there were illegal efforts to mess with vote counts), but it certainly wasn’t democratic. That’s why only 31 percent of Democrats express “a great deal of confidence” that the Democratic primary process is fair and is likely why the election conspiracy theories these journalists decry have gained traction.

Defenders of the Democratic primary results make several legitimate points.  Clinton secured more votes and more pledged delegates than Sanders.  When voting rules were less restrictive, she still won a greater number of open primaries than he did.  Caucuses, which are very undemocratic, likely benefited Sanders.  There isn’t evidence that the Clinton campaign coordinated efforts to purge voters from the rolls, inaccurately tabulate votes, or mislead Sanders’ California supporters into registering for the American Independent Party.  While “the American election system is a disaster” and “should be reformed,” it’s not clear that the numerous and alarming voting rights issues that surfaced during the primary (from Arizona to New York to Puerto Rico) systematically disadvantaged Sanders.  And discrepancies between exit polls and final voting results can happen for a number of reasons; they aren’t necessarily indicative of foul play.

Yet at the same time, these points skirt the very real ways in which the primary process was “rigged;” as Matt Yglesias and Jeff Stein have acknowledged, “the media, the party, and other elected officials [were] virtually uniformly…loaded against” Sanders from the get-go.  The thumbs on the scale from these groups mattered a lot, more even than Yglesias and Stein surmise.

To quickly recap what those thumbs looked like, the Democratic party threw so much institutional support behind Clinton so long before she even declared her candidacy that political scientist David Karol asserted, in December of 2014, that “Hillary has basically almost been nominated.”  The Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule was “obviously intended” to insulate Clinton from challengers and scrutiny. The DNC, in response to inappropriate behavior from a Sanders staffer who DNC staff had recommended and the campaign had already fired, suspended Sanders’ access to important voter data in violation of its contract with his campaign.  While Clinton was dinging Sanders on his ostensible disregard for party fundraising, the “so-called joint fundraising committee comprised of Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees” was exploiting loopholes in campaign finance laws to funnel the bulk of its resources to Clinton and Clinton alone.  Even into late May, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was leaning heavily into biased, anti-Sanders messaging, and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.  In addition, leaders of numerous groups traditionally affiliated with the Democratic party – unions and organizations generally more aligned with Sanders than Clinton on campaign issues – endorsed Clinton without polling their members (the groups that did open the endorsement process up to members typically endorsed Sanders).

Mainstream pundits and analysts were hardly any better than the Democratic party.  From the moment Sanders entered the race, the media insisted – when they covered him at all, which was not very often – that he had “no chance of winning.”  They continued to write off the possibility of a Sanders victory even as his popularity skyrocketed and he took an early lead in the popular vote, inappropriately including superdelegates in their reporting to make it look like Clinton was winning big.  They asserted that the hundreds of policy wonks in support of Sanders’ ideas didn’t exist, subjecting Sanders’ proposals to far more scrutiny than Clinton’s, getting their analysis of some of Sanders’ plans flat-out wrong, and attempting to “boot anyone not preaching from the incrementalist gospel out of the serious club.”  They began to pressure Sanders to drop out well before even half of all primaries and caucuses had been completed.  They helped advance the false narrative that angry, sexist, illiberal White men fueled Sanders’ rise when his supporters were typically more power-balancing than Clinton’s and he was actually most popular among young women, young people of color, and poor Americans.  They also helped the Clinton campaign propagate numerous misleading and/or untrue attacks on Sanders.

In general, as often happens when political and media establishments are threatened, they progressed from “polite condescension” towards the Sanders campaign to “innuendos” to “right-wing attacks” to “grave and hysterical warnings” to something close to a “[f]ull-scale and unrestrained meltdown.”  It’s not clear exactly how much of that progression was coordinated, but it takes minimal effort to dismantle the claim that the Democratic party and mainstream media outlets were mostly neutral.  Whether Clinton surrogates were praising her on TV without disclosing their ties to her campaign or technically unaffiliated newspaper outlets were blasting Sanders in headlines and post-publication edits to their articles, media sources consistently parroted misleading Clinton campaign talking points.  Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride.

It is true that Clinton faced a large amount of negative media coverage herself – much of it in the summer of 2015 and by some metrics the most out of any presidential candidate – and it is also true that the Sanders campaign had its issues, especially when it came to reaching out to and addressing the concerns of older Black voters.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Clinton got way more coverage at a critical juncture of the race, a huge asset because “[n]ame recognition is a key asset in the early going [and,] even as late as August of 2015, two in five registered Democrats nationally said they’d never heard of Sanders or had heard so little they didn’t have an opinion.”  It also doesn’t change the fact that Clinton was considered the de facto nominee even when media coverage was otherwise unfavorable, a dynamic that surely benefited her among Democrats who prioritize uniting the party in the general election above all else.  Though Sanders’ popularity increased as voters became more familiar with him, the initial lack of media coverage of his campaign, Democratic party opposition to his candidacy, and the idea that a Clinton win was inevitable all hamstrung him greatly.  If the media coverage he received had been more equitable and accurate, it is easy to show that he might have been the Democratic nominee.

That’s why, when writers argue that superdelegates did not “decide the nomination for Clinton,” they’re only half-right.  Clinton certainly won the popular vote under Democratic primary rules, but the superdelegates’ early allegiances and the media’s reporting on those allegiances also certainly influenced that popular vote.  Roadblocks from Democratic party elites and misleading or downright untrue attacks from the Clinton campaign, its many high-profile surrogates, and the mainstream media were ubiquitous throughout the primary process and certainly influenced the vote as well.

As Glenn Greenwald summarized, premature media reports that Clinton had won the election on June 6, besides depressing turnout in the next day’s primaries, constituted “the perfect symbolic ending to the Democratic Party primary: The nomination [was] consecrated by a media organization, on a day when nobody voted, based on secret discussions with anonymous establishment insiders and donors…[T]he party’s governing rules are deliberately undemocratic; unfair and even corrupt decisions were repeatedly made by party officials to benefit Clinton; and the ostensibly neutral Democratic National Committee…constantly put not just its thumb but its entire body on the scale to ensure she won.”  Combine many Democrats’ staunch denial of these problems with undemocratic voting practices that have favored Clinton and that her supporters have too often downplayed, and it’s little wonder that some people believe the election was a sham.

Journalists who disagree should absolutely make their case.  They should also, however, more seriously consider where voters’ concerns come from and stop insisting the system isn’t “rigged.”  People think “the entire political process is unfair” because it is.  And many doubt that “the outcome of the [Democratic primary] process was legitimate” for good reason.

It’s not Sanders’ responsibility to convince people that the primary was something it wasn’t.  It’s our collective responsibility to fix our democracy in the months and years ahead.

Sanders has some ideas for how to go about doing that, and they’re a good start, but there’s still much more to offer in this area.  Stay tuned.

Update (7/23/16): The following sentence fragment was added to this piece after a Wikileaks release of DNC emails: “and leaked emails confirm that she and other DNC leaders actively sought to undermine the Sanders campaign.”  In addition, an earlier version of this piece contained a sentence that read “New evidence suggests that the DNC was along for the ride,” but that sentence was updated to read “Evidence indicates that the DNC was along for the ride” due to corroborating evidence in the Wikileaks release.

Update (10/8/16): Another email leak provides further confirmation that the DNC “anointed [Clinton] the presumed nominee even before the campaign formally began,” as Michael Tracey notes.

Update (10/16/16): Thomas Frank, in a qualitative analysis of Washington Post coverage of Sanders during the primary, finds that clearly negative stories about Sanders outnumbered clearly positive ones by a “roughly five to one” margin, whereas the ratio for Clinton coverage “came much closer to a fifty-fifty split.”

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The Electability Counterfactual

In Pennsylvania, the biggest delegate prize on Tuesday, April 26, 11 percent of Democratic primary voters indicated in exit polls that “electability” was the “candidate quality” they cared about most.  Of those voters, 83 percent cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

The results were similar in Connecticut and Maryland and have been pretty consistent throughout the entire country; the 8 to 21 percent of voters who value electability more than anything else have overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in every state in which exit polling is available except Vermont (where Clinton got “only” 50 percent of the votes based on this criterion).  The strongly held belief among Democratic primary voters – at least, those Democratic primary voters who care most about the electability criterion – seems to be that Clinton is more likely than Bernie Sanders to win a head-to-head general election matchup.

This belief, however, is completely at odds with the evidence.  Polling data and voting results clearly imply that Sanders would match up better against any of the Republican candidates than Clinton would.  If voters who cared about electability had been aware of this evidence when voting, Sanders could very well be on his way to wrapping up the Democratic nomination (rather than facing a very narrow, though not impossible, path to victory).

I don’t personally value perceived electability very much: I care more about candidate records and values, electability often ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and, given that it requires speculation about numerous unknown factors, electability cannot be gauged with certainty.  But I’ve written about it during this election cycle both because there are people who do care and because a fact-free media narrative about electability has been sowing misinformation among Democratic primary voters.

Head-to-head polling matchups against potential Republican candidates are the most direct evidence we have on the question of electability.  As the graph below illustrates, those polls clearly favor Sanders, and they’ve done so since before voters in the first primary state (Iowa) headed to their caucus locations.

Head-to-Head Polls

Pundits continue to insist, as they have for months, that these poll results are “meaningless” (or, at best, that they “overstate [Sanders’] general-election prospects”).  They argue that Sanders “hasn’t been attacked” yet by Republicans and that, if attacks began to air, “his advantage over [Clinton] would disappear.”  Yet Sanders has been attacked by the GOP; Donald Trump has been calling Sanders a “maniac” and “communist” for the last six months, Right-wing media outlets have been telling people that, under Sanders, “your paycheck will feel the Bern,” and Future 45, a Republican Super PAC, launched an ad campaign back in February intended “to start educating Americans about [Sanders’] out-of-touch record.”  In fact, the “glaring [general election] vulnerabilities” one columnist described Sanders as having back in February – being old, being labeled a “socialist,” and wanting to raise taxes – are all things that Hillary Clinton and/or her surrogates have already attacked him for during the primary season.

GOP operatives would surely intensify their attacks on Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee.  But the fact of the matter is that head-to-head polling in April is often predictive of general election outcomes and that, in spite of numerous attacks leveled against him over the past few months, Sanders’ popularity has continued to rise steadily.  Clinton’s popularity, as the chart below shows, has been consistently headed in the opposite direction.

Favorability

In addition, young voters, who “arguably won both the 2008 and 2012 elections for Barack Obama,” prefer Sanders to Clinton by very large margins.  So do Independents.  If the Democrats want to secure these critical voting blocs in November, the next two graphs strongly suggest that they’d be best off with Bernie Sanders as their nominee.

Youth

Independents

In short, the electability evidence overwhelmingly favors Sanders, and most voters who have seen it, as I’ve been unsurprised to discover while phone banking and canvassing on Sanders’ behalf, find it convincing.  The problem is that most people haven’t seen it and/or have been told, erroneously, that it doesn’t matter; that’s the most likely explanation for the exit poll results we’ve seen thus far.

Just for fun, I decided to see what the election would look like in an alternate universe, one in which this evidence was widely available to all voters.  Those who prioritized electability would at the very least split evenly between the two candidates, but would more likely vote for Sanders in margins as large as those by which, in the actual results, they’ve broken for Clinton.

Holding every other voter’s preferences constant, these scenarios would have drastically shifted election outcomes.  If voters prioritizing electability had been equally as likely to break for Sanders, Sanders would have won Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Nevada.  Clinton’s pledged delegate lead would have fallen from 287 to 129, a total that would have been viewed as surmountable.  And if Sanders dominated among these voters, he would have won New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well.  As the graph below shows, increased awareness of electability evidence could very well have put Sanders ahead of Clinton by 83 pledged delegates.

Electability What-If

In other words, if the facts on electability had been publicized and everything else had remained constant, Sanders might today be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

That’s obviously a huge “if” and it doesn’t in any way change reality: Clinton is winning big and time is running out.  But electability hypotheticals provide some insight into how the 2016 Democratic primary process, like far too many of our public debates, has been driven more by misleading media narratives than by the facts.

I know, I know – as Sanders likes to remind us, “telling the truth” is considered a “radical idea” in American politics.  But as his candidacy has also underscored, that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Update (6/5/16): Adam Johnson has thoroughly debunked “The Myth That Sanders Hasn’t Been Criticized.”

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Believe It or Not, Bernie Sanders Outperformed Projections on Super Tuesday II – And the Calendar Gets Better from Here On Out

“The 2016 Democratic primary effectively ended Tuesday night, with Hillary Clinton as the all-but-certain winner,” the media has declared.  Bernie Sanders needed some wins, they tell us, and “his path to the nomination is now essentially blocked.”  Since Clinton is over 300 pledged delegates up on Sanders – more than twice as many as Obama ever was on Clinton in 2008 – the president of Clinton’s Super PAC insists that it “is all but mathematically impossible for Bernie Sanders to overtake her lead.”

The only problem with the media and Clinton campaign narratives?  They’re not true.

That’s not to say the results on Tuesday, March 15 weren’t disappointing for Sanders supporters, who were hoping for a repeat of Sanders’ historic upset in Michigan a week before.  But that result was always unlikely; Sanders wasn’t actually predicted to win a single state on Super Tuesday II.  As the graph below shows, Sanders came close to meeting expectations in Ohio and exceeded them in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina.  In other words, while it was a tough night for Sanders in terms of pledged delegates, it was a pretty good night for Sanders relative to projections, not to mention the massive polling deficits he faced mere weeks ago.

Expectations 3-15-16

Sanders also still has a clear, albeit outside, shot at winning the Democratic nomination.  We’re only halfway through the primary calendar and he is likely to do well in upcoming contests.  Tuesday put him behind the targets he would need in one possible path to the nomination, but there are a number of large, delegate-rich states left, including New York and California, and a good run in the next round of primaries and caucuses would keep Sanders well within striking distance of Clinton.  Again, winning the nomination is definitely a long shot for him – he’d need to pull off more Michigan-like upsets to do it – but if Sanders supporters keep donating, phone banking, and otherwise volunteering their time, it’s also definitely still possible.

Despite these facts, the media and the Clinton campaign will be selling a different, inaccurate story.  It will be up to Sanders supporters to make sure that voters don’t buy it.

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Shaming the Victim: The Public Backlash against Jackie and How It Reinforces Rape Culture

In this post, Lela Spielberg discusses the media’s coverage of a gang rape at the University of Virginia and its complicity in American rape culture.  Lela is a lifelong advocate for gender equality and has spent time as an elementary school teacher, education policy analyst, and director at an education nonprofit.

Lela Spielberg

Lela Spielberg

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely: “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” I’m sure most of you are by now familiar with this story and its central protagonist, “Jackie.” (If not, you should read it). The lack of urgency and transparency with which UVA and other elite universities across the country have chosen to handle allegations of sexual assault and rape on their campuses deserves plenty of comment, but my post is not about this story.

Instead, my post is about the controversy that followed Erdely’s story, and the overwhelmingly negative and unkind reactions towards Jackie from the media and the general public. Allow me to briefly summarize:

Following the release of the story, T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post chose to follow up on Rolling Stone’s story, and when he did, he found some inconsistencies in Jackie’s narrative. Several other, less reputable news outlets – including The Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Fox News – chose to follow suit. A mere week after the story was published, several holes had been poked in the Rolling Stone article. Every detail of the story and rape was questioned: Why were the alleged perpetrators of the rape not interviewed? Were there five men present at the rape, or seven? Did Jackie have to have vaginal sex with them, or was she “just” forced to perform oral sex?

None of these inconsistencies refute the fact that Jackie was indeed sexually assaulted at UVA, or that UVA was incredibly cagey in its handling of the assault and the story. Yet the ensuing public backlash was enough for Rolling Stone to issue a statement apologizing for the original article and for the media to continue, for almost a month now, to further discredit Jackie, Erdely, and, to some extent, the prevalence of rape on college campuses. These reactions are not surprising to me. Rather, they are symptomatic of a larger problem. The world we live in is overwhelmingly tilted in favor of its most privileged members – in most cases, wealthy, white men – and yet so blithely unaware of the privilege it grants some people and not others that those who challenge this privilege are vilified, impugned, and doubted.

I will not waste my time going tit for tat with The Washington Post and Rolling Stone on the facts of Jackie’s story. I understand that good journalism is about facts, and I regret that Rolling Stone did not do a perfect job checking them. But in a story involving trauma, there will likely be inconsistencies in first-person accounts of events. And those stories still deserve to be told.

What Jackie described to Erdely was a severely traumatic experience. It is a well-documented fact that when people experience an incredibly stressful event (and being forced to perform oral sex, being gang raped by several men, and/or having a beer bottle inserted in your vagina all definitely qualify as stressful), their memories of the event are often incomplete and/or altered. Moreover, most people tend to forget details as time passes. Think about it: if I interviewed you about a sexual experience, even a pleasant one, that happened two years ago, would you be able to tell me everything? Where did your partner work at the time? How long was the foreplay? How long did the sex last? What did you say to your friends afterwards?

(If you think you can recall these details, please email me so we can set up an interview. Then I’ll interview every single person tangentially involved, ask to go through your emails and texts, and print any inconsistencies in your story on the front page of The Washington Post.)

Indeed, that’s why self-doubt and guilt are two feelings that sexual assault survivors often experience. They wake up in disbelief: Did this really happen? Will I remember enough to tell the police? A judge? A jury? What if I forget a detail and I ruin my life, or his? In too many instances, this self-doubt prevents sexual assault victims from confronting their attackers or reporting the crime, which reinforces the idea in perpetrators’ heads that this kind of behavior is acceptable, and creates a new cycle of attacks and secret shame.

When women get the courage to tell the story of their sexual assault, they must brace themselves for a level of scrutiny and character assassination that not even the most saintly citizen could withstand. In Jackie’s case, the media has been quick to impeach her character, and has recently gone so far as to suggest she was obsessive and boy crazy. Behold just a few articles that come up when I perform a basic Google search on Jackie:

Defaming and questioning a woman’s character is an all too common reaction when a woman reports a rape. Everyone from acquaintances to law enforcement officials will ask tacit questions about what she did to deserve it: Was she wearing something revealing? Did she go upstairs willingly? Did she kiss him at the party? Did she drink anything? Did she send a suggestive text message? Not only will they raise doubts about the incident in question, but they will also call into question her general character: Does she sleep around? Does she drink a lot? Does she chase guys? Has she ever sent a naughty picture?

Here’s the deal, folks: even if the answer to every single hypothetical question posed above was, “yes,” it isn’t any less possible that the woman was raped, and it doesn’t make the rape any less of a crime and abomination. Being forced to have sex without consent is a horrific abuse. It is an assault on one’s sense of safety, on one’s physical body, and on one’s mind. Nobody deserves that, no matter who she is and what she did in the minutes before it happened. But yet, in Jackie’s case and the case of so many others, we spend way too much time looking for evidence that the behavior of the attackers was somewhat justified.

It’s no wonder that Jackie waited so long to tell her story. After all, look at what she had to look forward to: reporters harassing her and her family, internet trolls searching relentlessly for her identity, even her alleged “friends” questioning her integrity to reporters.

Zerlina Maxwell wrote an excellent piece for The Washington Post about the high cost of not believing rape survivors. She writes, “The cost of disbelieving women…signals that…women don’t matter and that they are disposable — not only to frat boys and Bill Cosby, but to us. And they face a special set of problems in having their say.”

I want Jackie, and the many women who have been or unfortunately one day will be in a similar position, to know they aren’t disposable. Talking about a sexual assault takes courage. It means replaying the details from an incredibly painful thing you are trying to forget. It means confronting your attacker, at the very least in your own mind, and sometimes in person, even though the thought and sight of him makes you sick. It means listening to the patronizing questions about what you did wrong, and it means bracing yourself for every mistake you’ve ever made, every possible error in judgment you’ve ever had, to be analyzed by people who don’t even know you.

After a story about rape makes national news, it’s a shame that the people on trial the most are the victim and those who tried to help her. But this doesn’t have to be our reality. Instead of focusing on discrediting the victim, let’s focus on her alleged attackers. Why did they do what they did? Have they done it to anyone else? What messages have they gotten from their families, their friends, from their university, and their society about the rightness and wrongness of what happened?

There is a quote I like, by a favorite writer of my father’s, Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Regardless of the particular details of what happened to Jackie, and the details surrounding any assault on someone’s body, spirit, and safety, we should not look for reasons to let those who committed these crimes, or ourselves, off the hook.

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