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Amid #MeToo, Journalists Shouldn't Commodify Women's Pain

Reporters should call out non-apologies—and be wary of re-exploiting victims.
Sherman Alexie.

Sherman Alexie.

One day in late February, Seattle-based author Litsa Dremousis logged into Twitter and turned a whisper network into a shout. She tweeted that she had been aware of allegations of sexual abuse against the author Sherman Alexie for months, and that she had "confronted him directly in October, blasted him, & severed the friendship." She added that she had spoken to numerous women who had been sexually harmed by the famous author and that now some of the victims were getting ready to come forward. On March 5th, NPR published a story featuring on-the-record interviews with three of the victims.

In the gap between Dremousis' tweet and the NPR story, two things happened: First, Alexie published a nasty statement that many journalists characterized as an "apology." Second, reporters started to hound Dremousis for details. Taken together, the actions of the press here reveal ongoing problems with how stories about sexual misconduct are being told, even as the "me too" movement continues.

Journalism always matters, but especially so in the current reckoning with pervasive sexual harassment and assault across industries. Many people, especially women of color like Tarana Burke (who started the "me too" movement in 2007), have been working on these issues for a long time and deserve enormous credit. Responsible journalism, including the award-winning journalism of Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker and of Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey in the New York Times, has also helped empower victims. Their work has demonstrated that it is possible to crack open long-concealed histories of violence by powerful men—and that the general public is broadly ready to believe victims. Long-silenced victims opened up and went on the record more eagerly. Journalists and editors published with less fear of pushback and lawsuit. Exposé after exposé has followed.

As I reported for Pacific Standard, the world of youth literature is going through its own "me too" process. Sherman Alexie, the author of numerous books and the most visible native author in North America, is the latest big literary name to be accused of serial sexual misconduct. After Dremousis went public with her accusations, the power of Alexie's celebrity, which had kept women silenced for so long, came back into play. The author released a statement that opened by acknowledging wrongdoing and apologizing "to those whom I have hurt," then went on the attack. Quickly, outlets around the Anglophone world dutifully reported that Alexie had apologized.

But did he apologize? The very next sentence "rejects" an alleged series of "accusations, insinuations, and outright falsehoods" in Dremousis' tweets. Alexie reveals that he and Dremousis had once had a consensual affair, implying that she was accusing him out of jealousy or hurt feelings. He concludes by writing, "There are women telling the truth about my behavior"—suggesting that Dremousis is not among those truth-telling women—"and I have no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anybody or their careers." That word "recollection" looms large, because it speaks to memory rather than to fact. Later, the NPR reporting would largely support Dremousis' public statements.

Alexie is within his rights to challenge his accusers, and, thanks to his fame, Alexie's public statement is news. The question is whether journalists must accept the word "apology" for something that is clearly not an apology. The bulk of this statement is an attack followed by a denial of specific types of harms. An apology involves contrition, repentance, and plans for seeking restitution and forgiveness. But thanks to sympathetic coverage, Alexie, the accused, was able to shape the media response while his accusers gathered their courage to speak on the record. It might have even worked to silence them, had they felt less strength in their numbers.

Taking a statement at face value isn't the only issue here. "Me too" is now big business for journalists, which presents its own set of ethical challenges, as Dremousis' interactions with the press show. After I mentioned anonymous allegations against Alexie in my previous reporting on harassment in the literary world, Dremousis and I began talking off the record (she has subsequently given me permission to disclose this) about her personal experiences with Alexie, and her knowledge of his history of sexual harm toward others. We maintained contact throughout the subsequent weeks and spoke again after the NPR story went live. She told me over direct messages and phone calls that she had been flooded with requests and demands from reporters to give them access to the women. "There's this commodification of MeToo," Dremousis says. "They want to break the next big #MeToo story. Which is just another way to commodify women's pain."

Dremousis, who emphasized to me that her work as an advocate for victims of domestic violence has informed her choice to come forward, says that she in no way wants to discourage media outlets from covering sexual harm. She's glad "it's finally being taken seriously!" Still, the experience of having publicly disclosed that she had stories, but that they weren't her stories to tell, was difficult. "What got lost in this feeding frenzy is that these women had suffered horrifically. The women's autonomy got lost. It's up to each woman to decide if she wanted to continue to speak." The goal, Dremousis says, is "to stop a man who is using his power to sexually harm other women." Accomplishing this goal requires victims to re-live "horrible moments of their lives."

In 2012, the Chicago Task Force on Violence against Girls and Women published a media toolkit called Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence. The authors explore the ways that reporting can perpetuate rape culture when stories lack context, cast doubts on the accounts of victims, or even just use passive voice in the wrong way. Today, as victims of sexual violence turn to reporters to tell their stories, hoping that this broader cultural shift around rape and harassment might help their credibility, journalist-mediators play a critical role. We cannot commodify "me too" in pursuit of journalistic glory. Instead, we need to do our jobs—slowly, carefully, and always aware of the stakes.