Headlines typically attempt to draw in readers by including the most relevant or pertinent information, but in the case of breaking news Monday that President Trump had endorsed Roy Moore in next week’s Senate special election in Alabama, the single most important fact of the case—that Moore faces multiple sexual abuse charges—was omitted by the majority of outlets altogether.
- LA Times (12/4/17): “Trump Fully Endorses Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore”
- CNN (12/4/17): “Trump Calls Roy Moore to Offer His Endorsement”
- New York Times (12/4/17): “Roy Moore Gets Trump Endorsement and RNC Funding for Senate Race”
- Politico (12/4/17): “Trump Endorses Roy Moore, RNC Plans to Go Back Into Alabama Race”
- Washington Post (12/4/17): “Trump: ‘We need Republican Roy Moore to Win in Alabama’”
- Chicago Tribune (12/4/17): “RNC Restarts Support for Roy Moore After Trump’s Hearty Endorsement“
The fact that a Republican president would endorse a Republican for a Senate race is not really news. Under normal circumstances, it would be hardly worth a mention…but these aren’t normal circumstances. What makes it news—what justifies the entire reporting of the story—is that Trump is backing someone accused by multiple people, backed by years of circumstantial evidence, of sexual assault and child sexual abuse. The far more relevant framing is “Trump Backs Alabama Senate Candidate Accused of Sexual Abuse.” That’s what makes it a story.
Those that do mention the abuse often used a vague “sex allegation” framing. The instinct to downplay the charges can be seen in two New York Daily News headlines (12/4/17). When the story is viewed full-sized, it has the awkward, redundant headline, “Trump Officially Endorses Roy Moore, Despite Sexual Allegations Claims, With ‘Go Get ‘Em, Roy’ Message.” When the window is reduced, however, the story bears the more accurate headline, “Trump Endorses Moore Despite Sex Assault Claims.”
Similarly, CNBC (“Trump Formally Endorses Roy Moore Despite Sex Allegations Against the Alabama Senate Candidate,” 12/4/17), Vice (“What Happens Now After the Roy Moore Sex Allegations? Here Are a Few Possibilities,” 11/9/17) and New York Times (“Sex Allegations Against Roy Moore Send Republicans Reeling,” 11/9/17) framed the issue in terms of “allegations,” turning acts of violence into nebulous “sex” scandals.
NPR’s original headline was in the same vein: “Trump Endorses Roy Moore for First Time Since Sex Allegations.” That was apparently deemed too specific for public radio, however, and was replaced by “RNC Restores Financial Support for Roy Moore as Trump Gives Full Endorsement” (12/4/17). Bloomberg (12/4/17), on the other hand, originally had “Trump Endorses Roy Moore for Senate, Despite Sex Allegations,” and later amended that to “Trump Endorses Roy Moore Despite Sexual-Misconduct Allegations.”
As Mary Elizabeth Williams explained (Salon, 6/29/12) in 2012, referring to sexual assault or attempted child rape merely as “sex” flattens the predatory nature and severity of the crime:
When you’re dealing with a story that involves rape or harassment or abuse or molestation or child porn or anything that falls under the rubric of criminal behavior, you should call those things rape and harassment and abuse and molestation and child pornography. You know what you shouldn’t call them? Sexy sexy sex scandals, that’s what…
A sex scandal is Mark Sanford ditching his state to cavort with his mistress. A sex scandal is Tiger Woods and a waitress…. But when the media uses the word “sex” within a story about something where there are alleged victims of assault, it’s a semantic failure on an epic scale. It diminishes crime. It sensationalizes it. It removes the distinction between a normal, consensual act and violence.
FAIR has repeatedly pointed out that only 40 percent of readers read past the headlines, which means most people form their worldview based on how a story is framed. Perhaps editors assumed readers were intimate with the allegations against Moore, that the antecedent was obvious. But recent polls show people are either ignorant or confused, with 89 percent of likely Alabama voters pinning the allegations on “newspapers and the media” and 10 percent having never heard of them at all. Certainly the fact of the president—himself accused by assault by multiple women—throwing his considerable weight behind someone running under a cloud of pedophilia should lead the story.
Editors perhaps want to avoid harsh or unseemly language. Which is a perfectly fine instinct, if such language is gratuitous or unrelated—but in this case, the depravity and visceral disgust of the crime in question is the story. By skirting the terms “child abuse” or “sexual assault,” media are burying the severity of the major issue at hand: that the most powerful person earth just endorsed a possible child molester. Newspapers aren’t meant to be managers of cognitive dissonance; in theory, they’re conveyors of truthful information. By burying and downplaying what makes this story news, they are protecting people’s feelings rather than plainly stating what’s at stake, and in doing so providing cover for an accused child abuser and his growing list of enablers.