On Friday last week, the writer E. Jean Carroll published a harrowing story in New York magazine in which she alleged that Donald Trump raped her 23 years ago. On the way out of a Bergdorf Goodman store, she wrote, Trump recognized her from TV, tricked her into going into a dressing room, pinned her against the wall, and raped her. Since that time, she says, "I have never had sex with anybody ever again."
While Trump has now been accused of sexual abuse by at least 22 women, this is only the second actual rape allegation. But in the big-time press, Carroll's story got about as much coverage as the average Trump tweet. It's an astounding dereliction of duty and a demoralizing indicator of how the media still has no idea how to cover an unprecedentedly amoral president.
As Columbia Journalism Review's Jon Allsop writes, after the allegation was published, neither The New York Times, nor the Wall Street Journal, nor the Los Angeles Times, nor the Chicago Tribune put the story on its front page the following day. Among major papers, only the Washington Post did so, but in a small item below the fold. The New York Times did run a story on the same day — but in the Books section, and never featured it on its website homepage.
There was a similar pattern in TV coverage. Some liberal cable news hosts ran items on it, and CNN had Carroll on its New Day morning show on Monday, but the big five Sunday talk shows almost totally ignored it — not bringing the subject up to any of their marquee guests, including Vice President Mike Pence.
It's a bit baffling at first glance why the reaction was so muted. Virtually everything Trump does gets wall-to-wall coverage, and the mainstream media is not typically noted for its avoidance of sex scandals. While the alleged rape was decades ago, it wasn't at all implausible — similar to stories from nearly two dozen other women, and corroborated by two other women that Carroll informed right after it happened.
It goes without saying that if someone had credibly accused President Obama of rape, every single one of these papers and shows would have run screaming banner headlines for weeks on end. Anyone interviewing the president or any administration official or any congressional Democrat would have demanded answers. Vast battalions of reporters would have been sent to track down any witnesses or evidence of any kind. It would have been one of the biggest stories of the entire year. So what gives?
One answer is probably the freshness bias built into the news business. Shocking new stories are more interesting and hence get more attention. So while a sexual assault allegation against a politician who appears scandal-free would be new and interesting, the 22nd one is simply another entry in a boring routine. Naturally, this is the precise opposite of what should get priority when it comes to the welfare of the citizenry. An airplane crash that kills a couple hundred people always gets front-page headlines — but the ongoing plague of lead poisoning across the entire country that harms tens of millions gets only muted coverage, when it's mentioned at all.
But perhaps more important is the lack of deference Trump shows the media — indeed, he is constantly whipping up violent hatred against journalists, labeling them "fake news," the "enemy of the people," and so on. Again unlike Obama, who took New York Times coverage very seriously (and even some of their dimmer columnists), Trump instantly discards anything he hears that he doesn't like. This is a problem in the internal ideology of Serious Journalism, because reportage is supposed to be nonpartisan. If a politician reacts with shame to some horrible allegation, that gives credence to the story, allowing the big-shot media to continue to pursue it. But if he angrily dismisses everything, it makes the media appear to be biased against him, which must be avoided at all costs.
This combination of Trump's total shamelessness and journalist ideology has created a certain learned helplessness among the big-shot press when it comes to Trump. For instance, some months ago the Times published a gigantic story on how Trump got hundreds of millions of dollars from his father through what appears to be blatant tax fraud, complete with expensive maps and visualizations. But he (as usual) dismissed it out of hand, and few other outlets took up the story. As a result, it got little follow-up coverage — as Tom Scocca writes, "the Times, in confusion, sort of wandered away from the whole towering thing it had created. If no one else picked up on it, was it really news?"
One of the greatest strengths of big-shot media is the ability to change how people are perceived. Running story after story on all the Trump allegations — the sexual assault, the profiteering, the corruption — and giving them top billing would help the public learn the reality of just how crooked and horrible the president is. It's quite possibly the most vital thing to convey in this moment's political journalism — and most of the facts are already in hand! All the various publications have to do is realize they don't need Trump's permission to report vigorously on his crimes.