The media blew the Strauss-Kahn story

Dorian Davis Adjunct Journalism Professor, Marymount Manhattan College
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I was skeptical of the attempted rape charge against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn when I heard that a Frenchman had been involved in an assault without surrendering. But the media have been more gullible. Most have taken the New York Police Department’s word that Strauss-Kahn attempted to rape a chambermaid at his New York City hotel and have come out looking stupid because of it.

From The New York Times to ABC News, the media believed the NYPD and thus Strauss-Kahn’s accuser because liberals — and polls have shown that over 90 percent of the media are liberals — see the rich as preying on and taking advantage of the poor. That’s one reason that other preposterous rich-against-poor rape stories like the Duke lacrosse case get so much traction from those gullible enough to believe them. Few make sense under the microscope, this one included. For people who thought this through, it comes as no surprise that Strauss-Kahn’s accuser lied about an attempted rape in the past, lied on her immigration forms, prostituted herself to other hotel guests and got caught on tape in a possible extortion plot against Strauss-Kahn. But the press has never found an accuser that it didn’t believe despite overwhelming proof to the contrary, and this case has been no exception.

The New York Times helped set the tone for most other print coverage on May 14 with its slanted initial piece on Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. Times writers Al Baker and Steven Erlanger said in their piece that police were “investigating the assault” — not the “alleged” assault — of a hotel chambermaid. And while the NYPD’s explanation of the alleged crime’s logistics made the whole thing seem implausible, The Times nevertheless accepted its account of what happened:

In the New York case, [Deputy Commissioner] Browne said that it was about 1 p.m. on Saturday when the maid, a 32-year-old woman, entered Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s suite — Room 2806 — believing it was unoccupied. Mr. Browne said that the suite, which cost $3,000 a night, had a foyer, a conference room, a living room and a bedroom, and that Mr. Strauss-Khan had checked in on Friday.

As she was in the foyer, “he came out of the bathroom, fully naked, and attempted to sexually assault her,” Mr. Browne said, adding, “He grabs her, according to her account, and pulls her into the bedroom and onto the bed.” He locked the door to the suite, Mr. Browne said.

There’s no proof that the maid entered Strauss-Kahn’s room “believing it was unoccupied” apart from her own word. Both the NYPD and The Times take that for granted. Then there’s the price of the room. If the story had taken place at a Howard Johnson, would The Times have called it “a $65-per-night room?” It seems to be there for the sole purpose of casting Strauss-Kahn as the diametric opposite of the accuser for dramatic affect. There’s also no skepticism about the logistics of the crime. From the looks of Strauss-Kahn, I’m not even sure that he can pull himself into a room, much less a 32-year-old woman. If the maid was next to the front door when Strauss-Kahn came out of the bathroom naked and lunged at her, how did he make it to the door to overpower her and lock it without her escaping first? What kept her there?

ABC Nightly News propagated the same rich-against-poor narrative in a segment that aired on May 16. Host Diane Sawyer framed the case this way:

A man who stands astride global finance, a man poised to become president of France is heading to Rikers Island here in New York all because of an unyielding hotel chambermaid. 20/20’s Chris Cuomo has been tracking what happened when a woman with almost no power decided to stand her ground against one of the biggest players on the world stage.

Like The Times, ABC framed the whole thing as a David vs. Goliath story. It also assumed that the accusations were true. Cuomo went on to explain that Strauss-Kahn had “a tall wall to climb” if prosecutors found his DNA on the accuser, for some reason precluding the possibility that Strauss-Kahn and the maid had had consensual sex. He ended the segment with the matter-of-fact statement that “the prosecutor’s office is proving” — not “investigating” but “proving” — “it right now.”

The Washington Post’s coverage was a lot better. In its May 15 piece, it did what The Times had failed to, explaining that the details of the crime weren’t facts that police had corroborated but rather the contentions of the maid herself:

The [AP] said the woman gave this account to police: Strauss-Kahn emerged from the bathroom naked, chased her down a hallway and pulled her into a bedroom, where he began to sexually assault her. She said she fought him off, but then he dragged her into the bathroom.

But The Post was an island of reason in a sea of whatever the opposite of reason is. Kind of like a book at Paris Hilton’s house. One AFP piece called Strauss-Kahn’s accuser “the victim” — not the “alleged victim” — and quoted sources describing her as “kind,” “serious” and “pious.” There were no character sketches like that for Strauss-Kahn though — nothing about his “devout” Judaism or “serious” job at the IMF. When Ben Stein wrote in a piece at The American Spectator last month that Strauss-Kahn deserved to be presumed innocent, he got roundly criticized in the press including a bizarre Daily Show rebuttal from John Stewart, in which Stewart proceeded to list other economists who’ve been convicted of sex crimes as if that were proof of Strauss-Kahn’s guilt.

Since prosecutors admitted last Thursday that the case is in jeopardy thanks to the maid’s aforementioned behavior, the press has been backtracking, treating the accuser with the skepticism that it should have from the beginning. But Strauss-Kahn resigned his post at the IMF already, and his presidential hopes are probably dashed. Neither of those was inevitable. One or both might have been avoidable had the media not been misled as easily as the people who saw Larry Crowne.

Dorian Davis is a former MTV HITS star turned libertarian writer. He’s been published in Business Week, NY Daily News, XY & more. He’s an NYU graduate and National Journalism Center alum. He teaches journalism at Marymount Manhattan College.