Sexual Assault Coverage by Media Shows Double Standard, Paternalism, and Sexism

Lara Logan, CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent, was beaten and sexually assaulted, February 11, while on assignment in Cairo to report on the revolution that concluded that day with Hosni Mubarak resigning as president.

Logan, according to an official CBS announcement, was attacked by a group of about 200 Egyptians and “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.” The mob, probably pro-Mubarak supporters, but never identified by CBS, had separated Logan from her camera crew.

About a week earlier, Mubarak’s army detained, handcuffed, blindfolded, interrogated, and then released Logan and some of her crew after several hours. The government ordered her expelled from the country, probably for her on-air comments about the government intimidating and harassing foreign journalists. Logan returned to Cairo shortly before Mubarak resigned. She returned to the United States the day after the assault, and spent the next four days recovering in a hospital.

The Mubarak administration at the beginning of the protests had expelled the al-Jazeera news network, and began a random campaign against all journalists, the result of the government believing that the media inflamed the call for revolution and the overthrow of Mubarak. There were about 140 cases of assault and harassment of journalists during the 18-day protest, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Ahmad Mohamad Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist, was killed by sniper fire, probably by pro-Mubarak supporters.  Among American reporters physically assaulted were CNN’s Anderson Cooper and photojournalist Dana Smillie, who was seriously wounded by what appeared to be a dozen BB-size pellets. Journalists displayed “admirable levels of courage as they — initially as individuals and small groups, and eventually in droves — made statements and took actions that exposed them to immense personal and professional risk,” according to the CPJ.

There can be no justification for the rogue gangs of thugs who attacked Logan, dozens of journalists, and hundreds of citizens. But, from the story of reporter and citizen courage against a 30-year dictatorship, no matter how benevolent it may have appeared, there emerged another story, one not as dramatic, nor as compelling, nor as important. But it is a story, nevertheless.

Because of deadlines and a sense of having to get the story at any cost, news organizations sometimes become in-your-face inquisitors. Privacy isn’t usually something the more aggressive news organizations give to those they want on air or in print. It’s still common to see microphones stuck inches from faces of people who have suffered tragedies

But when it comes to one of their own, news organizations seem to have a different set of standards. The brutal attack upon Logan occurred February 11, but it was four days until CBS released any statement. After a brief review of the facts, CBS refused to make further comment or to respond to reporter inquiries. “Logan and her family respectfully request privacy at this time,” the network said. A four day delay to give a basic statement is inexcusable by CBS; a statement that it did not give more information about the attack in order to protect the correspondent’s privacy is hypocritical, and trumpets a double standard that the news media are somehow exempt from the reporting practices it demands of news sources.

There is another factor in this mini-story. Judith Matloff, a journalism professor at Columbia University, told the L.A. Times, “Generally, female correspondents do not come out and talk about it [sexual assaults] because they worry that they won’t get sent on assignments again.”

Paternalism in the news profession often has editors and news directors, most of whom are male, “protecting” their female reporters and correspondents. Journalists and news crews who go into dangerous situations, including riots, demonstrations, and war must be trained to deal with violence — and must be given every assistance by their organizations when they have been harassed or attacked. But, for news executives to discriminate on who to send because of the “fear” that women may be subjected to sexual assault, and for women not to report it to their bosses, is to acknowledge that they, and probably society, haven’t come far in eliminating sexism within the profession.

There is a further reality. The news media often don’t identify adults who have been raped or sexually assaulted, a belief that somehow these crimes are more personal and more traumatic than any other kind of assault. However, sexual assaults and rapes are always brutal and vicious crimes of power and control. For the news media to continue to adhere to some puritanical belief that they are protecting womanhood by not reporting names and details perpetuates the myth that rape is purely a sexual intrusion, and not the brutal attack it truly is.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Josie Michel-Bruening said on February 19th, 2011 at 10:56am #

    Thank you for this honest article!!!

  2. hayate said on February 19th, 2011 at 1:38pm #

    The story smells fishy. I said that when I first heard of it and I still think so.

  3. Charlie said on February 19th, 2011 at 4:44pm #

    I find it charming, but a bit naive, that Dr. Brasch apparently believes there are still actual journalists in this country and that there is a set of standards and ethics associated with that once lofty profession still in place. How quaint.

    Perhaps Dr. Brasch hasn’t noticed the unquestioning and slavish devotion the American “journalists” of the past few decades bring to reporting verbatim whatever lie is handed to them by politicians or their corporate masters. (The Iraq-is-a-threat propaganda comes to mind, especially because of the nearly universal reporting of outright lies as if they were fact and with not even a cursory attempt at fact checking or investigation. We are in Iraq and Afghanistan largely because of unethical journalists, not lying politicians.)

    The uprising in Egypt received far better reporting and analysis by al-Jazeera than by the American networks. We sent our pretty-boys and prom queens to Egypt, while al-Jazeera sent reporters; and the results are obvious.

    My contempt for the current state of journalism in America should not be misunderstood as a lack of understanding or compassion for Ms. Logan. The crime of violence against her was horrific and repulsive. But neither, I believe, should Dr. Brasch see her story as somehow more significant than any other story of a brutal sexual assault. To do so is to perpetuate and endorse the flaw in journalism that has always been at its foundation and has always been far worse than any sexism or paternalism it sadly exhibits today: elitism. Journalists believe that pretty, famous people are interesting and what happens to them is so much more important and significant than what happens to the unwashed rabble. (Yes, I know they are pandering to an audience that demands such elitism.) As a result, I find it difficult to distinguish between a news broadcast and an episode of Dancing with the Stars, and therefore watch neither.

    I agree that Ms. Logan’s ordeal “is a story.” But is it really more of a story than any other sexual assault carried out during the Egyptian uprising?

  4. Don Hawkins said on February 19th, 2011 at 5:20pm #

    Charlie thank’s for that comment I thought today, tonight as am tired it was just me.

  5. Deadbeat said on February 19th, 2011 at 8:41pm #

    I like Charlie’s critique and he is absolutely right. The focus on Logan is outright elitism. We know next to nothing about the 300 Egyptian who died in the struggle that Logan was suppose to be covering.

  6. commoner3 said on February 20th, 2011 at 5:29am #

    Re: Charlie said on February 19th, 2011 at 4:44pm #

    That is an excellent post especially the correct and accurate description of journalism in the US these days.

  7. kalidasa said on February 20th, 2011 at 8:39am #

    Journalists today, right now, are the fifth column if there ever was one.

  8. MichaelKenny said on February 20th, 2011 at 9:00am #

    Is there any real evidence that this incident ever took place, other than CBS’s claim? The whole thing could also be a set up. It could just be part of the usual Israel Lobby propaganda line that Muslims are all brutal savages. Given the contempt in which a generation of journalists who see themselves as little better than cynical mischief-makers is held, Ms Logan (a white South African) is going to have to do a lot of proving if she wants to get any sympathy.

  9. Josie Michel-Bruening said on February 21st, 2011 at 8:40am #

    Apart from how reliable CBS may be, the author said nothing against the Egyptian people protesting against their regime, but wrote:
    “The mob, probably pro-Mubarak supporters, but never identified by CBS,…”
    We heard in Germany similar news referring to those attacks against foreign reporters. According to our news the offenders were taken for police in civil clothes, supporters of Mubarack in any case, by saying this they referred to propositions of the protesters at the Tahrir Square.
    I was not aware by hearing those news that “Ms Logan (a white South African)” was suffering from such mistreatments, nevertheless, such as the last comment seems rather biased to me or undifferentiated.