Trump and #MeToo: Is the media putting due process on trial?
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Trump and #MeToo: Is the media putting due process on trial?

February 11, 2018

Media outlets and social media users almost instantly criticized President Trump for his tweet about due process, with many tying it directly to the #MeToo movement, which seeks to end sexual violence through speaking up about alleged crimes. The prevalent narrative, it seems, is that Trump intended to shield the two White House staffers who resigned this week, and in part defend himself from the sexual misconduct allegations against him.

Two of the articles we analyzed suggested as much, and a third stated it as fact:

On Saturday, Trump sent a tweet calling for justice for two former White House staffers, Rob Porter and David Sorensen, who resigned this week after their ex-wives described brutal violence in their marriages … Trump isn’t just defending these men. He’s defending himself. (Vox)

While Trump may have had his staffers in mind, we don’t know for sure. His tweet didn’t mention Porter, Sorensen or the #MeToo movement, and it didn’t specify the “allegations” in question. Take a look at what Trump wrote:

Peoples (sic) lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?

It’s worth noting that this subjective interpretation of the tweet became the springboard for a narrative that could pose serious limitations on our freedoms, the future of civil discourse and the way society handles these issues. To understand how and why this may happen, we must first address a couple elephants in the room.

First, the elephants. You may support President Trump, you may not. You may support the #MeToo movement, you may not. Whatever your position, it’s irrelevant when it comes to the subject of the tweet itself. Due process was written into the U.S. Constitution to safeguard the presumption of innocence, which is a founding principle of our justice system. An essay from Cornell Law School notes:

The Constitution states only one command twice. The Fifth Amendment says to the federal government that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, uses the same eleven words, called the Due Process Clause, to describe a legal obligation of all states. These words have as their central promise an assurance that all levels of American government must operate within the law (“legality”) and provide fair procedures.

We’ve written previously about the importance of due process, not simply when allegations haven’t yet been put through the proper legal channels, as in the case of Matt Lauer or Al Franken, but also when they were, as in Larry Nassar’s case. However, this is the first time we’ve analyzed coverage that trivialized due process to support media bias — in this case, attacking Trump. Here are the most significant examples of this:

  • The New York Times wrote that “Trump has a history of coming to the defense of accused men.” It cherry-picked examples of men who have been accused or formally investigated for crimes against women. The juxtaposition suggests Trump only defends those accused or convicted of wrongdoing, possibly because he is guilty himself.
  • The Washington Post cited Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) as saying, “The new mantra is ‘We believe the women,’ and [Trump] is frozen in ‘I believe the men.’” While the president’s public comments on women and the #MeToo movement have been limited, he hasn’t said he only believes the men, or that he doesn’t believe women. The Post also wrote that White House spokesmen didn’t answer a question about whether Trump believes “the lives of accusers can be shattered and destroyed,” suggesting his silence equals complicity. Although that fits Speier’s and the outlet’s bias, it simply doesn’t follow logically. More importantly, don’t men have the same right to be believed as women under the law?
  • Similar to the Post, the Times cherry-picked its sources, suggesting Trump’s views on the allegations are wrong or unreasonable. For instance, it quoted a women’s advocate, Amy Siskind, saying, “Trump is now tweeting to legitimize domestic violence.” Siskind’s opinion about Trump’s tweet is a measurable departure from the data; she draws a conclusion that isn’t substantiated. Neither the Times nor the Post offered alternate perspectives to these quotes, lending to the articles’ lack of balance.
  • Vox wrote that “‘Due process’ has become a refrain used by skeptics of the #MeToo movement,” that it’s “emerging as a dominant argument among conservatives uncomfortable with the social movement,” and that it’s “shorthand” for concerns about the abuses that can come from trial by media. This presents two problems: One, it subjugates the principles of justice enshrined in our Constitution to the whims of the public and media. Two, the notion of “#MeToo skeptics” could discourage questioning or opposing the movement. It might encourage people to dismiss any opposition without evaluating the arguments behind it.
  • Vox also wrote that Porter and Sorensen “quit their jobs (generally a recognition of at least some wrongdoing) …” The outlets did cite evidence that seems to corroborate the women’s accounts, and that’s not what we’re questioning here — it’s the notion that if a person resigns from a position, it means they’re guilty on some level. These types of logical leaps are in part what earned Vox a zero integrity rating — the second in The Knife’s history.

Now, the outlets cited inconsistencies in Trump’s behavior relating to these types of allegations, specifically that he has “rush[ed] to judgment in other cases,” as the Times put it, and that he has “not often extended” the same sympathy to Democrats and their supporters, as the Post noted. It’s important for the public to be aware of these inconsistencies — not just in Trump, but any elected official.

However, by attacking Trump, the outlets diminished the most important point in that tweet. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you support Trump or #MeToo. It doesn’t matter what his intent was in sending that message — the devil incarnate could have sent it, and it still wouldn’t invalidate the principle: due process is necessary for a free, democratic society. Our Constitution and the principles of our justice system don’t play favorites in this regard: every man, woman and child in the U.S. is entitled to the presumption of innocence and due process.

In his “Second Treatise of Government,” the English philosopher John Locke wrote, “where there is no law there is no freedom.” Here is the quote’s immediate context.

So, however much people may get this wrong, what law is for is not to abolish or restrain freedom but to preserve and enlarge it; for in all the states of created beings who are capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom. Liberty is freedom from restraint and violence by others; and this can’t be had where there is no law.

We’ve witnessed the corrosion or absence of law and justice during humanity’s darkest times. We bring it to life in literature, film and the arts through dystopian narratives, perhaps to grasp the weight of the consequences should we ever suspend it. Law and justice are products of reason. Reason leads to personal freedom. To preserve our freedoms, we must uphold the law and, to do so now, critical reasoning and discourse must triumph.

Already we’re seeing people and the media discourage or castigate open, civil discourse on these issues. Journalist Claire Berlinski acknowledged that she had difficulty finding an outlet that would publish her views on #MeToo, simply because they went against the norm. In her article, The Warlock Hunt, Berlinski explored some of the downsides to both accusers and accused when sexual misconduct allegations are tried in the court of public opinion. It’s not just that the media is the wrong tool for that, it’s also that currently there is no consistent definition of what constitutes a transgression:

Revolutions against real injustice have a tendency, however, to descend into paroxysms of vengeance that descend upon guilty and innocent alike. We’re getting too close. Hysteria is in the air. The over-broad definition of “sexual harassment” is a well-known warning sign. The over-broad language of the Law of Suspects portended the descent of the French Revolution into the Terror. This revolution risks going the way revolutions so often do, and the consequences will not just be awful for men. They will be awful for women.

Berlinski didn’t condone crimes against women or exonerate those guilty of wrongdoing, and neither do we. Yet this is a point the media has slowly been infusing in society: it seems as if it’s not possible to support a movement like #MeToo while supporting due process. Again, this does not follow.

Many people see it this way because our justice system isn’t perfect — it is, after all, comprised of humans, and we tend to err. Many women’s accusations have been prematurely dismissed by law enforcement or the courts, and that is a grave failing indeed. Some people cite this as the reason why they try their cases in the press, and while understandable, it circumvents justice. An ideal use of the press in these cases might be to instead expose the deficiencies within the justice system that failed these women, so these may be addressed and their cases processed. Then justice can prevail. What if #MeToo directed its resources and attention there?

Female or male, Republican or Democrat, it’s fair to say most of us are seeking that “freedom from restraint and violence by others” of which Locke spoke. Some call it a “civilized” society — one governed by reason, justice and, ideally, the respect for others and their rights. Can we force or enforce civilization? Can we censor or shame people into being civilized? Can we do it through the court of public opinion? It’s never worked, just look at history.

The only way to achieve it is to inspire it while upholding critical, public discourse, as well as the systems that embody and manifest the principles of a civilized society. Heeding the words of our forefathers and Locke: For a free society, due process must come first.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 59% Spun

  • 68% Spun

  • 68% Spun

  • 73% Spun

Top Spin Words

  • The unthinkable

    When it comes to sexual assault, harassment or domestic violence, Trump is increasingly doing the unthinkable.(Vox)

  • Starting to feel the heat

    But the departure of two staffers in one week over abuse allegations and Trump’s response Saturday suggest that the president is starting to feel the heat. (Vox)

  • A tidal wave crashing on the doorstep of the white house

    To some critics, Mr. Trump’s defensive tone on Saturday was less a setback for the #MeToo movement than evidence of its success — a political and social tidal wave crashing on the doorstep of the White House. (The New York Times)

  • Hitting a little too close to home

    #MeToo is hitting a little too close to home. (Vox)

  • Plays offense

    A pretty good indicator that there’s something unusual about Trump’s sudden interest in legal procedure is how incongruent it is with his political strategy. Trump plays offense. (Vox)

  • Stark reminder

    At a time when charges of sexual harassment and abuse are bringing down famous and powerful men from Hollywood to Washington, Mr. Trump’s defiant stance put him at odds with much of the country, and served as a stark reminder of his own troubled history with women. (The New York Times)

  • Lightning rod

    For the #MeToo movement, which has spread into virtually every corner of American society — redressing a legacy of injustice even as it wrestles with questions like the dangers of a rush to judgment — Mr. Trump’s words were sure to make him, yet again, a lightning rod. (The New York Times)

  • Pointing fingers at one another

    But it was in keeping with the White House’s initially defensive reaction to the charges against Mr. Porter — a messy trail of conflicting statements that has left the West Wing in turmoil, with angry officials pointing fingers at one another. (The New York Times)

  • Ongoing national reckoning

    The brief message, which made no mention of the accusers, marks the president’s most pointed response to the ongoing national reckoning with sexual harassment and abuse and put him seemingly at odds with a movement that in recent months has led to the downfall of several powerful men accused of abhorrent behavior. (The Washington Post)

  • Casting doubt

    But Trump’s sympathetic response Saturday fits a pattern in which he has defended other men accused of harassment or abuse while casting doubt on accusers — including when allegations have been made against him. (The Washington Post)

  • Uncomfortable

    It’s emerging as a dominant argument among conservatives uncomfortable with the social movement, including New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. (Vox)

  • Bemoaning

    President Trump appeared to weigh in on the resignation of two White House staffers accused of domestic abuse Saturday, bemoaning that lives are being destroyed by “a mere allegation.” (Fox News)

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“For the #MeToo movement, which has spread into virtually every corner of American society – redressing a legacy of injustice even as it wrestles with questions like the dangers of a rush to judgment – Mr. Trump’s words were sure to make him, yet again, a lightning rod.”

The media has increased its coverage of the #MeToo movement since some women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct in October 2017.

The New York Times

“At a time when charges of sexual harassment and abuse are bringing down famous and powerful men from Hollywood to Washington, Mr. Trump’s defiant stance put him at odds with much of the country, and served as a stark reminder of his own troubled history with women.”

Some men have resigned and been dismissed from their positions in entertainment, business, media and politics after sexual misconduct allegations against them. Trump tweeted about “due process” in regards to “allegations” without specifying them.

Vox

“Trump faces dozens of accusations of sexual assault, which has forced Republicans … to lower the bar for male behavior so that even he can meet it.”

Some women have accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault.

Vox

Trump is “playing defense – which means the #metoo movement is working.”

Trump tweeted about “due process” in regards to “allegations,” without specifying any cases or allegations.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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