The story of Jill Harth’s allegations of sexual assault against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has finally gained traction in the media after months of reticence. Reporter Lucia Graves, who wrote about the story for The Guardian in July, attributes this troubling phenomenon to a media tendency to fully acknowledge sexual assault stories only when it comes from the man being accused, not when the source is the female accuser.
Stories about Jill Harth’s lawsuit against Donald Trump began to surface as early as April 2016, but the mainstream media outlets CNN, Fox News, ABC, NBC, and CBS failed to examine the story at that time. Mainstream outlets only started to acknowledge the story in October, when a leaked video showed Trump bragging about sexual assault on a hot mic.
In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review's Pete Vernon, The Guardian's Graves explained that the problem with the media’s coverage of sexual assault stems from a “tendency to think of sexual assault as ‘he said, she said,’” pointing out that even when many women can corroborate the accusations, “we don’t hear it until the formula is ‘he said, he said.” In other words, media fail to actively report on the story until it the words come directly from the man’s mouth. Graves listed the onslaught of testimonies from other women who accused Trump of sexual assault and commented that “it’s so remarkable that Trump had to literally say every single one of those things to another man, and people had to hear it recorded before people believed the story that has been out there for months.” From the October 13 interview (emphasis original):
Were you frustrated your story didn’t receive more attention?
Extremely frustrated. I think that a lot of reporters, a lot of places in journalism, are maddeningly tone deaf on this issue. I think there’s a dismissiveness, generally, that is upsetting.
I was also upset that, when the story came out, I received zero media requests about it. Even the radio segment that I was booked on didn’t really want to spend too much with me on it because it “hadn’t gotten traction,” as the host put it.
Why do you think people are willing to listen now in a way that they weren’t during the summer?
Because a man said it. Because Trump came out in leaked video and said, in so many words, that sexual assault is something that he does regularly. He was bragging about it on the record. And that is what it took.
It wasn’t any woman saying it; it was a powerful man running for president saying it that got people to take it seriously, which is remarkable. It’s the same thing that happened with Bill Cosby. When you had not just one woman accusing him of rape, you had many, many accusations out there. But it took a male comedian standing up on stage, and joking about it with other men, for people to get mad and take it seriously.
So what do we, as the media, need to do better to address these issues when they come up?
The first step is an awareness about what we’re doing. I think we have a tendency to think of sexual assault as “he said, she said,” and we throw up our hands. But, in fact, many times it’s not “he said, she said,” it’s “he said, and she said, and she said, and she said,” and we don’t hear it until the formula is “he said, he said.”
So just being aware that that is the formula for what our society needs to hear these stories is a good first step. I don’t have a prescription.
What should we learn from this?
I think we should be really clear that what it took for these stories to be heard was Trump, essentially, admitting to every single one of them. There are three main patterns that we see now. We have two accounts of sexual assault; both of them are very similar and involve a tour of Mar-a-Largo and pushing the woman involved up against a wall. We have the kissing women on the lips as a form of introduction, two different reports of that in The New York Times. We have the barging into beauty contestants when they’re naked, sometimes teens. Every single one of those things we now have audio of him admitting to doing. I think it’s so remarkable that Trump had to literally say every single one of those things to another man, and people had to hear it recorded before people believed the story that has been out there for months.