Rosie Dimanno’s coverage of the Ghomeshi trial is victim-blaming rape-shaming vitriol at its worst

Image description: The top half of the front page of the Toronto Star on Feb. 6, 2016 in a newspaper box on the street.. The main headline reads "Lucy's lawyer lashes out", with the subhead (Image credit: author)

Image description: The top half of the front page of the Toronto Star on Feb. 6, 2016, in a newspaper box on the street.. The main headline reads “Lucy’s lawyer lashes out”, with the subhead “‘Trial is about Ghomeshi’s conduct,’ not his alleged victims’ behaviour”. Note the use of witness Lucy DeCoutere’s first name, which connotes a certain lack of seriousness, almost a childishness, and also the phrase “lashes out”, which implies unfocussed anger and unreasonableness. (Image credit: author)

CW: Rape, rape apology, victim-blaming.

The Toronto Star, Canada’s highest-circulation daily newspaper, has been nothing if not thorough in its coverage of the ongoing trial of Jian Ghomeshi, disgraced former CBC radio personality. (Ghomeshi, in case you’ve been living under a rock in the Himalayas, had his career implode on him last year after several women came forward accusing him of extremely violent sexual assault.) The Star has had wall-to-wall coverage of the trial, devoting a whole section on the front page of their website to regular updates on every aspect of the proceedings.

And the most prominent of their, ahem, journalists writing about this issue is the perennially snarky and provocative Rosie DiManno.

DiManno, for those unfamiliar with her work, is a narcissistic attention-craving blowhard with a tendency to be deliberately offensive. Almost ten years ago, Torontoist briefly attempted to run a series mocking her abominable prose style and her unfailing lack of empathy; the series terminated after a mere seven entries with a scathing review of an article she wrote on another rape trial:

[S]he almost always belittles or insults the victim…Today’s article is not much different: it begins like a really, really bad joke, and the punchline is that––surprise!––you’re a rape victim (or maybe not). It’s repulsive, unwarranted, and unwanted, characteristic of the utter lack of respect for human life that defines the worst of DiManno’s writing…This is putrid garbage typewriter prose of the worst kind, void of anything good, redeeming, or interesting.

Maybe she thinks it makes her seem edgy; maybe she just does it for the web traffic. Regardless, it’s been claimed that she’s the leading cause of cancellations by Star customers, and after her almost-daily missives from the Ghomeshi trial this week, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of people are questioning why the hell they’re bothering to pay for a subscription to what’s increasingly becoming a rag indistinguishable from the Sun.

That’s because DiManno’s Ghomeshi articles have been vile, suffused with victim-blaming rape-shaming vitriol. I’ve read them several times in preparation for writing this piece, and each time I finish one I feel the need to step away from the computer screen for a few minutes and let myself calm down before continuing.

Yesterday’s dispatch, for instance, made use of repeated hitting metaphors – describing the defence’s “counterpunch” to Lucy DeCoutere’s testimony and how Ghomeshi’s lawyer “pinned the witness to the mat”. This is, of course, a description of the testimony of a woman who alleges she was repeatedly struck in the fact by Ghomeshi – a claim that the defence made no effort to undermine. Using a hitting motif to frame her testimony is pretty much the definition of awful.

DiManno’s insinuation that DeCoutere was making the whole thing up (“‘Yes, this letter exists,’” DeCoutere said calmly, in the modulated tones of a professional actress”) was a particularly egregious example of her unfeelingly condescending style. The way she dismissed DeCoutere’s explanations of why she maintained contact with Ghomeshi after he assaulted her was nothing short of breathtaking:

DeCoutere tried mightily to dull the damage, veering off towards the catechism of abused-woman syndrome. “It doesn’t change the fact of the matter. That would be like someone being assaulted by her husband and still staying married to him.”

It does a disservice to victims for DeCoutere to seek shelter in their pathology.

Like honestly, what the hell is this? How does the Toronto Star feel all right about printing this victim-blaming assholery? I feel like nobody should even need to point out the glaring flaws and faults in what DiManno is saying here, but since apparently somebody in the Star’s editorial department needs some edifying, here goes: disparaging DeCoutere for her behaviour in the aftermath of being assaulted and attacking her for the things she said and did is completely inappropriate. Taking the focus away from her assaulter, and from what he did, is entirely inappropriate.

People react in many different ways to sexual assault. There is no correct or appropriate way to react, and it’s impossible to make a judgement about the seriousness or severity of an assault or its long-term impact on the basis of how the survivor of that assault reacted in the immediate aftermath. Accusing DeCoutere of desperately grasping at “the catechism of abused-women syndrome” (which, incidentally, is word-salad nonsense of the worst variety) for reacting in an entirely normal way to sexual assault reveals a wilful ignorance of the realities of sexual violence.

Or take Thursday’s incoherent DiManno screed. The whole article ultimately amounts to a big ol’ straw-man – she grossly mischaracterizes advocates for sexual assault survivors to make them seem to be hysterical, medieval in attitude, opposed to the basic principles of justice, and desirous of organizing a lynch mob. She is as dismissive and contemptuous as she is ill-informed and over-confident.

She seems to believe, for instance, that anybody who advocates for reforms to the justice system’s approach to sexual assault essentially want to dispense with a trial and proceed directly to stringing the accused up to a tree:

Such a bother, the whole ado of a public trial. We should proceed directly from charge to the lynching tree.

Apparently so when the charge is sexual assault, now deemed in some loud quarters as the most heinous wrong that can ever be committed against a person…The message this sends to women who have been sexually violated: You are accursed. You are defiled. You are ruined. You will never be whole and clean again.

You, female, are such a delicate creature that even reading Twitter dispatches from the courtroom could send you into an emotional tailspin. (“Daily coverage of the Jian Ghomeshi trial can be triggering. Here’s where to get help…”)

The tweet she refers to was made by NOW Magazine and links to an article with a roundup of resources for sexual assault survivors – sexual assault/domestic violence centres, crisis hotlines and other helpful links for people who, yes, feel triggered by this trial. What in the world could possibly be wrong with that? What could anybody find objectionable with that? Would DiManno blithely mock war veterans with PTSD who feel triggered by certain specific stimuli which remind them of the trauma they endured? What the hell makes her think it’s in any way even remotely acceptable to do exactly the same thing to sexual assault survivors?

And in what way to people who are calling for greater protections of sexual assault survivors claiming, or even insinuating, that those survivors are “accursed”, “defiled”, “ruined”, “never [to] be whole and clean again”? Like, what the fuck is that?!? Where is that coming from? What kind of internalized misogyny is she projecting onto the world?

As for the notion that people in “some loud quarters” essentially want to organize a lynch mob, I’ve never seen such unfounded nonsense. DiManno seems to think that sexual assault survivors feel like they ought to be above the law, a position that I have literally never seen anybody take, and by making such a ridiculous mischaracterization, she’s brushing away a tidal wave of entirely reasonable complaints about the way in which sexual assault survivors are treated by the criminal justice system. I mean, look at this garbage:

There is a growing movement to make it easier for women to testify in sex assault cases by, essentially, crafting one justice system for males and another for females. It’s called reform but it would really be just another form of sequestering, with specialized courts hearing sex assault trials. That’s rating victims — my pain is more pronounced than yours, my emotional equilibrium more fragile than yours. I am frail and you, father court, must protect me especially…

But vigorous questioning is not only allowed, it’s essential to the authenticity of a trial. It should be hard to establish truths beyond reasonable doubt. No one should be able to just waltz into a courtroom and be (IbelieveyouIbelieveyouIbelieveyou) believed. It’s an adversarial system, no less so in sex assault trials.

OK but actually no. Just, no to everything you just said. There’s nothing even remotely factual or accurate about any of that. It’s almost like DiManno didn’t take the time to actually look into some suggested reforms of the criminal justice system. Where she saw the trial’s first witness’s credibility go “up in flames”, characterizing her as “burnt toast” and her testimony as “verg[ing] on farce”, other observers, ones with empathy and senses of humanity, saw a woman who hadn’t been adequately prepared and was left to fend for herself:

Those watching in the courtroom, mostly media, gasped and shook their heads in disbelief that she seemed so unguarded against defence tactics.

And it’s too bad because she is strong and smart and could probably take [Ghomeshi’s lawyer Marie] Henein in a fair fight. But it’s not fair; she is alone.

The Crown did not object; the judge did not suggest a break. No one has her back in this trial, her trial, against the high-powered legal team that’s advising Ghomeshi…[T]he complainant’s lawyer has no standing. And the Crown’s obligation is to defend the state, not the victim, at trial.

Or then also too this:

But women who report are not usually informed by investigating police officers that their videotaped statements (curiously known as KGB statements) are handed over to defence lawyers, who mine and sift them for cross-examination gold.

They are not always told that their emails, text messages, Facebook photos, Twitter posts, blogs, public comments and actions post-assault can be used against them.

So why shouldn’t women like Ghomeshi’s accusers who report their sexual assaults be pissed off, outraged – and defiant – during a legal process stacked to shame and humiliate them?

If the crimes committed against them are so easily challenged, why do we send them defenceless into the jeopardy of a trial? Who benefits from that set-up?

It’s not like these arguments are unheard-of or novel. I mean, other media organizations have been doing a not-terrible job of covering this trial. The CBC has prominently featured the voices of women who are fed up with the way this trial is going, and has managed to be even-handed in its reporting on the trial itself. Hell, even the Tory Globe and Mail ran an opinion piece about why we shouldn’t dismiss Ghomeshi’s accusers on the basis of their behaviour after the fact, a point of view that DiManno would certainly find pretty edifying.

As the most prominent columnist writing about the most high-profile sexual assault trial of the decade at the highest-circulation daily in Canada, DiManno’s words carry a lot of weight.

And the message that’s coming through loud and clear from the Star is that rape is not something they take especially seriously, except inasmuch as they can sensationalize it to sell papers and drive traffic to their site. The culture of doubting and slandering and blaming and belittling sexual assault survivors is something they’re willing to give a prominent platform to.

Hell, this is a paper which, just today, ran with the tabloid-worthy headline “Lucy’s lawyer lashes out” (pictured above), a brief phrase into which is packed layers and layers of dismissiveness and condescension. This is a paper which, this past Thursday, published an article about rape-legalization advocate Roosh V and his deplorably misogynistic Return Of Kings website in which they described the sexist and hateful Men’s Rights Movement as largely “harmless sad sacks” who are basically just lonely and misunderstood and in need of a woman’s attention. In that same article, they wrestle mightily with the question of whether or not Roosh et. al. out to be just laughed off, before eventually deciding that they shouldn’t be. (Why was this even a question?)

The Star has a big problem when it comes to sexual violence. By continuing to give people like Rosie DiManno a platform to spew outdated victim-blaming rape apology, they help to perpetuate an environment in which sexual assault survivors are unwilling to speak out about what happened to them. Why would they, knowing some vile hateful columnist is waiting to tear them to shreds and dismiss them as having the credibility of “burnt toast” or of being full of “guile”?

The Torontoist “DiManno Watch” series I quoted above ended by saying, “We don’t want to read her or talk about her or think about her anymore; she doesn’t deserve our attention, or yours, and we’d prefer to leave the job of being mean and insensitive to her.” In other words, there’s just no fun to be had in mocking her, because what she does is not even funny in a bad way; it’s just plain deplorable. They wrote that in 2007; here we are in 2016, still dealing with the same shit.

It’s long past time the Star got rid of Rosie DiManno and her abrasive brand of offensiveness.

Solidarity with sexual assault survivors! Rosie DiManno may not believe you, but there are a lot of better people out there who do.

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