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opinion

The Columbus Dispatch office in downtown Columbus, Ohio, on July 14.NICK FANCHER/The New York Times News Service

One day in October, 1987, a little girl named Jessica McClure fell into a well in Midland, Tex., and the world changed. At that time, CNN had existed for seven years but was barely on the public’s radar. Then, thanks to the new technology available for live, round-the-clock coverage, all-news cable TV started to matter. Such was the worldwide interest in the little girl’s fate, the moment had arrived for live, emotionally fraught news coverage.

How innocent the 1980s seem now. The other week, a 10-year-old girl in Ohio was raped and made pregnant. That’s a narrative nobody wants to ever encounter in reading or watching the news. It’s horrifying and your heart breaks for the little girl.

However, when the news broke that the 10-year-old had to travel to Indiana for an abortion, an event made inevitable after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and local abortion bans kicked in, much media coverage was heartlessly cynical.

Fox News sought out Ohio Attorney-General Dave Yost, who said, “Every day that goes, by the more likely that this is a fabrication.” Tucker Carlson weighed in to say reports of the situation were “not true.” Also, on Fox News, Jesse Watters called news of the rape and pregnancy “a hoax” and declared the entire story “politically timed disinformation.” Other Fox News hosts played footage of CNN and MSNBC coverage of the matter and sneered at it.

Various Republican politicians and pundits took to Twitter to express cynical disbelief. The story was unlikely to be true; the obstetrician-gynecologist who confirmed the situation of the 10-year-old had an axe to grind and was unreliable. That sort of assertion. The Wall Street Journal even published an editorial scolding news media and President Joe Biden for spreading “an unlikely story from a biased source that neatly fits the progressive narrative” and concluded there was “no evidence the girl exists.”

There was indeed evidence, and as the babbling of disbelief was reaching a crescendo, Ohio police said they’d an arrested a man who had confessed to raping the 10-year-old at least twice. The Wall Street Journal corrected its editorial, some pundits shut up and others moved on to the latest sensations, one being the rumour that former attorney-general William Barr was bought off by Dominion Voting Systems to declare that the 2020 election was fair and free of fraud. That is now a viral thread on Twitter in the U.S.

Ohio rape shows how a story can spread faster than facts

Back in 1987, what made the McClure story seem so vital was the adaptation of recent technology in news. Cheaper and lighter cameras were becoming plentiful, the number of TV news trucks, with microwave masts that allowed live signals, was growing. Satellite technology was suddenly allowing instant live news to travel across countries and oceans.

There was optimism then about more live uninterrupted news and the end of TV news reports being edited with bias or incompetence. It was all about news flow, not carefully managed events. In the way that new technology always makes people optimistic, there was an air of elation about the future. Viewers were pleased to have constant updates on that child stuck down a well.

Today, everything in TV news, and indeed in the news media itself, is even more connected and faster moving. A tweet begets a TV news story. A Facebook post begets a panel discussion. Reactions are instant, condemnations happen in a flash.

But the optimism was misplaced. There was no better future waiting to emerge. Instead, a retreat into the sinister past, to a time of rumour, mob justice and, in particular, the targeting of women as wicked, unreliable figures. Think Salem witch trials. Reluctant to directly target the 10-year-old rape victim, and her identity staying secret, the U.S. media – not just right-wing TV pundits – zeroed in on the person who first confirmed the story.

That obstetrician-gynecologist, a woman, was able to confirm the story because she had performed the abortion. And if you think referencing the Salem witch trials is a stretch, remember that The Wall Street Journal editorial referred to her confirmation of the case as a “fantastical tale.” The unreliable woman must be a fantasist or an agent for the devil’s pro-abortion forces.

On Fox News, the doctor’s name was given and a photo of her displayed often. She was accused of “covering up child rape.” Indiana Attorney-General Todd Rokita appeared on Fox News and Jesse Watters goaded him on prosecuting the doctor. “So, is a criminal charge next and will [she] lose her licence?” he asked Rokita. The Indiana Attorney-General confirmed he was looking at a possible criminal prosecution.

The rape of a 10-year-old is evil itself. The evolution of U.S. TV news toward cynicism and the persecution of women, beggars description, but it has been an evil storm, not the evolution expected.

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