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TMZ’s Derrick Rose Rape Case Coverage Is the Worst Kind of Slut-Shaming

In its coverage of the Derrick Rose rape case and beyond, the gossip site’s sexist coverage is more than despicable—it has real-world consequences.

09.23.16 5:10 AM ET

This June, NBA star Derrick Rose left the Chicago Bulls for the New York Knicks in a high-profile trade. Hometown coach Jeff Hornacek gloated, “This is an exciting day for New York and our fans.” The ubiquitous sports media coverage largely failed to mention that Rose was charged in a civil suit on Aug. 26, 2015, alleging that the NBA player and two of his friends gang-raped a woman while she was unconscious. The lack of coverage was so conspicuous, Rose and his lawyers even attempted to use it to their advantage. In an Aug. 22 memorandum arguing for Jane Doe’s pseudonym to be precluded at trial, Rose’s representation posited that they “do not think any media restrictions are warranted or necessary, partly because the media has to some degree lost interest in the case.”

Derrick Rose, alongside fellow defendants Randall Hampton and Ryan Allen, will answer to his alleged crimes in California court on Oct. 4. But so far, attempts to take the media to task for their unsavory, insubstantial coverage have been few and far between. And in the content black hole created by a lack of good reporting, TMZ swooped in with biased headlines and misogynistic bile.

In a Sept. 12 missive from the bowels of the 30-mile zone, headlined “Derrick Rose to Rape Accuser: You’re No Prude You Hooked Up With Nick Young,” the website essentially does Rose’s slut-shaming dirty work for him. TMZ explains that Rose’s accuser, referred to as Jane Doe, “Claims she was traumatized by the alleged gang rape because she’s ‘prudish’ and sexually inexperienced. Rose’s team says that’s a big fat lie… and they have a text referring to fellow NBA guard Nick Young to prove it.” The gossip site goes on to publish texts from Jane Doe, implying that Doe engaged in a sexual relationship with Young. “The docs also claim Jane Doe interacted with lots of celebs and had sexual relationships with at least 2 NBA players other than Rose,” TMZ concludes, “bringing a major question about her credibility into play.”

Much like Donald Trump Jr.’s Skittles meme, it’s hard to say what’s more immediately revolting: the outdated beliefs behind this article or the logical fallacies contained within it. TMZ seems to be working under the assumption that simply by describing Rose’s attempts to discredit his abuser, sans rebuttal or commentary, it’s doing its job. The site fails to address the moral reprehensibility of this type of smear campaign, or cop to its role in perpetuating it.

Such slut-shaming has no place in a civil suit, a fact that U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald has made abundantly clear. When Rose’s representation argued that “plaintiff’s use of Twitter and other forms of social media further belies her apparent desire for anonymity,” specifically citing Jane Doe’s history of “publicly portraying herself as sexual,” the judge fittingly shut them down. According to pretrial documents, “Defendant Rose appears to suggest that women who publicly portray themselves as ‘sexual’ are less likely to experience embarrassment, humiliation, and harassment associated with gang rape. Such rhetoric has no place in this Court.”

Unfortunately, Rose’s defense has repeatedly shown that they are more preoccupied with smearing and outing Jane Doe than they are with proving the innocence of their client. Instead of addressing the issue of consent at the heart of this case, Rose’s lawyers have chosen to go the TMZ route by favoring flashy accusations and retro victim-blaming.

According to Jane Doe, the three defendants trespassed into her apartment in the early morning of Aug. 27, 2013, and sexually assaulted her. Doe claims she was unconscious when the men arrived at her apartment, and woke up the next morning “fully dressed and wet with lubricant.” Since the alleged assault, Doe says she “experiences severe anxiety and nervousness, tension, accompanied by worry and fear of being subjected to another traumatic sexually abusive experience.” In the wake of the 2015 civil suit, Rose filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that the case should be thrown out. The motion was denied, with the judge concluding, “A genuine dispute of material fact as to the central issue in this action: whether Plaintiff consented to sexual intercourse with Defendants in early morning of August 27, 2013.” But the ensuing pre-trial back and forth has dragged up a good deal of personal detritus that seems utterly alien to the issue at hand.

In August, Rose’s lawyers argued: “This is not a rape case. It’s pure and simple extortion by a plaintiff who wants to hide behind the cloak of anonymity while seeking millions in damages from a celebrity with whom she was in a long-term nonexclusive consensual sexual relationship.” In multiple memorandums, they’ve repeatedly described Doe as “sexually adventurous” and as the “sexual aggressor” the night that she was allegedly assaulted. One particular point of fascination (primarily on the part of the defense and TMZ) has been the “sex belt” that Jane Doe volunteered to bring to “have fun with Mr. Rose.” While TMZ clearly had a field day with this sexy tidbit, its sparse coverage failed to properly contextualize it. In a deposition, Rose admitted that he told Doe to get the belt, under the assumption that he would be footing the bill.

Additionally, Rose’s deposition features a good deal of information that could help portray him as the sexual aggressor throughout his and Doe’s relationship—unfortunately, TMZ doesn’t seem to have a sex crimes case template for slut-shaming a male celebrity. Details that TMZ didn’t publish include the fact that Rose had often pressured Doe to participate in group sex, requests she always denied. In fact, his deposition makes it pretty clear that he had previously called off his consensual sexual relationship with his accuser after she refused to participate in a foursome with Rose, Randall Hampton, and Hampton’s girlfriend—which would be pertinent, if we were having a conversation about whether Doe and Rose’s group sex was consensual. Of course, you can’t talk about consent in this case without emphasizing that Doe had an estimated BAC level of .20, 2.5 times the legal driving limit.

You would have a hard time piecing together a holistic narrative from TMZ’s spotty coverage. Sample headlines include “Derrick Rose—Accuser Consented to Group Sex…Mad Over Sex Toy,” a cute little hit piece that ends on a bright note: “This week, Rose said he refuses to let the lawsuit change his lifestyle.” More recently, TMZ published “DERRICK ROSE TO JUDGE: UNMASK MY RAPE ACCUSER ALREADY… She Doesn’t Deserve Anonymity.” Like any TMZ article, the headline says it all and the body of the article basically repeats it ad nauseam: “Derrick Rose says he’s sick and tired of his rape accuser bashing him to the media—and he’s now begging a judge to force her to reveal her identity once and for all.” The piece goes on to quote Rose’s lawyers: “Because Jane Doe and her lawyers are openly pandering to the media on a nationwide blitz tour, Ms. Doe should be precluded from using a pseudonym for any purpose, including media coverage.”

Even for a remarkably unsubtle publication, the irony here is almost too exaggerated. TMZ essentially acted as Derrick Rose’s propaganda arm, parroting his team’s allegations that Jane Doe’s media appeals delegitimize her argument and should cause her to forfeit her anonymity. Doe has told the press why her anonymity is so important, explaining: “It could come back to my mom, who right now is very ill and dealing with a lot of health issues. I wouldn’t want any stress on her, and I wouldn’t want anything affecting her or affecting my father.” While her wishes were respected in pre-trial, the judge ultimately ruled in favor of disclosing her name at trial, because “he wants everybody to have a fair trial, and he didn’t want any inferences drawn [by the jury] from her name not being used.”

Rose’s attorneys are well aware that this recent ruling significantly weakens Doe’s position in ongoing settlement negotiations, as the plaintiff’s attachment to her anonymity might discourage her from taking her case to court. Rose’s attorney Mark Baute has already appeared to taunt the plaintiff by using her name in court not once but twice prior to the trial  After his second slip-up, Baute was reprimanded by the judge, who reportedly “ordered the attorney to explain in writing why he shouldn’t be sanctioned $1,000 for the violation.” According to the Associated Press, Baute claimed it was an accident.

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Sexual assault allegations frequently garner national attention, particularly when celebrities are involved. Unfortunately, history’s tendency to repeat itself extends not just to the occurrence of these egregious crimes but to our inability to protect victims or do their stories justice. Rose’s case has predictably elicited comparisons to another high profile rape case—Kobe Bryant in 2003. After Bryant allegedly assaulted a 19-year-old, the victim’s reputation was quickly sacrificed in an attempt to redeem one of the most beloved athletes of all time. With the outing of personal details, many of them sexual in nature, she was painted as a mentally unstable attention-seeker.

“In the Kobe Bryant case, it was abominable how the accuser was treated. Everyone was at fault,” explains Mark Shaw, an attorney and author who covered the case for ESPN and USA Today. “This poor woman, they wore her down, and it happened from the first hearings.” Kobe’s alleged victim ultimately decided to stop cooperating just days before the criminal case went to trial.

In a subsequent study, “Prevalence and Effects of Rape Myths in Print Journalism: The Kobe Bryant Case,” researchers concluded that coverage of the case was rife with “Rape Myths”—“generalized and widely held beliefs about sexual assault that serve to trivialize the sexual assault or suggest that a sexual assault did not actually occur.” The study found that, on average, there was one distinct rape myth mentioned per article, revealing that the media routinely promoted victim-blaming narratives. “She’s lying” and “she wanted it” were the most commonly perpetuated myths. With this media bias in mind, it’s no wonder that so many accusers have ultimately shied away from pursuing criminal charges against high-profile figures. Whenever an alleged victim breaks under the pressure of accusing a famous man, survivors receive a strong message about the tribulations that come with bringing these woefully under-reported crimes to trial.

At the end of the day, TMZ is very good at some things—like breaking the news of Brangelina’s divorce, or coming up with countless new words to describe a woman’s butt. Unfortunately, the site’s shortcomings are becoming more and more apparent. From grossly biased and bi-phobic coverage of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s divorce to a bad habit of defending deplorable male celebrities, its questionable coverage led celebrity-gossip blogger Lainey Lui to ask, “Is TMZ now officially the gossip voice for the men’s rights movement?” Suffice it to say, if you search for “Amber Heard” on TMZ, you’ll find an article headlined “AMBER HEARD… ‘EAR-WITNESSES’ SAY SHE’S A LIAR.” Meanwhile, a search for “feminist” yields a mixed bag of results, including an article on “Topless Feminists” and “‘Hot Lips’ vs. Gloria Steinem: Who’d You Rather?” TMZ will never be Jezebel—feminist takes just aren’t its sweet spot. But guilty pleasure celebrity reporting doesn’t need to be this blatantly misogynistic, or potentially harmful. Gossip fast food shouldn’t come with a side of used syringes.