Last week, The New York Times ran a strange story about Louis C.K., whose comedy walks an artful line between insight and indecency. The piece cited “unsubstantiated internet rumors of his sexual misconduct with female comics.” I call this story strange because of that word–unsubstantiated. Substantiation is the essence of good reporting. You don’t print what you can’t pin down. But at the Times, this standard is changing, at least when it comes to allegations of sexual abuse. Hearsay is permissible, as long as women are doing the saying.
In this case, the accusers are two female comics, Tig Notaro and Rosanne Barr. Both have forthcoming product, a new Netflix series for Notaro and a memoir by Barr. Both have given interviews to internet sites in which they discussed the rumors about Louis C.K. Neither has witnessed his bad behavior—in fact, no woman has come forward to say she has. But Notaro insisted that C.K. should “handle” the charges (he’s said they’re merely rumors) and, in an interview with The Daily Beast, Barr predicted that some of the biggest male comics are “about to get busted.”
That juicy tidbit was left out the Times story, but a follow-up piece noted that the “debate about sexual misconduct rumors” had spilled into the work of C.K. and Notaro. He has a new film which includes a routine about his 17-year-old daughter being seduced by a filmmaker four times her age, and her new series includes an incident with a man masturbating in his office while she talked. That scene, Notaro said, was based on stories she has heard about C.K. So there certainly was a peg for the Times to hang its coverage on, but the slant had less to do with news than with a climate in which unverified sexual allegations are given lavish coverage. In a time when the body is a battleground, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between truth and a tale involving Richard Gere and a gerbil.
In order to discern its validity, I decided to track the origin of the C.K. rumor. It first surfaced in 2012, when the now-defunct Gawker ran a blind item wondering, in true tabloid fashion, “Which Beloved Comedian Likes to Force Female Comics to Watch Him Jerk Off?” Three years later, the comic Jen Kirkman said in her podcast that she wouldn’t tour with a certain male comedian whom she referred to as a “known perv.” Other internet sites concluded that she was talking about C.K. Kirkman subsequently deleted the podcast and now says she never experienced any offensive physical behavior from him. (“I did not see his body parts, he did not corner me, it was just a couple creepy incidents.”) But the story continued to spread. Then came Barr’s interview, and suddenly the rumor was worth two long pieces in the Times.
Perhaps Louis C.K. will find himself facing criminal charges or a lawsuit, and at that point the run-off from the incendiary Cosby trials would make this story irresistible. But none of that has happened yet. So far, all that exists is innuendo, and whenever that’s elevated into news, you can reckon that something bigger than the particulars is involved.
It’s not easy to cover allegations of sexual assault, given their intimate nature. It can be difficult to detect the difference between a real pattern and a story that spreads simply because sexism is rampant in many industries. In her freewheeling interview, Barr mentioned her ordeal as a female comic enduring “smelly pussy” jokes and the like. Other recent Times stories have concerned the sexually charged climate in Silicon Valley and the account of a female actor who has faced a lifetime of “harassment and doubt.”
It’s important for women to assert their experiences—speaking bitterness is part of liberation—but it’s also crucial to understand that the anxieties produced by a major shift in power relations between the sexes has created a climate in which the worst behavior can seem typical. There’s no real discussion about how to balance the erotic energy that exists in many creative workplaces with the need for safety and security. Loose language reveals a glaring uncertainly about where to draw the line.
Given this ambiguity, it’s quite possible to make the worst look like the norm, and there are many ways of doing so. You can use words interchangeably that mean distinct things—words such as misconduct, harassment, abuse, and rape—thereby conflating offensive behavior with violent acts. Though statistics about the frequency of sexual assault on campus range from seven to 25 percent, you can choose to print only the highest figures. You can stack the deck against an accused individual by failing to let him speak in his own words. (See the piece by Amber Tamblyn in the Times’s Sunday Review for an example of this.) Or you can create a dire impression by allowing a source to interpret very different acts. Consider this passage from the Times article on Silicon Valley. A PhD candidate at Stanford says that two-thirds of the women she interviewed “had experienced unwanted sexual interactions such as being groped or kissed, or hearing comments about the physical attractiveness of women or references that made them uncomfortable. One third talked about men they worked with expressing romantic interest that was unwanted.” This suggests that groping, joking, and making a pass form a continuum of abuse. It’s certainly true that sexual insults or insistence can create a hostile workplace. But it’s also true that many relationships and even marriages stem from professional encounters. Do we really want to make flirting a fireable offense?
“We wanted to show that you can be assaulted without even being touched,” Notaro told The Hollywood Reporter. But if assault no longer refers just to violent contact, what does it mean? Is a man who exposes himself guilty of assault? Does the penis even have to show? I mention this because manspreading on the subway is a crime in New York City. I leave it to your judgement whether white men are subject to arrest for this offense, but think about who gets busted for smoking weed in New York—about 85 percent are people of color.
I’m trying to show, from the slippery slope of journalistic language, how unsettled these questions are, and, in the light of that uncertainly, how important it is to be precise. Readers of Rolling Stone will surely recall what can happen when a less-then thorough investigation suffices for proof of a sex crime. But any climate of stress can produce the same result. All we have to do is recall the Red Scare of the 50s, when thousands of people were blacklisted because somebody said they were Communists. In fact, the accused held a wide range of political beliefs, from progressive to socialist, Marxist, or merely activist. It didn’t matter. And the press, with very notable exceptions, simply reported the accusations, allowing the red-baiters to use a variety of incendiary terms. Naming names ruined lives—and it still can.
Add to this mix the internet, which has produced a crisis for all print journals. Combine the struggle to survive for papers like the Times with the current climate of sexual anxiety and you’ve got a major temptation to play to your demographic base, especially if an article drives traffic on the paper’s web site. Something real is being talked about here, something that has to be confronted, but also something that can lead to ominous distortions. What if it turns out that the tactic of creating canards and setting them loose isn’t limited to Putin and Trump? What if this strategy, so successful on the internet, is beginning to influence our most trusted journals, caught between ignoring innuendo and reporting what they aren’t sure is true? What if the line between rumor and news that’s fit to print is growing porous?