CNN host Don Lemon had Joan Tarshis on his show last night, one of the 14 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Tarshis has said that Cosby raped her twice when she was 19, adding that she kept silent for years out of shame and guilt. And as you do when interviewing an alleged rape victim about presumably one of the worst experiences of her life on national television, Lemon had all sorts of important follow-up questions for Tarshis. Questions like, how come you didn't not get raped? That was an option too, you know.
"Can I ask you this? And please, I don't mean to be crude, OK?" Lemon began. "You said this last night, that you lied to him and said, 'I have an infection, and if you rape me, or if you do — if you have intercourse with me, then you will probably get it and give it to your wife.'" (Cosby allegedly responded by forcing her to perform oral sex instead.) "You know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn't want to do it."
"Oh," Tarshis said, with admirable restraint. "I was kind of stoned at the time, and quite honestly, that didn't even enter my mind. Now I wish it would have."
"Right," Lemon answered, foot plunging ever further down his throat. "Meaning the using of the teeth, right?"
"Mmmhmm, yes, I didn't even think of it," Tarshis responded, with a polite smile fixed to her face. "Ouch. It didn't cross my mind."
Lemon's comments are actually a pretty good capsule summary of how people who don't know much about rape think about it: why didn't you just not have that happen to you? Instead of getting drugged and forced into sexual activity by a powerful man many years your senior, why didn't you do anything else in the world?
The first and most obvious response here is mockery, and Twitter provided that immediately with #DonLemonReporting, a hashtag that imagined the probing questions Lemon might ask in other situations:
But instead of just making fun of Lemon, how about some actual professional consequences for him? This was more than a dumb question. This was nationally televised victim-blaming, and it was bad journalism. All of the best practices for journalists suggest not dwelling on details that look like hoisting responsibility for not being victimized onto the victim, and "Why didn't you do something to stop your own rape?" is textbook victim blaming.
Second journalism tip: It's also generally a good idea not to provide salacious or gratuitous detail about sexual assault. And if you have a profoundly stupid question for an alleged rape victim, at the very least have the decency to run it past her in a pre-interview, rather than launching it towards her on live TV. (Poynter has some good guidelines on reporting on rape and sexual assault here.)
Don Lemon is, of late, only in the news for doing very stupid things, things he never seems to acknowledge or apologize for ever again. Let's not let this be one of those times.