How the Media Portrays CSA: a look at the Woody Allen case – Ruth Dsouza Prabhu

It is the way of the media – sexual abuse cases do, by and large, get reported– but there are some that are dissected more publicly than others. Celebrity-related cases tend to come under a wider scanner of scrutiny than most others because of the people involved.

A case in point is the much talked, debated and written about child molestation accusation against Woody Allen by his adopted daughter Dylan (today known as Malone) Farrow. Dylan, now 28 years old, claims that Woody Allen sexually abused her when she was 7 years old. The case came to the limelight almost immediately back then, but was dismissed by a court for not being substantial enough to take forward for the “lack of concrete evidence”. Now, almost 20 years after the case went silent, Dylan Farrow resurrected the case in the media with an open letter in the New York Times about her traumatic time with her adoptive father. This was around the time Woody Allen secured yet another laurel as a film maker.

This case is merely one to represent how child abuse cases are treated in the media.

What is the truth?

The answer to this question is one that we, reading scores of reports and opinions on the case, will never really know. The truth can definitely be debated endlessly in the media and we will lap it up for various reasons.

Why is the truth debatable when a child sexual abuse case is pretty much black or white depending on the evidence – perhaps the way a case is projected in the media may hold the answer to that question?

20 years ago, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow were a couple – though not married. They had one child together and adopted a few others, Dylan Farrow included. Around the time Dylan turned seven, it came to light that Woody Allen was having an affair with the 19-year adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn from Mia Farrow’s first union with Andre Previn.  That is when Woody and Mia went into a bitter custody battle over the children and visitation rights. In the midst of this case, Dylan alleges that when Woody came to meet her and her siblings, he took her aside and abused her.

This above is a simple summary of the case based on the reading up I have done on it. It does not (at least in my opinion) allow you to form an opinion on guilt unless you know more details. But when the only details you get are from the media, how reliable are they?

When the media got hold of this case…

20 years ago, the media was not all pervasive as it is today. Though people had opinions, it was not really possible to make it known outside their immediate circle. Today, two decades later, technology is literally in our hands as we walk about. Voicing an opinion has changed the very dynamics of the way a case is handled.

Take a look at some of what happened in the media with the Dylan Farrow-Woody Allen case:

Dylan’s open letter in NY Times was published in Nicholas Kristof’s regular column. While the letter is available in its entirety, Kristof also has a version that explains his idea of why the letter was carried and a subtle disclaimer on him being a friend of the Mia Farrow camp in this entire case – the letter is broken down to carry possible justifications for Dylan coming out again on the case with terms like “happily married but traumatised over events of 20 years ago”, “wanting to come out now and not regret on her death bed”, and exhorting people not to “lionize a molester”.

Scores of opinion pieces came up about the case –

Such pieces are just the tip of the iceberg as far as this case goes. Unfortunately each of them have far reaching effects on the actual case, especially in the American judicial system which is jury-based. If you read through the material available online or with any other resource on the case you will find the following:

  • Each one subtly tries to pin blame with inflammatory headlines – the idea is to gain more eyeballs.
  • You have open letters, friends of either side writing supportive pieces, analyses from experts on various aspects of the case, previous victims of child abuse coming forth with accounts – media today needs to personalize their news or else they lose their reader to another rival.
  • There is a lot of speculation – “Mia Farrow the vindictive partner left for her adoptive daughter”, “Dylan Farrow the dysfunctional child”, “Siblings taking sides against each other”– each successive piece is continues to get more readership and shape opinion, in the end bring it to a point where we don’t know the truth.

What you have to know about media reportage today is:

  • There is a great deal of sensationalization of news today. The news is a commercial business and it has to sell.
  • The bigger the celebrity, the bigger the noise – every media is going to milk that cow for all it’s worth.
  • Show business has massive internal machinery and just like you have the “media spinners” in politics, you will have them at play here too. Stories can be planted, altered and more.

So what does this mean for us, the readers:

To reiterate a point earlier – what really happened in that “little attic” between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow we may never know for sure; he may be a cruel, child molester or may simply be a victim of a relationship gone very sour.

As readers who are constantly exposed to such cases in the media, it is hard to sift through the reams of information and find the truth. There is always going to be a distortion of truth and wild speculation in every case – the recent Malaysian Airlines disappearance is a case in point.

The media will always try to play to the sentiments of people. Every news piece is going to be perceived differently. A victim of child abuse will automatically side with Dylan; a mother who has been recently dumped for a younger woman with Mia Farrow; a die-hard Woody Allen fan will only see this as a way to taint the image of a great person…

It’s unfortunate that the media seems to have lost its true purpose in the way it presents a report. But they alone are not to blame. As readers we too are guilty of craving the sensational and often it is these desires that the media caters to. While responsible reporting must be prerogative of the media, being a responsible consumer of news too is equally important.