The Washington Post tittered, “There are hundreds of jokes to be made here.” Salon rolled its eyes. The Atlantic called it "tragicomic." And across the country, left- and right-wingers alike greeted the news that Al Gore was accused of sexual assault with a collective gasp of, "Not Al Gore. He’s just not that kind of guy!"
Almost a month ago, the National Enquirer broke the news that a massage therapist in Portland, Oregon has claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the iconic Nobel Prize winner in 2006. In short, she says that she was called to Gore’s hotel room to give him a massage (he’s confirmed that he was in town then and got a massage in his hotel room). She alleges that during the massage, he begged her to touch his lower abdomen and groin, and then he forced her hand under the sheet onto his pubic region, while alternately “rag[ing]” at her and begging for her to get him off. As she was packing up after the massage, he allegedly forcibly embraced and kissed her, forced her to drink alcohol, and pinned her on the bed and molested her until she managed to escape, but not without a knee injury bad enough, she claims, to require medical care for months. (You can read a detailed account of the police report at TPMMuckraker.)
Several weeks later, she reported the incident to the police. She then changed her mind about pursuing criminal charges, and her lawyer told the police the case would be pursued civilly. She had no further contact with law enforcement until 2009, when she decided to make a full statement to police, who then declined to pursue the matter citing “insufficient evidence.” About a month ago she approached the police again, asking for a copy of the report, which she provided to the Enquirer. The Portland police have now reopened the case, after discovering their previous investigation had been closed improperly.
The media outlets that bothered to report on the story have hardly reported the story. With one dubious exception, I couldn’t find a single source that did what any reporter with the most basic questions about the charges should have done: interview an expert on sexual violence who might be able to provide context and comment on the likely credibility of the story. Instead, they trotted out excuses in Gore’s defense, often going the way of The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, who, in musing about whether the mainstream media would pick up the story, treated it as a choice between defending Gore’s integrity or indulging in a base appetite for celebrity scandal, as if there wasn’t a possibility that a real 54-year-old woman had suffered a violent assault. Salon ran a story titled “3 Reasons To Doubt The Al Gore Sex Assault Story,” which not only claimed that the Portland Tribune’s decision not to cover the allegations should be good enough for us (more on that in a bit), but also reminded readers that “we have seen plenty of cases of baseless (if vivid) sexual allegations against celebrities before.” In fact, false reports of sexual assault are rare (somewhere between 2 percent and 8 percent of cases filed), and tend to be seemingly ironclad stories designed to evoke only sympathy, with no ambiguity or perceived chance for escape (such as some claim the accuser had when she was packing up her table and equipment). What’s more, most male celebrities manage to spend their lifetimes being rich and notable without attracting a single accusation of sexual assault. Ever heard a sexual assault charge against Obama? Tom Cruise? Heck, for all the money and bad press Tiger Woods has earned, has anyone ever accused him of sexual assault? The truth is, there are hundreds of filthy rich, incredibly famous men, and only a small handful of them have been accused of sexual assault. If inventing a rape accusation were a great way to make money, it would be a lot more popular. There are valid reasons to dismiss a sexual assault charge out-of-hand—the woman who accused Tucker Carlson of raping her in a city he’d never visited comes to mind—but none of those reasons are present in this case. All we have are a set of behaviors (not fleeing the room at first opportunity, uncertainty about how or when to pursue legal justice) that are so common in victims of abuse as to be almost textbook.