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Media coverge of military rape sporadic, sensational

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February 15th, 2008

By Guest Blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Notice how media coverage of rape or murder by military personnel from this country seems to fall into a separate category from other similar cases, as if these crimes are different because of who committed them?

From KBR to pregnant Marine Corporal Maria Lauterbach (http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/01/12/missing.marine/), I believe the media covers these stories while often maintaining that shroud of military protectionism, at least somewhat. While stories may report that investigations stall or that women citing danger didn’t receive protection, as was the case for Lauterbach, rarely does the press bring consistent urgency or outrage to the reporting of these stories (save for some streaks of sensationalism, as was also the case with Lauterbach, at least briefly after her death). These stories rarely reach page one and certainly do not linger there. While investigative pieces do sporadically surface, such as a recent New York Times story on KBR, these stories rarely become trend pieces, and tend not to remain on the front — or even the middle — burner.

In a recent New York Times story on the women seeking justice after being raped in Iraq and having the crimes ignored, the women themselves speak to the failures of the system to protect them — but media coverage fails them, too, requiring that they make themselves completely vulnerable to an invasive level of scrutiny in order to be heard, reporting focusing as much or more on a voyeuristic look into their victimization than on serious investigation of the conditions that allowed the crimes against them to occur. A quote illuminates this point: “When I complained to KBR, they didn’t do anything. I still have nightmares. They changed my life forever, and they got away with it.” Certainly, women’s voices are essential in making real the horror of rape and sexual abuse. However, the lack of prosecution is really the ongoing story here, so why isn’t this piece more squarely about investigation of KBR?

Similarly, the way Lauterbach was described as victim illuminates a sense of women’s weakness rather than emphasizing her military rank. Onslow County North Carolina sheriff Ed Brown is quoted in the CNN story: “This is consistent with what we were looking for: A pregnant lady who is the victim Maria Lauterbach and her unborn child,” Brown said. Lady? There is an imbalance here: Lauterbach did accuse Laurean of rape. He was not separated from the unit. Yet her character came under media scrutiny even while she was missing and before her body was found. Stories posted on CNN.com and others reported claims that Lauterbach was possibly bipolar or a compulsive liar. Comparatively little has been written about her likely slayer, Corporal Cesar Laurean, other than he’d probably fled to Mexico, and that he told his wife Lauterbach had slit her own neck. This is not to say more sensationalized coverage about him may not follow eventually (or that sensational coverage of perpetrators is called for — clearly, that wouldn’t be the kind of equity I’m looking for), but so far, that hasn’t really happened.

Monday, a US Marine in Japan was arrested for allegedly raping a 12 year-old girl. With echoes of a similar incident in 1995, Japanese officials were outraged; 250 protesters gathered. While the story is clearly pressing in Okinawa, where officials and civilians are furious, here, the story first spent a couple of days on the wire services almost exclusively and hadn’t, as of a few days later, made it to the front pages of U.S. news outlets.

GUEST BLOGGER Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including Mothers Movement Online, Literary Mama, Brain Child, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and newspapers including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday and USA Today

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