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20/20 Needs New Glasses: Tyler Clementi Segment Sensational and Simplistic

March 26, 2012

I cringed when I saw the promos for last night’s 20/20 and their “exclusive” first interview with former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi, just found guilty on 15 counts — including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation — last week for spying with a webcam while his roommate, Tyler Clementi, was on a date with another man in their dorm room. My gut was right, for the most part, as I watched last night.

I was horrified at not only the sensationalism, but the near complete lack of depth to this very complex case that has been the subject of so much media coverage. This piece was a horrible way to give voice to Ravi, who, I think, came off as smug and without any real sense of the consequences and cruelty) of his actions in a manner that was offensive to anyone who has been subjected to bullying of any kind.

Let’s start with the opening scenes of the George Washington Bridge, overlaid with dramatic music and pictures of Tyler. It was nauseating, unnecessary and must have been very painful to those who knew him. Shame on 20/20 to feel the need to sensationalize that tragic act and to use terminology like “anti-bullying bandwagon” when describing the increased concerns and attention after Clementi’s death and describing President Obama’s “It Gets Better” video as “chiming in” to the issue. The language is belittling, no matter what you think about all of this.

We know 20/20 has a mixed history on LGBT issues, depending on who the interviewer is, but in this case Chris Cuomo simply gave Ravi a free ride without any challenges to what seemed like a “too little too late” set of rationalizations for his actions. It reminded me far too much of a 2004 segment of 20/20 where the attempt to “debunk” the Matthew Shepard hate crime murder and, in a manner similar to this program, giving a platform to Shepard’s killers to rewrite history without challenge.

Don’t get me wrong, I personally do not think we could or should blame Ravi for Clementi’s suicide a few days after the incident. Suicide is a very complex and often misunderstood act by an individual prompted by so many factors. I also think the sentencing should not be as harsh it could be — up to 10 years in jail and deportation. Although after watching a very remorseless Ravi unwilling to take any responsibility, I may start agreeing with the huge amount of chatter on Twitter as the episode aired that was clearly enraged at the tone of his interview.

As Dan Savage very astutely pointed out, with the momentum building at that time related to a number of other bullying and suicides of gay young people, Ravi became a “poster boy” and the focus of a large amount of the anger in our community and beyond about this epidemic of bullying and the lack of action on then part of schools, families and communities. Ravi is by far not the only or worst bully in the world, but in this world of 24/7 media and the added element of cyberbullying, which is getting more attention as a serious issue, contributed to the media focusing more attention on this case.

Steven Goldstein, of Garden State Equality, was clear and forthright that this case could not be dismissed as a “kids will be kids” action, but clearly had some level of intent to embarrass and hurt Tyler. At least 20/20 spoke to some advocates who could provide a minimum of context, but they were given a minuscule amount of time compared to Ravi, whose story dominated the piece. As often happens, the “get” of the first interview drove the editorial here, a problem I see far too much in television journalism.

It is undeniable that Clementi has other challenges in his life and that he struggled with depression long before the spying incident. My greatest disappointment is that the “elephants in the room” our community does not talk about enough were glossed over: the effects of the closet and the mental health issues associated with that stress; the impact of family acceptance and rejection on young people, written about extensively here on HuffPo, but still not the priority it needs to be and the role schools (including colleges) need to play in creating safer spaces for students.

As a parent, my heart breaks for Tyler’s mother and father, but I think the complex relationship he — and his gay brother — have with their parents and family, who expressed their love for their child in this piece, but also seemed to have had the familiar questions and challenges many parents face when their children come out.

What they may not have had was the support necessary to understand the impact of any actions they would take in reacting to his coming out. I believe that was glossed over to focus the vast majority of attention on letting Ravi (who was silent during the trial, where he would have been much more seriously questioned and held accountable) have an open platform to defend himself without any accountability whatsoever.

There are far more questions than answers still as we sort through our feelings about Clementi’s suicide, the Ravi verdict and what good, if any, can come out of this.

And as I sit her the nation is now having a conversation about the killing of Trayvon Martin, with important issues of race profiling, hate crimes and comparisons of his killing to everyone from Emmett Till to Matthew Shepard — including the tensions and challenges these kinds of comparisons create. They are important conversations to have, and the media has a responsibility to cover them accurately, in depth, with nuance and without sensationalizing.

As someone who has noted with some pain that the majority of the cases we see getting media attention continue to focus on white gay men — with some improvement, but we still have a long way to go to understand – never mind address — these issues. Time to have some more serious and complex conversations, but in this case 20/20 did more than lose an opportunity to do that, they dropped the ball completely.

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This story was first published on Huffington Post



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