.Mercury News Editor Stands Behind Columnist Who Blamed Victim in Stanford Rape Case

Not a good look.

I’ve got a ton of respect for nearly all fellow journalists, so I don’t take lightly calling one out.

But when Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold wrote last week that campus drinking was the “unindicted co-conspirator” in the much-discussed Brock Turner/Stanford University rape case, implying that the victim was at least partly to blame for her own rape because she was drunk — well, damn, I had to shoot off a quick email to the Merc’s executive editor:
Scott Herhold’s column from yesterday stunned. And not just because he lobbied for a lesser sentence, and all the white-privilege implications that come with making that argument.

It was also Herhold writing that the judge had a “chance to send a message” to colleges and student about binge-drinking, “the unindicted co-conspirator here.”
Wow, did he really just write that?

The implication, whether intentional or not, is clearly that the victim is partly to blame. It’s virtually the same as writing “She was hammered, she had a role in this incident, too, and college kids need a lesson on binge-drinking.”

I’m reminded of such awful statements as: “She wore a short skirt, she deserved it.”

I have a lot of respect for your reporters and team, and call some of them good colleagues and even friends. But I can’t believe this column made it to print.

I must ask whether you stand by it?
Executive Editor Neil Chase, a pro, was quick to reply:
Nick, thanks for writing. I was about to answer your tweet, but I’ll take this chance to use more than 140 characters to share my thoughts.

Scott’s column, the probation officials’ recommendation and the judge’s decision were all, as you say, stunning. It’s not up to me to stand by an opinion columnist’s opinion, but rather to stand by his right to express himself and launch discussions. Even if the opinion seems extreme. Even if it disagrees with what we said in our editorial today. Even if I disagree.

Are there limits to that freedom? Sure. Just as there are limits to legal freedoms. But if I shut down a columnist because I know many people will disagree, I’m shutting down the conversations that should occur in our society. Frankly, I expected that the sentence would be more severe. The fact that it matched the judge’s eventual ruling makes that conversation even more necessary. 
I appreciated his thoughtful response. And, for sure, we’re somewhat on the same page: It’s crucial that newspapers foster conversations about contentious public issues . And it’s our roles, as editors, is to stand by our columnists, etc.

But … I want to be clear: Herhold waded deep into extreme and inappropriate waters. It’s his coded victim-blaming, the way he denigrates women with his “unindicted co-conspirator” argument — and his suggestion that a rape victim has a lesson to learn, too. That the judge too needs to send her “a message” as well. I’m not sure how that conversation is ever necessary, that it should occur in society. It’s outrageous.

Mercury News readers seemed to agree, as they leveled the newspaper in its Letters section. Ditto social media. And national media is just catching on to the Herhold column, as well.

And now, reports are making the rounds that no women editors looked at Herhold’s contentious column before it went to print. That’s not good … for the Merc newsroom.

But it is good that people are outraged about the chain of command in the newsroom and whether women editors are involved if you care about ending a rape culture of victim-blaming.


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