Corporate media's rape problem: Supporting the stars, ignoring the charges

Media outlets give celebs like Roman Polanski and R. Kelly adoring coverage, and ignore rape allegations

Published December 23, 2013 5:07PM (EST)

Roman Polanski, R. Kelly      (AP/Michael Probst/Jordan Strauss)
Roman Polanski, R. Kelly (AP/Michael Probst/Jordan Strauss)

Corporate media has a rapist problem.

Whether it’s Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe or even Jezebel promoting R. Kelly’s new “Black Panties” album without mentioning the allegations that he’s sexually assaulted dozens of adolescent black girls — or the Academy Awards giving a Best Director Oscar and a standing ovation to convicted pedophile rapist Roman Polanski — the music industry and the Hollywood film community just can't stop enabling oh-so-talented predators.

Eerie similarities between R. Kelly’s and Roman Polanski’s sex crimes against young girls (and parallel rationalizations by their defenders) provide perfect case studies in media complicity with rich, powerful stars’ continued evasion of justice. Comparing media treatment of these two men from different industries and eras offers disturbing insight into widespread institutional collusion. While some debate has emerged about whether or not fans must consider an artist’s crimes when choosing to enjoy (or boycott) their art, I believe a larger, more critical question needs to be asked: what is the responsibility of powerful commercial media entities (including news outlets, music labels, movie studios, and fellow artists) that protect and profit off of sex offenders, and what will it take to hold the media accountable?

Let’s start with R. Kelly, an R&B icon who has sold more than 50 million albums since the 1990s.

Last week, the Village Voice ran an explosive Q&A between Jessica Hopper and journalist Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times reporter who, with courts reporter Abdon Pallasch, broke the story about the R&B star’s alleged pedophilia in December 2000. Headlined “Read the ‘Stomach-Churning’ Sexual Assault Accusations Against R. Kelly in Full,” the Q&A offered a level of disturbing detail about these alleged crimes that most R. Kelly fans have never heard before, because DeRogatis’ decade of dogged reporting never became a trend story. His pieces were big news in Chicago, even becoming central to the child pornography case against Kelly, but have been generally ignored or excused by the national entertainment press. Introducing the story, Hopper writes, “DeRogatis offered to give me access to every file and transcript he has collected in reporting this story — as he has to other reporters and journalists, none of whom has ever looked into the matter, thus relegating it to one man's personal crusade. I thought that last fact merited a public conversation about why.” And so the Voice Q&A concluded with an archive of police and court documents and LexisNexis copies of the Sun-Times’ extensive, decade-plus investigation into allegations that Kelly abused underage girls, making this evidence public on a mass scale for the first time.

So what, exactly, does that underreported history entail? In short, that Kelly has allegedly subjected dozens of young black girls to coercive, illegal sex in a pattern documented in one chilling court filing after another, from 1996 through the mid-2000s, all settled with hush-money to families and payoffs to witnesses, allowing him to perpetrate again and again. In court documents and DeRogatis’ reporting, Kelly’s accused of utilizing the techniques of practiced pedophiles: hanging out at or near schools, grooming kids with attention, cash or gifts such as sneakers, controlling and exploiting them sexually, then discarding them after they were no longer young enough to suit his tastes. He allegedly coerced girls into recruiting their young friends to fill his appetites, and made them have sex with him and with each other. One woman says he picked her up on the night of her prom, and later forced her to get an abortion. Some of Kelly’s alleged victims have been so traumatized that they’ve attempted suicide, showing DeRogatis the scars on their slashed wrists.

“In the history of rock 'n' roll, rock music, or pop culture people misbehaving and behaving badly sexually with young women, rare is the amount of evidence compiled against anyone apart from R. Kelly. Dozens of girls — not one, not two, dozens — with harrowing lawsuits,” DeRogatis told the Voice. “We're talking about predatory behavior. Their lives were ruined. Read the lawsuits!” Yet “the world shrugged” after his story ran. “Associated Press picks it up: ‘Chicago Sun-Times has reported a pattern of sexual predation of young women by Robert Kelly,’ and everybody says, ‘Ah, well, OK.’”

Though the failure of corporate journalism allowed much of this dark reality to remain largely unexamined until now, a portion of the offenses detailed in DeRogatis’ timeline of Kelly’s life and career have been widely known yet generally ignored by critics, fans, and the music industry at large, including his marriage at 27 to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah, whose album he produced and titled “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number”; he cared enough about the number that the marriage certificate falsified her age as 18. Worse still, a visual record that appears to show the singer raping a 14-year-old girl (full stop: children cannot legally consent) exists in the form of a video tape sent anonymously to DeRogatis and turned over to the authorities, which led to Kelly being charged in 2002 with 21 counts of making child pornography. On the video, which the FBI has said was not altered, Kelly appeared to demand that the girl call him “Daddy” while he had sex with her and urinated in her mouth. (Kelly's defense team denied that it was him in the video.)  Another videotape appeared to show the singer having illegal sex with another girl aged 13 or 14, but it could not be verified and wasn’t used in court.

The trial dragged on through 2008, when, after numerous reported payoffs by Kelly to victims, their families, and witnesses, he was eventually found not guilty. “The saddest fact I've learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated,” DeRogatis told the Voice, and they are “[called] ‘bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,’ plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of… it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn't have a chance.” Despite the dozens of victims who filed court cases against Kelly, and who told their stories to DeRogatis and Pallasch, Kelly has never been tried for rape or sexual assault of a minor.

Next, let’s get up to speed on director Roman Polanski, whose crime — and continued embrace by the film industry and the entertainment press — bears striking resemblance to the story of Kelly and his treatment by the music industry and press. In 1977, on the pretense of a photo shoot for Vogue Homme, the 43-year-old Polanski brought a 13-year-old girl to Jack Nicholson’s house, fed her alcohol and a Quaalude, refused to take her home when she asked him to and then forced her to have oral, vaginal and anal sex with him against her will. The victim pressed charges, the director was indicted on six felony counts, including rape, and he spent 42 days in jail before pleading down to one felony count of unlawful sex with a minor. Before he could be sentenced for his conviction as a child rapist, Polanski fled to France, where extradition laws don't apply.

In the 36 years he has evaded justice, the director has "been able to make what he's wanted. He's enjoyed creative freedom and final cut. He has a diverse career," his agent once assured the Los Angeles Times. (He’s also been able to do whomever he’s wanted, enjoying the freedom to have sex with a slate of underage girls in France, including a relationship with actress Nastassja Kinski when she was 15.)

One career capstone was his critically acclaimed Holocaust film “The Pianist,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2002. Polanski wasn’t able to accept his Oscar in person because as a fugitive from justice, he was still a wanted sex offender in Los Angeles. As that city’s district attorney said at the time, "You don't get a pass for longevity." (That’s a concept not understood by actors such as Variety’s Peter Bart, who’ve pressured L.A.’s district attorney to drop Polanski’s prison sentence because, you know, it’s been a while, and he’s just so talented.) Not to worry, though: Harrison Ford accepted the prestigious statue on his behalf and presented it to him later at a French film festival where those pesky U.S. courts couldn’t touch him. The Directors Guild of America has been similarly accommodating, allowing him to avoid arrest by teleconferencing into their conference.

Which brings us back to the question of media complicity with famous rapists.

Media have long protected and profited from male celebs who prey on girls and women, from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmie Page’s alleged kidnapping and repeated rapes of a 14-year-old in 1972, to the high-profile sexual molestation charges against Woody Allen by his 7-year-old adopted daughter in 1992 (followed by the revelation that the 56-year-old filmmaker was having a sexual affair with his college-aged, de facto stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of his then-partner, Mia Farrow). Ike Turner savagely beat his wife, powerhouse singer Tina Turner, throughout their marriage in the 1960s and ‘70s. Through the late 2000s, Charlie Sheen was the highest-paid actor in television despite a well-known history of violence against girlfriends, porn stars, and ex-wives, including a supposedly accidental shooting of his former fiancée, actress Kelly Preston, in 1990. And abuse of boys isn’t enough to hinder a promising media career, either: Michael Jackson remained the reigning King of Pop until his death despite legal battles and tabloid fodder over charges that he molested as many as two dozen boys and paid millions to cover it up.

Scanning through the lengthy and often-lurid timeline DeRogatis compiled of Kelly’s life and career, a picture emerges of a music industry that callously ignores the grave harm he has done to young Black girls.

  • In 2002, in the face of indictments and video evidence of Kelly’s habit of sex with very young girls, his label stood by their cash cow with an official statement that “R. Kelly has been with Jive Records for 11 years, and we fully support him and his music.”
  • In 2004, while his child pornography trial was still being prosecuted, Kelly released a collaborative album with Jay-Z and went on tour with him.
  • In 2011, he was invited by legendary music producer Clive Davis to sing at his Grammy gala; he performed on the FOX reality show “The X Factor” and Billboard named him the number-one R&B Artist of the last 25 years.
  • By 2012, a full decade after his predatory behavior came to light, Tavis Smiley’s publishing arm, Smiley Books, released Kelly’s autobiography, "Soulacoaster"; Kanye West has him collaborate on a track called “To the World featuring R Kelly”; and the Independent Film Channel funds and airs Chapters 22 – 33 of his ongoing hip-hopera as a cable movie, promising to air future installments on IFC.
  • This year, Kelly performed at Bonnaroo, headlined the Coachella and Pitchfork music festivals and teamed up with Lady Gaga for her song “Do What U Want [With My Body],” dry-humping their way through performances on the “American Music Awards” and “Saturday Night Live.” Of all Kelly’s collaborations, this Gaga tune is perhaps the most viciously inappropriate to date, considering his on-public-record pattern of doing what he wants to the bodies of girls too young to consent.

Fast forward to the December release of “Black Panties,” with a fully-dressed Kelly on the cover, playing a nearly nude young woman on his lap with a cellist’s bow, a visual fuck you to all the teenagers who ever claimed to have been his victims — and to anyone who has a problem with his rapey past. Called an “explicitly hilarious,” (L.A. Times) “sonically rich,” (Chicago Tribune) “Magnificent Ode to Pussy” (Jezebel) by “the legend, R Kelly” (The Grio), the media have responded as if this is just another benign, raunchy-fun collection of sex-jams from an “entertainer-as-lover” (Entertainment Weekly). It isn’t. This is a narcissistic star gloating about getting off, in every sense of that phrase, on criminal sex with kids: “They asked him in a interview, ‘Why do he love these girls?’ The only thing he had to say was “Motherfuck the world!’” he spits on the defiant track “My Story.” It would be obnoxious enough if a man with his history limited his lyrical posturing to his self-proclaimed status as “sex genius,” mastery of licking women like Oreos or his phallic God complex (yeah, he actually calls his penis the “Jesus piece”). But Kelly just can’t help himself, so peppered throughout these songs are lines that straight-up brag about sexual violence, including “Break your back, crack it open like a lobster,” “I’ll kill the pussy, dig a grave,” “I beat the pussy til it’s blue” and “I beat the pussy, Django.”

Those darker lyrics are conveniently overlooked by Pitchfork, which preferred to hype the oral sex song “Cookie” this way: “the power of R. Kelly: it will be impossible to eat an Oreo for a while without thinking of cunnilingus. He has fundamentally altered your existence.” Maybe, maybe not — but he has certainly fundamentally altered the lives of the many Black girls who said he coerced them into sex while they were still children, some of whom still call up DeRogatis in the middle of the night weeping about the pain he caused them. And yet here’s Pitchfork proclaiming that “Marry the Pussy” is an “undeniably great” song that renders Kelly “more human than the rest of us… His brilliance is in routinely bringing out into the open the things that — with good reason! — stay in the darkest corners of our minds. In disrupting the social order, maybe his music helps preserve it as well.”

Speaking to the Village Voice, DeRogatis is clear about how journalists should be discussing Kelly’s latest album. He was alleged to have committed “Rapes, plural. It is on record. Rapes in the dozen. So stop hedging your words, and when you tell me what a brilliant ode to pussy ‘Black Panties’ is, then realize that the next sentence should say: ‘This, from a man who has committed numerous rapes.’ The guy was a monster! Just say it!” So when a supposedly critical music outlet describes this predator as “more human than the rest of us” without acknowledging that uncomfortable truth about the man, something is definitely brought out into the open: not Kelly’s “brilliance,” but our willingness to treat the bodies and lives of Black girls as if they are worthless, as if they have no right to dignity, safety or justice. And considering the copious amount of cash Kelly has made for his label, for IFC, for talent agents, for artists who collaborate with him — and, yes, for Pitchfork when he headlined their music festival — in a very real, commercial sense, Kelly doesn’t disrupt the social order, he preserves it. That social order is called rape culture, this one slice of which enables powerful, rich rapists like Kelly (and Polanski, whom we’ll return to shortly) to remain free to abuse girls and women with impunity, so long as they continue to be lucrative to their industries.

Like Pitchfork, most news outlets, music reviews and culture blogs have discussed “Black Panties” with little to no reference to Kelly’s child porn trial, his marriage to a 15-year-old or the many other charges of statutory rape. The label he enjoys most often in the media is “genius” or “brilliant,” not “predator” or “pedophile.” And when media outlets do deign to make oblique references to his alleged crimes, amazing semantic calisthenics are employed to avoid the words “rape,” “sexual assault,” “child porn” or “pedophilia.” The AV Club’s sole such mention comes within a paragraph that posits that those who have a problem with Kelly’s sexual braggadocio are just too prudish to handle the liberated outlook of a singer who could be good for all of us, if only we’d loosen up: “It’s hard to freely accept the way Kelly talks about his sexuality, though there is something admirable about the way he shamelessly describes the act … Is it because the talk is coming from Kelly, who’s faced some unsavory sex-related legal troubles in recent history? Or is it because years of prudish public education prepared most of us to be unable to talk about — or hear about, for that matter — frank talk of sexual acts?” Despite decency and common sense both insisting on answer A in that rhetorical multiple choice, the AV Club’s review concludes that “it’s admirable” that Kelly is “even tackling” such issues, and “’Black Panties’ could be a big step forward for the sex-positive movement.”

Hollywood’s A-list and the journalists who cover them have expressed that same muddled mindset regarding Roman Polanski, especially at the time of his 2002 Oscar nomination and win. As I wrote back then, the convicted pedophile was repeatedly described in the press as the victim of “negative propaganda,” as director Krzysztof Zanussi told Reuters, and of "demonization … in the public imagination," as movie producer Thom Mount told the Los Angeles Times. And just like fans and critics who dismiss Kelly’s documented abuses as some “murky” scandal only "the haters" still care about, L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein defended Polanski with the flimsy reasoning that "as time passes, the personal transgressions fade into the background; the artist's brilliance is what we cherish and remember.”

Adrien Brody, star of Polanski’s “The Pianist,” protested "this unpleasant thing of constantly bringing back some horrific moment in [his] life. That's not fair." Instead of harping on the past, Brody told the LA Times, the media "should honor the man for creating something special … Let the rest lie." Forget the past? What an intentionally blind suggestion from Brody, who spoke eloquently at the Oscars about war's dehumanizing impact. If "never forget" applies to The Pianist's subject matter, why shouldn't it also apply to the crime of its director? The sexual assault was not a "horrific moment" in his life — it was a crime he chose to commit, after which he chose to use his influence and financial privilege to evade accountability. Just like Kelly seems to have done, allegedly silencing dozens of victims and witnesses so effectively that he has never even had to face rape charges, while his fans and his media enablers echo his rants that “the haters” made it all up because they want to destroy him.

Where Kelly’s supporters insist that his preference for sex with little girls is a personal issue that shouldn’t impact his position in the music industry, Polanski's Oscars victory was preceded by a heated debate in the media and in Hollywood about whether his "personal morality" would — or should — hurt his chances for Oscar gold. "Polanski has been repeatedly cursed by people’s inability to distinguish between his art and his life," Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein put it. On top of that obfuscationist framing, news and commentary on the issue often misrepresented Polanski's crime. Though some outlets correctly described the incident as rape, many reports downplayed it in passing, out-of-context references to statutory rape which were technically accurate but misleading: the modifier "statutory" is heard by many as meaning "willing sex with someone who wants to consent but isn’t yet allowed to do so.” What Polanski did meets the definition of rape no matter what the age of the victim. Other more problematic media coverage threw accuracy to the winds, as when the Los Angeles Times described Polanski fleeing the country after he "became swept up in a sex scandal” under “cloudy circumstances." Entertainment Weekly quoted sources displaying an amazing lack of ability to differentiate between criminal behavior and reputation-damaging "personal transgressions." To various degrees, these characterizations all implied consensual sex, conjuring up images of, say, Monica Lewinsky rather than a drugged, overpowered, raped and sodomized child.

One opinion, echoed by his now-grown victim in a commentary headlined "Judge the Movie, Not the Man," is that Polanski's exile from America is "punishment enough." This is ludicrous, because his so-called exile is self-imposed and illegal. Every day Polanski is free to direct he flaunts his fugitive status, and his rape, to the world. That Hollywood continues to reward him for it, that studios continue to hire him, that actors continue to work on his movies and that journalists continue to portray him as a victim, only illustrates how willing our culture is to betray women and girls. Polanski should have been on “America’s Most Wanted,” not America's most-watched awards show. But rather than condemning him, Hollywood has served as de facto enabler of his continued evasion of U.S. courts.

As the grandchild of Polish and Russian Jews who lost family to the Nazis, no one wants wrenching denunciations of the Holocaust produced more than I do. What Hollywood refuses to admit is that “The Pianist” should never have been made, regardless of its inherent value. Why? Because its director belonged in prison, not in Paris pursing his art. You don't get to do creative, fulfilling work when you skip bail … you get to hide in obscurity hoping not to get caught. Or, should we start giving Get Out Of Jail Free cards to every convicted sexual offender who might potentially write the next Great American Novel, paint the next masterpiece, compose a triumphant concerto? Oh, right, this logic only extends to already-rich, currently-bankable stars. Like R. Kelly, who released album after album while paying off witnesses and settling out of court with numerous victims to avoid ever having to face rape charges. Meanwhile, girls across the country get a message: If you come forward after a powerful man sexually assaults you, it’s your rapist — not you — who will receive protection.

The public conversation about both Kelly’s and Polanski’s abuses has, when it’s come up at all, centered on whether fans should or shouldn’t relate to their music and movies separately from the violence they’ve committed. But that question ultimately misses the bigger picture: if justice were served, we would not have Kelly’s albums after 2002, or Polanski’s films after 1977, to wrestle over, because neither man would have been free to make them.

As a progressive writer and activist, I know that the prison industrial complex is mired in economic, racial and gender disparities that are anything but just. Still, as much as we can advocate restorative justice, we do live in a country that is governed by very clear ideas about how criminal “justice” is supposed to work: you commit a proven crime, you go to jail (sickening “affluenza” defenses notwithstanding). Unless you’re good for the film or  music industry’s bottom line, at which point corporate journalism will frame your evasion of justice as a “personal” PR problem. So when a journalist asked me last week what justice would look like for R. Kelly, I said that justice would begin with the singer facing his day in court for every previously-documented yet ultimately unprosecuted charge of criminal sex with a child — and it would end with the music industry no longer rewarding, emboldening and getting rich off of the work of a person who should, instead of being free to make his art, have been tried for his crimes against so many young Black girls. Justice looks like Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, Ludacris, Kelly Rowland and other artists refusing to work with him, and record labels and music festivals no longer using an alleged rapist as a cash cow. And justice looks like the entertainment media finally giving fans a more honest and complete understanding of the musician they love — so that they can make truly informed choices about whether or not to support him financially.

It’s too late to expect any form of justice to be served by Roman Polanski who, at 80, has enjoyed nearly four decades of personal, professional and artistic freedom as a fugitive in France. But actors such as Ewan McGregor, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Pierce Brosnan, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reily could certainly stop legitimizing his remaining years by working with him.

It’s not too late to expect some form of justice for Kelly, though. To that end, the Brooklyn organization BK Nation has launched this petition “calling on radio stations, video channels, music publications and websites, members of the entertainment industry, and men and women of all backgrounds to sign our petition completely boycotting R. Kelly's musical and artistic career until he is completely honest about who is, publicly apologizes for this behavior cited from many sources, gets extended counseling, and takes a very public stand and actions against sexual violence in any form.” Kevin Powell, president and cofounder of BK Nation, “is especially asking men, including Black men, to join us in taking a very public stand against any form of sexual violence and assault against women, girls, and children” because “ silence is this matter is agreement and support.”

Lastly, a note to R. Kelly’s and Polanski’s fans: the bulk of responsibility lies with the institutional power-centers of journalism and entertainment media, so the politic thing to say to you would be: everyone has to weigh their own ethical boundaries and decide whether or not they feel comfortable engaging with their art. Guess what: I am not interested in being politic. The question of complicity rests most squarely on the shoulders of the commercial entities that employ, exalt and collaborate with them — but fans play their part, too. Ask yourself: Does your money, and your love and praise of an artist, embolden and allow that artist to continue to evade justice for violent, misogynist, and/or racist crimes and, potentially, to continue perpetrating them? If so, are you OK with that?


Some of the information about Polanski previously appeared in a 2003 piece Pozner wrote for the website of Women In Media & News.

By Jennifer L. Pozner

Jennifer L. Pozner is a media critic, public speaker, and the founder and Executive Director of Women In Media & News. She is the author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," and the host of web series Web series "Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn."

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R. Kelly Rape Roman Polanski Sexual Abuse