Approximately 22 million viewers tuned in to watch Anderson Cooper’s 60 Minutes interview with adult film star, Stephanie Clifford (stage name Stormy Daniels), on Sunday, March 25, 2018. The segment, earning the programs highest ratings in 10 years, examined the actress’ alleged affair with President Donald J. Trump and the resulting hush money she received in the days leading up to the 2016 election.
Clifford explicitly stated she was not a victim, and affirmed Cooper’s question as to whether or not the encounter had been consensual. However, one part of the transcript jumped out:
“I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ (laugh) And I just felt like maybe– (laugh) it was sort of– I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”
As I watched the interview live, surrounded by other viewers, no one else seemed bothered by Clifford’s explanation; their passivity seemed to imply, of course, she shouldn’t have gone up to his hotel room. The statement had an eerie resemblance to difficult confessions I’ve heard from close friends: “I was alone in a room with him, what did I expect would happen?” Or the all too familiar, “I should have known better.”
In situations such as this, it is essential that we provide those who hear self-blaming statements with the tools and language to empathetically push back. We must work to empower trusted confidants to say: “I’m sorry that happened to you. No one deserves to be placed in a situation where they feel they may have to have sex because of their surroundings, even if they’re in that situation because of choices they willingly made.”
Unfortunately, Cooper did not offer this reflection, Clifford’s statement was left to stand, and with it, the persistence of the just-world hypothesis: the belief that we live in a fundamentally just and fair society, therefore people get what they deserve. Research shows the desire to believe that things happen for a reason is so strong that individuals will rationalize gross injustices by attributing blame to the person who experienced it. In this case, Clifford attributed blame to herself.
So while perhaps it is important for Cooper [and indeed all journalists] to get an accurate accounting of any story they tell, it is essential to do so responsibly. News outlets play an integral role in defining how issues of sexual violence are understood by viewers, yet time and time again, we see news outlets perpetuate rape myths. Throughout the Stormy Daniels interview, 60 Minutes missed the opportunity to reject a powerful myth in front of 22 million viewers. However, as the #metoo and #timesup movements continue to gather strength and propel forward, another opportunity to support those affected is likely on the horizon.
For guidance on how to build the skills of student journalists in covering sexual assault stories, please visit: