Another Look at the "Victimage" of Antoine and Kelly Dodson

I will admit, when the youtube clips of Antoine Dodson and his sister (who in August of 2010 was the victim of an attempted rape incident in her apartment home in a public housing project in Huntsville, Alabama) were first brought to my attention, I was already on my guard. My previous experience with late night local media news broadcasts involving African Americans and other American ethnic minorities has all too often been shaded by the frequent presentation of individuals who might be said to register with a long history of carefully crafted racial stereotypes. Behind the guise of news reporting, which in the case of ethnic urban areas is almost always restricted to reporting on strange or sensational crimes, I was aware that local media outlets too often frame narratives that sensationalize black lives and constrict the public's perception of the great diversity of their experiences.
So as I clicked to open an e-mail message that had been sent with the simple subject heading of "Fw: you-tube video" and reading my partner's, who is herself a member of an American ethnic minority group, innocuous message: "for laughs! :-D," (in conjunction with her earlier, though limited, telephone description of the video as that of a news report) I prepared myself for what the clip might entail.
      What I discovered was the victimization of Antoine and Kelly Dodson, his sister (who as the victim of a horrific attempted rape and assault, through all of the reporting, seems to have been fazed out of the public conversation). The details of the incident are troublesome enough. On the night in question, Ms. Dodson, asleep in her bedroom on the second story of her family's apartment home, was awakened by an assailant's attempted rape. Hearing his sister's screams and cries for help, Antoine Dodson, came to her aid as an assailant was trying, forcibly, to have his way with the young woman. After a brief tussle, the assailant escaped and the police were called in to investigate. There seemed to be nothing left to do but to catch the perpetrator... well, that is, to catch the perpetrator and to report his crime.
       What followed was a firestorm of viral coverage in the wake of the local media station's (WAFF) framing of the events of that early morning in Hunstville's public housing project, Lincoln Park, for public consumption. And arising as the "star" (though I would say, the second victim, with Kelly Dodson becoming the absented true victim of the station's broadcast) of the local station's late night news broadcast, was Ms. Dodson's brother, Antoine--a young, angry, black male (or, to appropriate the name of the sensational 1980s rap group, an N.W.A., "Niggah with Attitude")--not unlike others, I'm sure, WAFF has presented in the past for public consumption. In the days and weeks following the original news broadcasting, Antoine's comments have been chopped and screwed, auto-tuned, remixed and remastered, all over the internet. Dodson has become something of an over-night internet celebrity and sensation, but I would argue his 15-minutes of fame have come at a significant cost to the framing and representation of blacks in contemporary news media.
        First, it is significant that in WAFF's initial framing of the "official narrative" of the crime, an attempted rape and assault on a young black girl in her Lincoln Park home, Ms. Dodson who had been sleeping in the bed with a young female toddler at the time of the assault (a detail that is overshadowed by the white woman reporter's framing "voice over" at the outset of the original broadcast) becomes a secondary character in representing the crime to the public in favor of her, deservedly upset and angry, brother Antoine. The lead-in male anchor is almost giddy as he relates the details of the attempted rape, details which, one can only imagine, if the race and/or socio-economic class of the victims had been different, the news station might have been more responsible and less sensational in reporting. The lead-in anchor continues by going to great lengths to highlight and build up an anticipation for Antoine's displays of emotion regarding his sister, Kelly's, assault. Displays which, as the white male anchor describes, show his "emotions running high."
Additionally, while watching the video, I took issue at the ways in which Antoine is situated in a tradition of black stereotypical representations by white media and editorial practices. Representations of African Americans throughout this history of the United States have often reflected negatively on the community. Often those responsible for such representations hide behind the supposed objective nature of their presentation and attempt to shift the blame to those individuals they aim to depict. Yet, I would argue, that often the very framing practices and techniques deployed around these ethnic individuals are ones that can be used to reveal the racism and prejudices of those manipulating the representation.
      Such framing practices are as old as black expression in America itself. Narratives of
slavery and freedom written in the 18th and 19th centuries, too, included editorial framing techniques that can be seen as reflected in today's media broadcasts. In African American literary scholarship, we refer to some of these methods of framing in terms of the "authenticating documents" and texts in relation to the work of figures like Phillis Wheatley's, whose book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was historically read as presenting problematic racial stereotypes and stances, and only more recently have come to expose the weight of those framing documents on our interpretation of her text.  I would argue that the very same practices are at play in the WAFF editorialized presentation of Antoine Dodson.
       All that is to say, it is too easy to make Antoine Dodson solely responsible for his representation through the media's broadcast. As the brother of an attempted rape victim, Antoine has and had every right to be upset and to want to express that frustration. He does not, however, through his juxtaposition with and to the news reporters and police officers on the scene (and, one might argue, even in juxtaposition to his sister, the true victim, Kelly Dodson) deserve to be framed as an overly aggressive, emotional and angry young black man. Yet, such a representation is most clearly the point of the WAFF's sensationalized narrative and comes through in the moments throughout the clip, where Antoine is shown addressing the camera (and ostensibly his sister's assailant, directly), an unconventional style of presentation that can be said to feed the white public's need for infinitely reproducible black stereotypes. The successive moments presented of Dodson's account are more of the same, in terms of Dodson addressing the camera (and viewing audience) directly and in ways that are unfamiliar to the typical evening news broadcast. It's subtle, as these things often are, but if you pay close enough attention you begin to see the ways in which the news broadcasters chose to cast Antoine in a certain light. The cumulative effect of such a presentation should not, however, be left at the feet of Antoine for his deservedly emotional address to his sister's assailant. No, the responsibility for presenting Antoine in such a stereotypical light falls with the WAFF news station and its news staff whose editorial and framing practices, arguably, did not maintain the integrity of responsible reporting in that they chose instead of allowing a victim to speak to sensationalize a victim's speech.

Part II
So here is the WAFF's follow-up broadcast with new interviews with Antoine Dodson:

You'll notice that in the follow-up report, Antoine comes across as much more articulate and expressive than his framed comments in the original report first represent. What I find particularly important though are the moments when they show outtakes from the original interview, as the
white female reporter again utilizes voice over techniques to continue in the framing of the Dodson family story. Notice that Antoine, in those outtakes from the original broadcast presented in the follow-up piece, is more calm and collected and expresses his frustration in a manner that isn't as stereotypical or socially irresponsible as in the first, and also in a manner that seems more appropriate for a late night news broadcast. That is, Antoine is shown responding to prompts from an interviewer's (in this case, presumably, the white female reporter's) questions, not given free reign to rant and rave directly into the camera. Notice the differences in his body language, the volume of his voice, his tone and the nature of his word choice (I know this is difficult given the brevity of these outtakes and the reporter's voiced-over editorial framing).
Notice how, first, directly following the reporter's defense of Antoine Dodson's right to "speak out," the piece cuts to a view of Dodson's responding to an interviewer's questions. As the reporter speaks over Dodson's response, framing the account for the audience, you can make out a reasonably upset young man mouthing, "Yes, we saw his face. We saw his face." As the interview continues, they again show Dodson responding to a question, again expressing frustrations about the perpetrator assault on Kelly Dodson and his "sweeping [his] sister all over her room floor. And," he continues, "I think that's terrible. It's ridiculous. And you're going to get caught." Compare these statements to those originally broadcast, the more shocking and sensationalized, "Well, obviously, we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He's climbing in your windows, he's snatching your people up, trying to rape them. So ya'll need to hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband, because they raping everybody out here."
Consider that without the context given by the lead-in anchor's brief description of the victim's location, any casual news viewer would see Dodson's statement and not be aware of the "here" to which he is referring. Instead, the public would have the sensational image of a rapist (potentially black) on the loose in the greater Huntsville community.
What I find, in the end, most telling (and disturbing) about the follow-up story are the lengths to which the news station disavows any responsibility or blame for the way in which the Dodson family was originally depicted. The white male lead-in anchor tries to claim that "no one could have anticipated this kind of attention," and yet, the sensational framing and the nature of the editing and airing of Dodson's original comments reveal a very different story. In fact, news stations such as these (that is local news stations and broadcasters) are indeed consistently looking for ratings through sensationalized reporting. It is for this reason, that people criticize the depiction of families like Antoine's and other socially disadvantaged persons through the perpetuation of stereotypes via media interventions through such sensationalized framing practices. Because, in fact, local news broadcasters are often in the business of fear-mongering and playing on social stereotypes. They call it reporting the news, but in truth it's a matter or playing up differences in education (through the juxtaposition and framing of languages; specifically the language of media personalities in relation to those being depicted) and supposed differences in cultural norms. So while almost every night in America news stations run stories depicting crimes perpetuated by and against minority citizens, often in ethnic neighbors, research into what sections of the population are tuning in to these stories would reveal a quite different socio-economic and, often, racial, demographic. Thus, the sensationalized fears, imaginings, and sensibilities of a white, upper-middle class viewing public are consistently brought to bear on (and used to frame) the voices of those socially marginalized and representationally victimized citizens.

While the WAFF news station might not have anticipated fully their success in this endeavor, with regards specifically to the framing of Antoine Dodson's comments, it would be callous for anyone to think they were not seeking this type of sensationalized hype in the first place. Those members of the viewing audience who went through the paces it takes to complain and speak back against the subtly racist media practices at play in both the original and the follow-up broadcast, were not decrying the rights of Antoine and his sister to "tell their story" as the lead-in newscaster tries, slyly, to suggest in the follow-up piece. But instead decry the irresponsible nature through which WAFF went about presenting the story, framing the victims, and editing their voices. And in keeping with their refusal to accept any responsibility or blame for their part in framing the story, the folllow-up broadcast goes to great lengths to depict Dodson as an attention-seeking youth, who the station, supposedly altruistically, helped make famous (via the viral spread of their news broadcast through social media outlets like facebook and youtube). While Dodson is allowed to speak, it is clear from this follow-up newscast that he is not allowed to present his speech in it entirety or, perhaps even, as he sees fit to an outlying audience. That job is reserved for the self-depicted self-righteous and supposed socially responsible white newscasters, who defend Antoine's right to "speak out" as long as it is within the contextualizing and sensationalizing frame they allow.


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