Is Wife-beating Ever a Love Story?

            If you read the front page of the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday, February 28, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for Dan McGovern.  

He looked up at you from a thumbnail photo, smiling, dreamy-eyed as  you learned that he died two days before in an early morning volley of police bullets. He had  pulled a .45 caliber handgun from his waistband and pointed it at Sunnyvale officers.

“A year ago,” the lead paragraph read, “Dan McGovern was so happy, so deeply in love, he felt he could have flown with his new bride from Moscow to Sunnyvale without a plane.”

“This is the story of Dan McGovern, who friends and family say, loved cars, cops, guns and most of all, the woman he met after paying $3,000 to a professional matchmaking service.”

Now he was dead, by all accounts the victim of a broken heart.

His Russian wife, Julia, suffered a broken skull during a beating by McGovern earlier that morning, according to police investigators. That’s what led Sunnyvale police to the couple’s apartment later that fatal day. The story clearly stated that McGovern had struck his wife and that she was hospitalized, although the severity of the beating wasn’t reported until later. And Julia McGovern declined to speak to reporters.

But from headline to final paragraph, the story artfully developed the irony of a simple, but good man, driven to apparent suicide by his consuming love for a manipulative mail-order bride who done him wrong. The portrayal outraged women inside and outside the Mercury newsroom. They felt it breathed new life into old stereotypes of domestic violence: directing sympathy to the batterer, and disparaging the victim. Those stereotypes, say those who work with battered women, discourage abused spouses and encourage their assailants, at a time when domestic violence has become the leading type of violent felony arrest in California. 

Even the editor who oversaw the story conceded: “I confess I just dropped the ball.” To its credit, the Mercury picked up the ball--the side of the story that says broken-hearted men don’t get to fracture the skulls of women they love no matter what--the next day on the front of the local news section.

“I was apoplectic at that story,” Mercury reporter Michelle Guido said of the first article. “Nobody can deny that that was a fascinating story, or that it was newsworthy. What was wrong was … it was written as a love story. But it’s not a love story when a man beats a woman so seriously that she goes to the hospital with severe head injuries…. The story had a serious omission.”

“I heard some people react to this story that maybe she [Julia McGovern] tricked him to get over here,” said Rolanda Pierre-Dixon, the attorney who leads the domestic violence unit at the Santa Clara County Prosecutors Office. “People were saying: ‘What a great guy! And geez, he finally met the love of his life and she deserted him.”

“I was completely outraged,” said Lisa Breen Strickland, executive director of the Support Network for Battered Women in Mountain View. “It was presented as such a one-sided view. “If I’m a woman and I’m getting beaten, and I read this story, it’s tremendously negative. Because my batterer is telling me all the time no one would believe me. It really is true. Why bother?”

Ms. Strickland and Ms. Guido were particularly frustrated because 20 days earlier they had led a workshop on reporting domestic violence at the Mercury. “It seemed to have no impact, in fact, less than zero,” Ms. Strickland said.

Stereotypes plague the news

“Every day you can hear an incident where an intimate has been violent to their intimate and it’s not even called domestic violence. It’s seen as a ‘crime of passion,’” said Janet Carter, managing director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco. Naming the crime is important, she added. “The more you see the same thing, the more you see how common it is. If you report it under different names, people can’t see a pattern.”

“There are social norms that support domestic violence,” Ms. Carter explained. She listed several: “This is a normal part of marriage…a family affair…he was so angry he couldn’t help it… there must be a reason why he did this. The press reflects this. The public thinks, ‘if she would just change her behavior,’ rather than if he would just change his behavior.”

Domestic violence is a social, not just individual problem

Ms. Carter said the consequences of domestic violence aren’t confined to the couple. “Children learn from the perpetrator that if you want something you beat someone up and they give it to you. Also, they learn that that’s the way you act in an intimate relationship. The cycle keeps going.”

Domestic violence is society’s problem, not just an individual’s problem, she said. “One-third of all women killed in this country are killed by domestic violence. And the children growing up in those homes are more likely to commit violence of all sorts, not just attack spouses.”

The Mercury responds

Sean Webby, the lead reporter on the first article, co-reported with Roxanne Stites, and the sole author of the second article quoting battered women’s advocates, agreed that the story was “incomplete.” But, he said, it was not for lack of trying to get other viewpoints. Mr. Webby said Julia McGovern had rebuffed several efforts to get her side. Marc Brown, Mr. Webby's editor on the story, said there was an effort to reach battered women's advocates, but the calls hadn't been returned by Tuesday evening's deadline.

Because the story was a feature, rather than a first-day account of the event, however, it could have been held over a day to gather the domestic violence angle.

Mr. Brown said the Mercury published before gathering that angle primarily because editors feared the San Francisco Chronicle would beat them to it if they delayed. As it turned out the Chronicle did not have the story the next day.

Other factors entered. In the rush against the clock that’s inescapable in daily journalism, reporters and editors held out hope into the evening that Ms. McGovern might talk, or that they could get through to advocates. “It was not a conscious effort to leave that (angle) out,” Mr. Brown explained. “We just had a brain freeze on deadline. We knew we had to have the perspective of advocates for battered women.”

Mr. Brown said he realized the paper had made a mistake later that night while at home. “We weren’t happy with the first story.”

Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Webby said they began work on the second day story to plug that gap as soon as they got to their desks. “I can tell you without a doubt,” Mr. Brown said, “that the second day story was in because we realized ourselves we missed the boat as far as that angle.” The follow-up story was not a response to complaints, both said.

Still the story sympathizing with Dan McGovern ran on page one, while the second story ran on the less-read local news front. It didn’t seem equitable to Ms. Strickland of the Network for Battered Women: “A batterer gets glorified on the front page. A victim gets secondary treatment the next day.”

The Mercury has been a leader in covering domestic violence

This critique would not be complete without praising the Mercury as a leader in reporting about domestic violence. A year and a half ago Ms. Guido and reporter Carole Rafferty, wrote a powerful three- part series exploring the issue in great depth. The series, which won six journalism prizes, was illustrated by Meri Simon’s graphic photographs of the disfiguring reality of battering. As editor Brown noted, “Michelle’s series drew a line in the sand that we really need to go out of our way to call this what it is and treat it like an epidemic--which it is.”

                        --John McManus


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