Eighteen-year-old Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa, just blew away the competition in the women's 800-meter world championship race. But the news reports yesterday weren't about that–they were about whether she's "really" a woman or not. And supposedly serious outlets like the AP and CNN are sinking to tabloid levels of coverage on the issue.
The AP video of the controversy, posted on the L.A. Times website, kicks off: "Quick! Man–or woman?" The piece includes slow pans over Semenya's body, more tabloidy commentary ("She–and yes, SHE claims to be a woman"), and the offering of her voice as some sort of evidence that she's not what she claims to be. It's what you'd sadly expect to find on E! or some other tabloid show–not the AP, or the L.A. Times' website, for that matter.
CNN's Jack Cafferty's response to the news was: "Story creeps me out. It's weird. Do you think she's a man or a woman?" His colleague Campbell Brown teased the "bizarre story" and promised viewers "a whole lot more on this very strange case coming up a little bit later tonight." CNN's Anderson Cooper and Erica Hill called it "fascinating," "amazing" and "wild."
During her full story on the subject, Brown acknowledged one of the problems with the scrutiny: "I mean, this is a young woman, a young girl. It's a pretty cruel thing for this girl to have to go through emotionally, psychologically presuming it's not a scam." Yes indeed, scrutinizing someone's body and gender presentation (as well as your accomplishments) on television and calling it bizarre and creepy is pretty cruel, as well as unprofessional. Unfortunately, that sort of coverage of people with different gender presentations is not unusual–and awareness of that cruelty didn't stop Brown from feeding into it.