Mark Twain once observed, "One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives."
Sheila Kuehl and representatives of an organization, which calls itself Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, must surely have had this in mind when they held a press conference in advance of the 1993 Super Bowl to announce that Super Bowl Sunday is "the biggest day of the year for violence against women." They claimed that domestic violence increases by 40%. Ms. Kuehl, now a Calif. State Senator, was then an attorney for the California Women's Law Center.
Playing upon the stereotype that men in general and football fans in particular are brutes, these claims were instantly accepted and reported as fact by the media. Ken Ringle of the Washington Post was one of the few reporters to bother to check the claims before accepting them as factual. His article entitled "Debunking the 'Day of Dread' for Women" was published a mere three days after the press conference.
Although the claims were quickly shown to be baseless, those who manufactured this factoid had achieved their goals. F.A.I.R. acknowledges on its own website that the real goal was to get the NFL to provide $500,000 of free advertising.
Even the Family Violence Prevention Fund acknowledges that no rigorous national studies have confirmed a link between sports broadcasts and domestic violence.
Nevertheless, every year many of those in a position to know better keep this falsehood alive. For example, last January, a full decade after the Super Bowl Hoax was debunked, the California Assembly's Select Committee on Domestic Violence issued a press release repeating virtually all of the original claims.
It is time this harmful notion is laid to rest. It is harmful because families affected by domestic violence need the best data possible; not marketing hype designed for shock value.
"The facts are clear," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Intimate partner homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 15 to 45."
Attorney General Eric Holder
That's a horrifying statistic, and it would be a shocking reflection of the state of the black family, and American society generally, if it were true. But it isn't true.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Justice Department's own Bureau of Justice Statistics, the leading causes of death for African-American women between the ages 15â€“45 are cancer, heart disease, unintentional injuries such as car accidents, and HIV disease. Homicide comes in fifth â€” and includes murders by strangers. In 2006 (the latest year for which full statistics are available), several hundred African-American women died from intimate partner homicide â€” each one a tragedy and an outrage, but far fewer than the approximately 6,800 women who died of the other leading causes.
Yet Holder's patently false assertion has remained on the Justice Department website for more than a year.
How is that possible? It is possible because false claims about male domestic violence are ubiquitous and immune to refutation. During the era of the infamous Super Bowl Hoax, it was widely believed that on Super Bowl Sundays, violence against women increases 40%. Journalists began to refer to the game as the "abuse bowl" and quoted experts who explained how male viewers, intoxicated and pumped up with testosterone, could "explode like mad linemen." During the 1993 Super Bowl, NBC ran a public service announcement warning men they would go to jail for attacking their wives.
In this roiling sea of media credulity, one lone journalist, Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle, checked the facts. As it turned out, there was no source: An activist had misunderstood something she read, jumped to her sensational conclusion, announced it at a news conference and an urban myth was born. Despite occasional efforts to prove the story true, no one has ever managed to link the Super Bowl to domestic battery.
Yet the story has proved too politically convenient to kill off altogether. Last summer, it came back to life on a different continent and with a new accent. During the 2010 World Cup, British newspapers carried stories with headlines such as "Women's World Cup Abuse Nightmare" and informed women that the games could uncover "for the first time, a darker side to their partner." Fortunately, a BBC program called Law in Action took the unusual route pioneered by Ringle: The news people actually checked the facts. Their conclusion: a stunt based on cherry-picked figures.
But when the BBC journalists presented the deputy chief constable, Carmel Napier, from the town of Gwent with evidence that the World Cup abuse campaign was based on twisted statistics, she replied: "If it has saved lives, then it is worth it."
It is not worth it. Misinformation leads to misdirected policies that fail to target the true causes of violence. Worse, those who promulgate false statistics about domestic violence, however well-meaning, promote prejudice. Most of the exaggerated claims implicate the average male in a social atrocity. Why do that? Anti-male misandry, like anti-female misogyny, is unjust and dangerous. Recall what happened at Duke University a few years ago when many seemingly fair-minded students and faculty stood by and said nothing while three innocent young men on the Duke Lacrosse team were subjected to the horrors of a modern-day witch hunt.
Worst of all, misinformation about violence against women suggests a false moral equivalence between societies where women are protected by law and those where they are not. American and British societies are not perfect, but we have long ago decided that violence against women is barbaric. By contrast, the Islamic Republic of Iran â€” where it is legal to bury an adulterous woman up to her neck and stone her â€” was last year granted a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended the decision by noting Iranian women are far better off than women in the West. "What is left of women's dignity in the West?" he asked. He then came up with a statistic to drive home his point: "In Europe almost 70% of housewives are beaten by their husbands."
That was a self-serving lie. Western women, with few exceptions, are safe and free. Iranian women are neither. Officials like Attorney General Holder, the deputy constable of Gwent, and the activists and journalists who promoted the Super Bowl and World Cup hoaxes, unwittingly contribute to such twisted deceptions.
Victims of intimate violence are best served by the truth. Eric Holder should correct his department's website immediately.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of Who Stole Feminism and The War Against Boys, co-author of One Nation Under Therapy, and editor of The Science on Women and Science.