Mérték Media Ombudsman – The Marton case in the online media

On 14 October 2017 the actress Lilla Sárosdi recounted in a public Facebook post how twenty years earlier a “prominent [theatre] director” had demanded that she perform oral sex on him in a car in they were sitting at the time along with a (male) friend of the director. On 19 October Sárosdi followed up with a video, in which she named László Marton, the principal director of one of Budapest’s major theatres, the Vígszínház, and a professor at the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest, as the director in question. In our analysis, we sought to ascertain whether the online media in Hungary have helped the public understand the issue, whether their readers or viewers received a comprehensive coverage of the related developments. This is the fifth instalment of our Media Ombudsman series.

With the support of the Google Digital News, Mérték Media Monitor strives to promote the emergence of an online media environment that fosters critical thinking and a desire for objectivity on the part of both media consumers and journalists. One aspect of this project is the creation of a media ombudsman-type platform that publishes critical analyses on the online media’s coverage of certain events, on the reports and editorial contents concerning the given event. Each of the individual instalments in the series will take a detailed look at the way in which the online media present a current issue. The goal is not to evaluate the performance of a particular media outlet or journalist, but to provide the most comprehensive analysis possible of issues that were widely covered in the media.

On 14 October 2017 the actress Lilla Sárosdi recounted in a public Facebook post how twenty years earlier a “prominent [theatre] director” had demanded that she perform oral sex on him in a car in which they were sitting together with a (male) friend of the director. The friend began masturbating even as Sárosdi, who refused the director’s request, was crying in the car. The actress emphasised that she had been moved to share her story by the series of American sexual harassment scandals, and she talked of “Hungarian Weinsteins”. In a video post on Facebook of 19 October, Sárosdi named László Marton, the principal director of one of Budapest’s major theatres, the Vígszínház, and a professor at the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest as the person in question. She said she had named Marton because several people got in touch with her and told her that based on the story they had clearly identified Marton as the person in question because he had done similar things to them.

The following analysis was written by the journalist Péter Nádori. The monitoring spanned the period between 19 – 26 October 2017, and the media outlets reviewed were 24.hu, 444.hu, 888.hu, alfahir.hu, hvg.hu, index.hu, mno.hu, origo.hu and zoom.hu.

Social media a step ahead

The media reviewed play a negligible role in the trajectory of the public coverage of this issue (meaning the hardly added any new information to the discourse that the public had not already been aware of). The original sources of the information regarded as most newsworthy by the online newspapers were for the most part some sort of public statements, including Facebook posts and occasionally television interviews.

At the same time, however, the media regarded the issue as very important, and they certainly played a major role in ensuring that the public is informed about the successive events in this story, be it through their own platforms or by sharing news on Facebook. There were also longer items that summarised the events, speculated about potential further developments, discussed László Marton’s career and personality, as well as the broader context. Such detailed items were few and far between, however. An examination of the subsequent Facebook trajectory of the articles shows that original content matters, it has an impact on how it is perceived in the social media; and a successful topic and headline selection, too, can influence the reception of recycled contents. The top five articles in terms of the social media response include a major analysis by 444.hu, which was covered by almost all other media outlets, as well and an opinion piece by the retired political comedian András Bandó Nagy; the remaining three items, however, are press reviews.

Unified support, with a few exceptions

Articles that could be clearly classified as op-eds either stood vehemently by Lilla Sárosdi – and women who have suffered from similar experiences – or took a more cautious “yes, but” type of stance of warnings interlaced with supportive elements. An op-ed by András Hont that was published in the print issue of the weekly HVG (2017 No. 19) and was therefore not directly reviewed as part of this analysis – but was nevertheless discussed in the online media – was the rare negative and unsupportive piece, and Flórian Hecker penned a response published on Origo that is recommended only for adult readers. Even before Sárosdi named Marton specifically, Hont had contrasted the actress’s story with those who were “genuinely raped”, arguing that this is “not the Hungarian Weinstein case.” Hecker’s response sharply criticises Hont’s take on the issue, but at the same time much of its content is taken up by ad hominem attacks against Hont, especially pointing to an interview that the latter had previously made with the Jobbik party chairman Gábor Vona.

A recurring element in the coverage of Origo and 888 was that they tried to frame the story in terms of political categories, which is how they ended up suggesting that the political affiliations of two public figures from cultural life who were accused of sexual harassment were their most important attributes. Thus, István Verebes was identified as an “SZDSZ” (the former liberal party) figure, while Marton was elevated to the status of the “favoured figure of left-liberal governments”, or just the favourite of “left-liberals” in general. Propagandistic labelling is among Origo’s favoured rhetorical tools anyway: for Origo, Marton is not seen as a person “who committed sexual harassment” but is emphatically and repeatedly referred to as a “sexual harasser.”

Nevertheless, despite the differences it is fair to say that during these eight days the media monitored were broadly supportive of Lilla Sárosdi. Typically, this did not imply a radical bias: The positions of Marton and those who supported him were presented as well (though on Origo they were decried as the “left-liberal clique”). The majority of opinion pieces took Sárosdi’s side, and they did not question her credibility. Articles delving deeper into the background to provide context – insofar as any were published by a given media outlet – were generally about women who were attacked rather than men who were falsely accused. Though they differed in terms of their respective style, methods and professionalism, the extensive items on Marton in the meanwhile also sought to show that there were many elements in the director’s career which suggested that he is the kind of man who is prone to abuse his position and his possibilities. The headlines – when they were not neutral – either supported Sárosdi’s narrative or cast doubt on Marton’s.

A look at the authors of the opinion pieces reveals that there are no women among them. The media coverage of the Weinstein case in the US, by contrast, shows that the authors of the focal pieces were typically women (or males with a special affinity towards the subject matter, such as for example Ronan Farrow). There could be several explanations for the fact that the situation was different here. Thus, for example, women are underrepresented in the newsrooms of the media outlets we reviewed; or they may not want to expose themselves to the anticipated comments and Facebook reactions. Theoretically it is also possible that the domestic online media are so “gender blind” that no on one even considered this issue.

The place of journalistic ethics

In final analysis, with respect to the question of journalistic professional standards, one might also raise the question: Was it right or acceptable for journalists to write about Sárosdi’s statement before verifying in any way whether its contents were plausible? (We cannot rule out the possibility that even before Sárosdi posted her follow-up naming Marton, one or more newsrooms already had information pointing to the director). Another issue concerns privacy: Why did the fact that the actress named Marton lead all newsrooms to immediately and automatically publish his name on their own respective sites, where the communication would inevitably be far more widely disseminated in public?

We obviously cannot answer these questions in a simple or unequivocal manner. The news competition, which is exacerbated by Facebook, and the lack of journalistic resources, which is exacerbated by the current situation of the Hungarian media, are all factors that devalue the importance of dilemmas involving professional ethics, while in turn they put increasing value on speed and efficiency. If the majority of the potential audience that a media outlet can reach will find out about the fact Sárosdi had named Marton in any case, then what’s the point and significance of pondering whether a deeper investigation would tend to confirm or undermine Sárosdi’s claims?

The emergence of social media (primarily Facebook) changes the environment wherein professional media operate not only through their impact on the way content is distributed or – directly connected to the former – through so-called monetisation. Another major change is that the players in the newsworthy stories are less and less dependent on these media outlets. In other words, news media have become increasingly less essential in the realm of public communication. Nevertheless, a vital fact in this context is that the victims who spoke up after Sárosdi and recounted that they, too, had been harassed by Marton, did not use social media as a platform but turned to the professional media instead. There might be many reasons for this, but they are all connected to the classical features of news media: the confidential relationship between the source and the journalists, the cover provided by a media outlet (the institution is capable of protecting the confidentiality of the person who speaks up), the strength of professional media, or the desire to use the credibility of these media in support of what is otherwise anonymous communication.

The media can help in verifying – and thereby, if need be certifying – the claims of the informant. Among many other things one could have done in this context, media outlets could have investigated what type of car Marton was driving at the time. Origo alluded to this issue, but even the way its relevant comment was phrased revealed that the information cannot be taken at face value (“according to some opinions [the director] was driving a BMW already back then”.) The successive anonymous comments by women who had suffered from Marton’s abuse – some of which were first published in these media, while the rest were all prominently reported by most newspapers – naturally also had the impact of boosting the credibility to Sárosdi’s claims. There was not a single article, however, that was able to step outside the circle of “one claim – one denial.”

It needs to be emphasised that looking at this issue on the basis of journalistic norms, the point of verifying what someone says is not that we don’t believe them. We verify because we are trying to put out a newspaper. If we believe them and attach importance to what they said, thfull analysisen we are all the more called upon to verify their claims, because we also want to be able to persuade those who instinctively doubt the claims.

The full analysis is available on Mérték’s website (in Hungarian).