It is a sensational story, everyone agrees. But sensational is a remarkably ambiguous word that describes every wind that skitters across our emotional skin: hot or cold, fear or love, terror or titillation.
There is no doubt about the feelings women register when they tune in to the ongoing coverage of the sexual assaults on about 50 women in New York's Central Park by a rampaging group of men. Try fear, anger, vulnerability.
The assaults were like a replay of Tailhook on the Green. The victims were as helpless against mobs of men as the women in Kosovo against enemy soldiers.
At the height of the humiliating afterlude to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, men took after women as if they were prey. Yelling ``Yo, yo, here comes a good one,'' they culled ``chosen ones'' from packs of friends and bystanders, doused them with water, stripped clothes off their backs. They molested some, terrorized all - in public and in daylight.
The mixed blessing in the aftermath of the attacks was the videotapes. Because of amateur videotapes, attackers are now being picked up one by one. Five were indicted on Tuesday. Because of these videos, we can see the ``sensations'' crossing the men's faces: the leers, the excitement, the ``fun.''
But because of the same videos, the women who were stripped and violated in the park were subjected to double exposure, double humiliation.
This is one of the sorry postscripts of this story: Five TV stations and one newspaper in New York casually and callously ran identifiable images of the victims. Some were half-naked, some entirely.
One station showed a stripped and screaming woman, trying to hide behind a wall. Trying to shield themselves from the men, women were exposed to the eyes of an entire city. Even in slow-motion.
Where do you point a finger at the moving target of sensationalism? I don't know what the amateur video cameras were doing at the scene - taping ``the fun''? passing by? Capturing the villains? But the pros - the producers and directors of some competitive news stations - simply queued up the sexual attack. Were they thinking of nothing more than ``great story, great footage, video at 11''?
There has been a fragile consensus in the news media that has protected the identity of victims of sexual crimes. That consensus always competes with the legitimate impulse of news. Some rape victims have been brave enough to come forward to use their names and faces without the fear that they will be tainted by the crime itself. In the Central Park assaults some of the victims have followed their lead and spoken up.
But there was no more excuse to air unadulterated videos of the victims' faces than there would be to air a rape. No excuse to show slow-motion sensation for the terror and titillation.
The media is not the prime villain of the story. The Senate this week passed a bill against ``hate crimes.'' When will the rest of us understand how gender becomes the target? When will we challenge the ``normal'' sexual ``teasing'' that begins in the playground and escalates in the park?
Most of the stations, under pressure from viewers, pulled the pictures. The New York Post apologized. But there is some deeper complicity in media - that increasingly inseparable composite of news and entertainment - that plays and replays - teaches - terror as titillation.
Sometimes it's in the lurid lens of a movie camera, sometimes it's a videocamera at the scene of a crime. And sometimes it's a ``news'' station replaying naked anguish in slow-motion.
This time, a handful of stations did more than violate the privacy of a real woman. They again fed the horror of some viewers and the fantasies of others.
Too many of us are still forced to teach our daughters survival skills. Don't look at a stranger in the eyes. Avoid groups of young men. Avoid certain streets, certain hours. But how do you tell a daughter to avoid a Sunday outing in the park?
In its coverage, The New York Times listed ``testosterone'' as one of the culprits, as if sexual rampage were an act of male nature. But there is also nurture - video at 11.
As this story rolls on, the media must share another sensation: shame.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.
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