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Should Mike Tyson Have to Talk About His Rape Conviction Every Time He Meets the Press?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 26, 2013 at 5:14PM

A soul-searching essay from NPR's Linda Holmes on questions asked and unasked.
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Tyson Lee

For this week and next, several hundred of the nation's TV writers (including Indiewire's Alison Willmore) are holed up in Los Angeles for TCAs, which is where the TV networks show off the fall season's wares to the Television Critics of America. If you follow more than one of them on Twitter, you can tell its TCAs time because of the echo effect: One tweets something funny Steven Merchant said about his height, followed by another, slightly different rendition of the same joke, and then another. Some of them are slightly chagrined by the duplication; I take it with a smile (and having done much the same in other contexts, I'm in no position to judge). 

But as Linda Holmes writes at NPR today, sometimes the TCA presentations are defined less by what happens in the room than what doesn't. I don't have much experience with press conferences, but I've done roundtable interviews with other journalists, and there's a general sense that no one wants to spoil the vibe. Face to face, a good interviewer steers the mood, often laying a foundation that makes the subject feel you're on their side before getting into the questions they might not want to answer -- it's a natural conversational progression, as well as a strategy. But when there are others involved, you can't control the dynamic, and you definitely don't want to be the one to put the talent on edge. One bad question can ruin an entire session.

So it's not surprising that when Spike Lee and Mike Tyson took the stage to talk about Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, which will air on HBO in the fall, no one asked about Tyson's 1992 conviction for the rape of then-18-year-old Desiree Washington, who said that Tyson pinned her to a bed in his hotel room and sexually assaulted her. Tyson, who started off ribbing A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff for his "very aggressive" questioning (VanDerWerff says he was just talking over another critic, which is almost impossible to avoid in group situations), can be charming: With his tiny voice and beaming smile, he still seems almost like a child. And it doubtless didn't help that Lee is known as a tough interview, voluble when he's in showman mode but tight-lipped and withdrawn when challenged. But as Holmes sat there, not asking about it, the clubbiness of the situation started to eat at her.

It's really, really uncomfortable the way people laugh, the way they call him "champ," it makes me uncomfortable.

But I'm not sure I have a question about it, exactly, and if I do, I'm not sure it's for either of these guys. Maybe it's for the HBO execs, who by this time have left the stage. Maybe it's for the writers in the room. Maybe all the questions are for myself: this conviction is more than 20 years old and he served his time long ago. Should it dominate every conversation about him forever? I'm not saying it shouldn't. Maybe it should. I don't know. I'm uncomfortable. And because I'm uncomfortable, I'm thinking a lot. 

Tyson served his prison time, and though it doesn't matter legally, it does make a moral difference that he still maintains he did nothing wrong. America believes in second chances, right? But allowing Tyson an opportunity to make something new out of his life doesn't mean forgetting what the legal system says he did.

I'll point out with less modesty what Holmes briefly alludes to: She is one of the most persistent and effective critics in the field on gender issues (and on lots that have nothing to do with gender). As a white dude who can write about sexism whenever I want without anyone rolling their eyes and thinking "There he goes again," I can only imagine how tiring it gets being that voice in the room, the one, as Holmes writes "asked ESPN about whether they're going to do more 30 for 30 documentaries about female athletes.... and HBO execs about their entirely male-skewing slate of dramas." Whoever it was to reached out to Holmes and said "Survivors see the license you extend perpetrators" isn't wrong, exactly, but unless that person wrote the same to every critic in the room, singling Holmes out doesn't seem fair.

Maybe Tyson doesn't need to be asked about a 20-year-old conviction every time he steps in front of a microphone. But in a one-man-show that calls itself "the unvarnished truth," the subject isn't just germane. It's mandatory.

Read more: 'Mike Tyson and the Questions Not Asked'

This article is related to: News, Spike Lee, Mike Tyson


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