Monday, November 24, 2014

Moving Past the Cosby (Side) Show.....

A few weeks ago I read an article in which a journalist was questioning why rape criticisms against Bill Cosby didn't get much media attention. The accusations have been percolating since the mid-1980's and many people were aware of the accusations, although not necessarily the full details. Now they charges have broken through into mainstream public consciousness, and they're all over the media.

The media deserves no award for bravery, coming to the story this late in the game. Whatever excuses may have existed in the past, it is difficult to see the story as anything but the media's siding with the rich and powerful up to the point that the story penetrated the public consciousness -- by virtue of a comedian's accusations against Cosby going viral. While some in the media are offering some introspection, and you'll find an occasional mea culpa, the intensity of the present coverage seems to me to reflect another failure of the media, its tendency to shine a spotlight on an issue of current controversy or debate in order to try to grab as many viewers or readers as possible, even if that means tending toward the salacious or missing the forest for the trees.

Dare I suggest, I think there is a very big forest out there, covering the same time period as the accusations against Cosby, and that the media is continuing to protect the wealthy and powerful.

A few years ago in the U.K., a series of stories broke about a deceased entertainer who, as it turned out, was a serial child molester. If you even scrape the surface of the story, you hit the same sort of issue you encountered in the Jerry Sandusky case -- acts that were sufficiently brazen and careless that they ended up being witnessed by others, but with the decision made not to involve the police. Not to kill the golden goose, or tarnish the image of his employer, but to cover up. The accusations against Cosby are similar to those made against Roman Polanski, except Cosby is alleged to have targeted adults.

Corey Feldman has indicated that, as teen stars, he and Corey Haim were targeted by predatory adults. You don't have to look very hard to find "casting couch" stories in which young actresses, and some young actors, found themselves in awkward situations with people -- usually unnamed -- who were trying to obtain sexual favors in exchange for a part, or other help advancing their careers. Sometimes when a story breaks about a predatory individual it's immediately apparent that his predilections were widely known, and widely ignored. Australian entertainer Rolf Harris, accused of sexually assaulting teenaged girls, earned himself the nickname "the Octopus". An Australian news journalist recounts,
Rolf Harris was known as “the Octopus”. But he wasn’t the only one.

During 25 years in television, I was warned by colleagues about dozens of stars who would grope, molest or harass anyone who took their fancy.

These include a presenter who is a household name.
An example is given of how that nationally famous news presenter sexually groped a female employee as recently as two years ago, but his identity is withheld. The article identifies only two sexual offenders, both of whom had already been publicly identified by others and one of whom had been criminally convicted.

I stumbled across a letter written in response to a Richard Cohen column,
Richard Cohen wrote in his Nov. 18 op-ed column, “None of our business,” that the sexual misbehavior of a “great man” should go unpublished. I disagree.

A man who believes in his own greatness may feel he is exempt from rules of honorable behavior that apply to others. That belief reveals a possibly dangerous arrogance in his character.

Sure, the press can go overboard with scandal, and as a former reporter and journalism teacher, I deplore that. But as a woman, I’d like to know if a so-called great man lies to his wife and uses women as sex objects. I may vote for him anyway when weighing that knowledge against his other attributes, but I’ll see him more clearly as imperfect and flawed, and most certainly avoid calling him “great.”
The column is about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the FBI smear campaign against him,
I did not know at the time [in 1964] about King’s affairs. I learned about them later, once the FBI bugs of King’s home and hotel rooms had become common knowledge in newsrooms around the country. But here’s the thing: No one printed a word of it. I know of no item in a gossip column and, since celebrity TV junk was still in the future, nothing on the air either. Lots of people knew the secret, but the press in those days respected the privacy of public figures: King was saved from ignominy. He was preserved for greatness.
Cohen also mentions Gary Hart, FDR, JFK, Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Lyndon Johnson, Anthony Weiner.... For the most part, examples that involve consensual extramarital relationships. Jefferson's case is particularly discomfiting -- you can't have a consensual relationship with a slave, although contemporary knowledge of the affair might have offended more people based upon her race than upon the fact that it was an extramarital affair or involved a profoundly coercive power dynamic.

Cohen's complaint also is of another time. Gary Hart brought to an end the era in which you could be an unapologetic skirt chaser and still aspire to national office. Senator Bob Packwood helped end the era in which powerful politicians could do whatever they wanted to their employees behind closed doors -- and, if you recall, he threatened to take down other politicians who he claimed had committed acts comparable to his own, before choosing instead to exit politics and enrich himself by becoming a lobbyist.

I find it difficult to be wistful for an era in which the powerful could easily abuse the weak, even in a nominally consensual adult-to-adult relationship. It may be that media coverage of politicians' sexual peccadilloes has the unfortunate effect of causing somebody with non-abusive tendencies to either stay out of politics or to lose an election, but I think there is nonetheless a significant net benefit. We have enough sociopaths and narcissists at the head of government and industry without also giving them -- restoring to them -- free reign to sexually abuse their underlings. In the current era, MLK would know that if he didn't control himself with women he would almost certainly be held accountable in the court of public opinion. It would be up to him to decide if it was worth the risk. It should not be the media's job to protect him from himself, let alone to "protect" us from knowing the truth.

We have had an evolution in our society over the past fifty years, relating to how we treat sexual abusive conduct and how we respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. The improvement has come not only through improved legal remedies for victims of abuse, but through the publicity surrounding abuse cases. There is a valuable social lesson to be learned from stories about abusers being held accountable for their conduct, both in terms of helping other victims of abuse feel less isolated and in letting them know that legal remedies are available.

It's really easy, alarmingly easy, to rally to the defense of the rich and powerful with little risk to your professional reputation. There's certainly a lot more risk in taking on the rich and powerful, and more difficulty in convincing your publication's lawyers to let you push a story into the public consciousness. I find it difficult to give a reporter or commentator credit for ignoring an open secret for years or decades, only to jump onto the story when it is finally broken by others, even if they admit that they should have addressed the story earlier or that the media failed to properly handle the allegations.

If journalists or commentators want to convince me that they're actually sorry to have not covered the story at an earlier time, or that they want to improve their profession, I suggest that they start covering some of the other "open secrets" about our business, entertainment and political figures and celebrities, rather than again waiting until they can safely and easily jump onto the bandwagon.


  1. A very well written and balanced article - so I assume you will get very few or no comments on it.

    Now, if you would just do an inflammatory piece about Ferguson, MO or mention the WWE you could double your traffic and gain a raft of well thought out comments . . .


    1. Most of the comments I see on Ferguson threads simply depress me.