Opinion

Has news media abetted the demise of Bill Cosby?

To someone who came of age regarding The Washington Post as the journalistic gold standard, it was a puzzling moment. On The Post’s website Nov. 13 was a first-person account by a former actress titled: “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”

The 1,200-word article never answered that question, but Barbara Bowman, now a married mother of two in Arizona, did describe a relationship with Cosby in the mid-‘80s when she was a teenage ingenue and he was a huge star. Cosby purported to take an interest in her career, she wrote, but his mentoring was a fig leaf for predation and ended with him drugging and abusing her sexually in New York.

Now, the Post hadn’t investigated her account itself and didn’t do its own story on Cosby until more than a week after it ran Bowman’s, when it weighed in with a richly reported chronicle of what was becoming a cascade of similar allegations.

This seemed like a case of “fire, ready, aim.” I couldn’t remember another instance when a top-tier news organization had published a detailed denunciation from somebody it couldn’t vouch for, against a person generally regarded as a public benefactor, that it had not first examined independently.

Women have continued to come forward, and the number who’ve accused the onetime comedy giant of various depravities stands at 20, by Slate’s count. Cosby’s intended show biz comeback has been stowed in the deepest of deep freezes, and he’s being consigned to a seemingly irretrievable disgrace, suitable for no comedic use beyond a punchline.

Well deserved, it appears. But my interest is in the media, and I think it’s important to point out that Bill Cosby’s destruction is entirely the work of the news media. That’s not a criticism. When it came to gathering evidence, assessing the record, making judgments about credibility and falsehood, and ultimately deciding reward and punishment, there has been nobody around but the media.

That isn’t the way the system normally works. And I worry that if this becomes a precedent, it will assign to news media a power they may not be able to handle properly.

Normally, the media set in motion the machinery of justice. They blow the whistle on apparent wrongdoing. They tee up a case like Cosby’s by doing the background reporting, encouraging reluctant witnesses to step forward. Reporters offer findings they believe are strong enough to warrant the attention of authorities; then the systems of criminal or civil adjudication get to work—charges are brought, suits are filed, justice is served.

Ultimately, there will be reckonings that are regarded as authoritative.

But the Cosby affair is different. There is no higher court here. Whether it’s because victims were too scared, police were too timid, laws were too weak, plaintiffs too willing to settle, or evidence too thin—the judicial system is by now largely irrelevant.

So there may never be authoritative verdicts about whether Bill Cosby hurt those women, and if so, how many, and how egregiously. He’ll never be jailed, and it’s unlikely there will be orders that he compensate them.

Instead, the media are judge and jury. But should they be? After all, they’re in the news business. If they find material they find credible and interesting, they run it. Here, their findings are newsworthy, but few, if any, will be tested in court.

How are journalists to decide what standards to apply in deciding whether to believe this woman but not that one? Are the allegations aired even if the accuser offers no contemporaneous support for their truth—meaning no witness whom she confided in back then and will now come forward?

True, reporters are trained to assess plausibility and ferret out inconsistencies and hidden motives. But distinguishing truth from falsity?

The longer accounts I’ve read about Cosby - in London’s Daily Mail, Philadelphia Magazine, now The Washington Post - offer powerful reassurance about the credibility of the claims against him. But what I fear is that the lessons that are drawn from this case will open the door to lurid claims about high-profile people that go viral without anything like the same journalism in support.

The Cosby affair has been driven by repetition, not careful investigation. For the media, the longer term danger isn’t so much that the accusations are false but that they’re true - and will embolden media to base the decision whether to report allegations on the zeal with which they’re repeated and the audience traction they get.

The same media that for years ignored indications that Bill Cosby was a lecherous swine decided, after a standup comedian’s comments exploded online, that the Cosby story was ripe. As Barbara Bowman asked, what took the media so long? What if Cosby had been 87, not 77, and wasn’t trying to relaunch his career? Would the women’s allegations be less deserving of attention if the demographic of those who remember and revere him had been unappealing to the media?

How reliably does newsworthiness track justice? The media do seem to have outperformed the courts in insisting Bill Cosby be called to account. But there’s good reason to keep the celebration low-key.

Edward Wasserman is dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote this for The McClatchy Co. His website is www.edwardwasserman.com.

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