The media is self-flagellating. Last week, the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of his reported essay about Cosby, published in 2008, after multiple sexual-assault accusations had already been made: "The subject was morality -- and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible. ... The lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough."
The New York Times's David Carr, in "Calling Out Bill Cosby’s Media Enablers, Including Myself," highlighted a Q and A he did with Cosby in 2011 for the United Airlines in-flight magazine. "We all have our excuses," Carr wrote. "But in ignoring these claims, we let down the women who were brave enough to speak out publicly against a powerful entertainer."
Among those Carr called out was Mark Whitaker, who wrote a biography of Cosby with the comedian's cooperation; Whitaker (who stood by his omission back in September, the same month the book was released) subsequently attested to his failure on Twitter: "I was wrong to not deal with the sexual assault charges against Cosby and pursue them more aggressively."
In Cosby's case, the news media is not so much the source of the problem as a symptom of it. The same power, success and carefully crafted public persona that helped Cosby allegedly lure those vulnerable women seemed to make much of the press and the public want to resist the accusations -- until the volume was so loud that no one could hear through it.
At the University of Virginia, the volume is currently deafening. This time it is thanks to the press, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone magazine. Her article centers on a young woman, identified as Jackie, who says that she was raped by seven men at a fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, in 2012. Her revolting experience is a lens through which readers learn about campus culture and how the school responds to reports of sexual assault; both are presented as, shall we say, less than ideal.
One should be careful about conflating the Cosby and UVA cases. Both are terrible; each is distinct. It's unfair to the alleged victims to lump them into some undefined conglomerate of suffering. Cosby's power derived from his fame and in some cases his seeming ability to provide career assistance. The male student who lured Jackie seemed to trade on his looks, his seniority and his fraternity -- as well as her innocence and desire to impress. The social dynamics of celebrity culture and campus life are disparate.
The points of convergence come not in the cases themselves, but in society's response to them. There's a sense of safety in numbers and a need for sympathy at its most elemental level. It took a long time for the stories achieve a critical mass in the Cosby case, but once they did, more accusations followed. Likewise, Jackie became active in a campus sexual-assault education group, and as she "dove into her new roles as peer adviser and Take Back the Night committee member," noted the Rolling Stone article, she "began to discover just how wide her secret UVA survivor network was -- because the more she shared her story, the more girls sought her out, waylaying her after presentations or after classes, even calling in the middle of the night with a crisis."
Jackie eventually heard of two other gang assaults at the same fraternity. Since the Rolling Stone piece was published, other allegations of sexual violence at UVA have arisen.
There's a sense of the already known becoming the suddenly tangible. Just as a cloud of rumor had followed Cosby, there has been growing awareness in recent years of the widespread incidence of campus sexual assault. UVA is one of 90 U.S. higher-education institutions with federal Title IX sexual violence investigations pending, but as Rolling Stone described, "Unlike most schools under scrutiny, where complaints are at issue," UVA is among a fraction of institutions "under a sweeping investigation known as 'compliance review': a proactive probe launched by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights itself, triggered by concerns about deep-rooted issues."
In both cases, too, we have seen a media-induced rush to take action. NBC, TV Land, Netflix and some academic institutions have distanced themselves from Cosby. The Rolling Stone article explained that within days of a September trustees meeting at which campus sexual assault was discussed, "having learned of Rolling Stone's probe into Jackie's story, UVA at last placed Phi Kappa Psi under investigation. Or rather, as President [Teresa] Sullivan carefully answered my question about allegations of gang rape at Phi Psi, 'We do have a fraternity under investigation.'"
In the wake of the story, the response has grown stronger: UVA suspended all fraternities. Politicians issued statements. The board that oversees the university had an emergency meeting and "adopted a zero-tolerance approach" to sexual assault. The police have been asked to investigate the incident involving Jackie.
We will see what they find. We will see what other stories emerge about Cosby; how quickly these cases fade from the public's focus; to what extent accounts of incidents on other campuses or involving other celebrities arise. The press can't publicize every instance of malfeasance -- and will surely miss or ignore some bad behavior. Improvements in the Internet will go a long way to helping the public make up for those lapses. Social media has made it vastly easier for victims to spread stories, gather corroborators and find comfort in others who have been abused. (Social media also of course has a deep, dark side, but for now let's focus on its strengths.) And one hopes that beneath it all we're making progress as a society on the underlying issue of female empowerment -- that other universities see parts of themselves in UVA and make changes before the press comes knocking. That Cosby getting skewered is an indication that maybe he wouldn't have been able to get away with his alleged misdeeds today.
It's too late for a true investigation of Cosby. Last week Hanna Rosin wrote an article for Slate with the headline "Publicly Shaming Bill Cosby Is the Best We Can Do." She noted that, "These decades-old cases are virtually impossible to prosecute. Not only does the physical evidence no longer exist, but most states have statutes of limitation on sexual assault cases."
Publicly shaming is probably all that we can do in Cosby's case. But it's about more than just Cosby receiving a belated fraction of the shame he allegedly deserves. It's about showing those students -- at UVA and elsewhere -- that you won't get away with it, regardless of how rich and powerful you are or what echelon of celebrity culture or fraternal life you travel in. It's about young victims seeing strong women in the vulnerable position of telling stories of their own victimization.
Cosby's alleged victims are the victims of yesterday. The Jackies on our campuses are the victims of today. And with any luck the combined stories of both groups -- fueled by the Internet and the press -- can reduce the number of victims tomorrow.
(Updates 10th paragraph with Title IX investigation numbers as of Nov. 26, in article published Nov. 26.)
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