Prosecutors Win, Journalists Fail in Cosby Retrial

May 4, 2018

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In the wake of the guilty verdict for Bill Cosby on three counts of sexual assault last week, the news media predictably jumped on the story. Reporters are always looking for fresh angles on news, to be first with the Big Picture analysis of What It All Means. One obvious question presented itself immediately: Did the MeToo movement play an important role in the Cosby verdict?

Yes?

No?

Who knows?

Whatever your personal opinion is, you can find high profile news sources echoing your belief:

NPR: “Bill Cosby’s Conviction Marks a New Chapter for #MeToo.”

Slate.com headline: “Bill Cosby’s Conviction Is Not the Triumph of #MeToo.”

People.com headline: “Bill Cosby Conviction Is Victory for #MeToo.”

NBC News: “Bill Cosby Conviction Is the First Big Win of the #MeToo Movement.”

To help determine the truth, we should avoid falling into the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of it”). It is true that Cosby’s second trial and conviction occurred after the emergence of the MeToo movement, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one led to the other. It is of course possible. Skeptics and critical thinkers are not concerned about what’s possible, nor really what’s plausible (which varies from person to person, is highly subjective, and depends largely on one’s gullibility), but a different measure: What the evidence shows.

The early headlines and articles on the topic are, I would argue, a failure of journalism. This is not reporting, this is speculation and conjecture ahead of the facts. Many of the reporters–really, opinion piece writers–probably thought they were safe. After all, pretty much any position is ostensibly defensible, and with something as amorphous as this, who’s to say? No one can conclusively prove that the MeToo movement had nothing to do with the verdict, nor can anyone conclusively prove it led directly to it; the world is complex and there are too many factors and variables.

The presence of MeToo was only one of several significant differences between Cosby’s first trial (which ended in a hung jury) and his second trial, including other accusers being allowed to testify and the jurors hearing Cosby’s own words in a previous deposition. Whatever position you take on it, you’re probably not going to get called out on such conjecture.

Except in this case it’s not all speculation; while nothing conclusive we do in fact have some valid data points to consider.

1) The first is public opinion polls about Cosby’s guilt or innocence prior to the emergence of the MeToo movement. I found several polls from 2015:

A YouGov poll taken July 8-9, 2015 found that 61% of men and 53% of women believe Cosby’s accusers. An October 12, 2015 poll by the same organization found that only 10% of respondents doubted Cosby’s accusers; 57% said they believed the women’s accusations. Another 2015 poll found that only 22% believed Cosby, while 56% believed his accusers, and 22% said didn’t have enough information to have an opinion. Another poll found that two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Bill Cosby–back in July 2015.

So we see that three years ago, back in 2015 and before MeToo was an international movement, most people across multiple polls said they believed that Cosby was in fact guilty. Not much changed between 2015 and last month on that point. 

Cosby was not acquitted at his first trial; instead the jurors were unable to reach a verdict. This indicates that there was considerable belief that he was guilty, but they may have been following important instructions about how to decide a case that led them to be unable to reach a full agreement.

2) The second data point is that jurors can give interviews and explain their reasoning and what evidence they found credible and compelling. That’s exactly what happened; an April 30 article in The New York Times read: “In a joint statement on Monday, the jurors who voted to convict Bill Cosby of sexual assault last week said that they believed his accuser’s account and were persuaded of his guilt by the facts, not the momentum of social change captured in the #MeToo movement. ‘Not once were race or the #metoo movement ever discussed, nor did either factor into our decision, as implied in various media outlets,’ the jurors, whose names have not been released, said in the statement.” Juror “Harrison Snyder said, as the broader panel said in its statement, that #MeToo did not weigh on his mind during the two days of deliberations last week at the Montgomery County Courthouse outside Philadelphia. In fact, he said he had not heard of the movement until after he left the courthouse on Thursday and read up on the news coverage of the trial.”

I have no reason to think the jurors are lying or being misleading about their reasons for convictions. It is of course possible that the MeToo movement played a significant role in their deliberations but for whatever reason they chose to explicitly deny it, but there’s no evidence to support that conclusion. If they say that MeToo had nothing to do with it, I assume that’s true; after all, it would not invalidate their verdict (or be grounds for a mistrial) and if anything would likely cast the jurors in a more favorable light.

Of course the MeToo movement has been important and valuable regardless of whether or not it played a role in the outcome of Bill Cosby’s second trial. The fact is that no one knows whether Cosby’s conviction is a bellwether for other accused celebrities, including Harvey Weinstein. As with most new trends, it’s too soon to tell, and we may not know for five or ten years what the significance is. I have no dog in the fight and don’t know enough about the situation to determine what role MeToo played in Cosby’s retrial.

I’m more concerned about what this episode says about opinion masquerading as journalism. Journalists could have gotten the story right had they spent a few minutes searching for pre-2016 polls about Cosby’s guilt (as far as I know I’m the only person who has done that; all the mainstream journalists didn’t bother to look). Or they could have held off until a juror was interviewed.

Of course the news media don’t want to wait around for facts. They need to rush their story out to get clicks and opine about the event. If later information comes out that contradicts or undermines their reporting/opinion piece, they won’t “correct” the story (since it’s not a demonstrable factual error) but just write a new story and ignore the fact that they should have waited to get the story right in the first place.

Another real problem is this leads to social media echo chambers, and the idea that one opinion is as valid as the next. Whatever you think, there are high profile news articles you can cite and link to “confirm” you’re right. It’s all speculation unencumbered by facts, and we seek out other opinion that echoes our own (for more on this see Guy Harrison’s book Think Before You Like: Social Media’s Effect on the Brain and the Tools You Need to Navigate Your Newsfeed). We need more facts and better reporting, less opinion pretending to be mainstream journalism.