We should care more about the Bill Cosby trial. Why don't we?
How the bombshell story of the fall of America's Dad became an afterthought
The sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby were a huge and shocking story in 2014 and 2015. Now the trial is here, and the most shocking thing about it is how little attention it's garnered. As celebrity trials go, this one had plenty of drama that has only increased through the jury's tense deliberations.
While the jury deadlocked this week, the trial continued on the courthouse steps. Literally: Cosby's spokesperson Andrew Wyatt read a statement from a witness (who was not allowed to testify) outside the courthouse. Gloria Allred, the attorney who represents dozens of Cosby's accusers, held a press conference. Then things took a turn toward the carnivalesque: After the jury failed to come to a decision Tuesday night, Cosby, evidently in high spirits, did his Fat Albert impression. By Wednesday morning, people had settled in (one man even brought his recliner), and by Thursday, plaintiff Andrea Constand was shooting hoops to keep calm while Lili Bertrand, one of Cosby's alleged victims, confronted his supporters and spoke movingly about how many times she'd tried to end her life. "I became highly suicidal, so for years afterwards, my focus was on not killing myself, do you understand?" she said. "This is why I took so long."
But compared to the OJ Simpson trial, which dominated news networks for weeks, Cosby's trial for aggravated indecent assault flew by without taking up much space at all on the front pages of newspapers or the home pages of news sites. This was a story that took decades to get traction, but when it did, it caught fire — even landing a historic New York magazine cover with testimony from 35 of his accusers.
So what changed? How did a story we found so compelling — the Fall of America's Dad — become an afterthought?
There are plenty of possible explanations — circumspection, respect for the victims, maturity — but I suspect the true ones are a little less flattering. Below are a few reasons why we might have developed an aversion to the story we once loved, presented in order of increasing seriousness.
1. We're drowning in legal dramas.
Between former FBI Director James Comey's testimony, Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony, the news that President Trump is being investigated for obstruction of justice, and Cosby's trial for three counts of felony aggravated indecent assault, we're in a glut of sensational legal theater.
2. Cosby's trial wasn't on TV.
It matters that Cosby's trial wasn't televised. (TV changes things, and if we've seen — in Comey's testimony — how educational legal television can be, we are also keenly aware of the travesties televised trials of black men can become.)
3. We get less mad at people who are sick or old.
Cosby is old and good at seeming older. His apparent weakness and blindness makes it harder to root for his comeuppance.
4. Cosby isn't as fun to watch anymore.
Cosby's commanding charisma — which certainly isn't gone — has faded as a function of his age. He's no longer as fun to watch, and his case is competing for oxygen with a congressional shooting, a London fire, and the never-ending circus of the Trump White House.
5. We secretly don't quite believe rape is a crime and sort of think rapists shouldn't be punished.
It's a sorry fact that we lack the legal will and moral appetite to punish rapists in this country, even when convictions are obtained. You'll recall that Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner — convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and fleeing the scene of the crime — to a mere six months instead of the two-year mandatory minimum sentence. Judge G. Todd Baugh was similarly reluctant to deliver consequences. In 2014 he sentenced Stacey Dean Rambold, a 50-something high school teacher convicted of raping his 14-year-old student (she subsequently committed suicide) — to a 15-year sentence with all but one month suspended. Judge Baugh remarked that the 14-year-old was likely partly responsible, as she looked "older than her chronological age."
Baugh's sentence was overturned, but the fact remains: People are oddly unwilling to punish rapists, even in open-and-shut cases. Remember when a CNN correspondent described the emotion she felt while watching the Steubenville rapists be convicted? She described them as "two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students," who "literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart."
6. Victims of sexual assault lost the election.
We think in large and stupid trends. People speculate endlessly about what elections "mean." Many feel, however subconsciously, that the U.S. election was, among other things, a referendum on the credibility of sexual assault victims. The fact that a man accused of assault by a dozen women became president must somehow mean that his accusers were liars (here's one contemptible example of this reasoning).
7. It makes people sad about an America they thought was good.
The Cosby case requires a painful revision of an America many would rather remember fondly. Americans like a good fall from grace — as a people, we're good at schadenfreude — but we've experienced Cosby's public nosedive less as his personal tragedy than as a brittle and horrifying reflection of our own. The fall of "America's Dad" might be more about the "America" bit than the "Dad" bit.
Cosby represented a very particular and even personal ideal of American progress. People identified with the almost-postracial Huxtables. Take Christine Flowers, for example, whose much-criticized piece asserted that "the greatest damage has already been done, and that is the shattering of beloved myths and comforting relationships by the proxy of television and nostalgia." The Huxtables were emblems of how middle-class American family values could unify everyone and erase social divisions.
Cosby himself agreed, marrying his amiable comedic persona to respectability politics. He criticized young black people for being rude on subways. He insisted that the black community had to air its "dirty laundry." "There should be marches in every neighborhood every day telling the people about the negativity of drugs and how the drugs help us to behave negatively," he said back in 2013 (displaying an immunity to irony he'd spent decades building up).
Cosby's trial ruins that G-rated picture. For all that it touted itself as wholesome and moral and charming and good, the version of the American dream Cosby represented — the one many people could get behind irrespective of race or political party — was more than rotten. It was a stomach-churning horror. America's Dad allegedly spent his spare time drugging and raping young women, often under the guise of mentoring them, and used "educational trusts" as hush money.
8. We value fictional characters with good messages more than real people with unwelcome ones.
None of that changes how hard it is to scuttle the illusion Cosby offered. "Even I felt a certain instinct to protect Cosby," wrote Jewel Allison, one of his 60 accusers:
... as I vomited in the backseat of the taxi that Cosby ushered me into after he assaulted me one night in the late 1980s, that Dr. Huxtable image no longer made sense. I felt both physically violated and emotionally bamboozled. Still, I didn't want the image of Dr. Huxtable reduced to that of a criminal. [Washington Post]
The fictional comfort Cosby's Dr. Huxtable offered mattered a great deal. It mattered so much that several dozen women were sacrificed to preserve it. That's ... awful. That's the kind of realization that makes people shudder. No one likes to feel complicit, especially not over a sitcom.
9. We like to think we don't believe in conspiracies (spoiler: we do).
Complicity is, alas, the never-ending problem. Barbara Bowman, another of Cosby's alleged victims, observed that the Cosby story is, among other things, a case study in how dozens of people aid and abet famous men. It was and is about who gets to tell the story of what happened. For decades, the women trying to tell their side of things were ignored or suppressed or smeared. For decades, people who knew the truth kept mum.
That's noteworthy, as these legal dramas swirl around us, because people are still unwilling to believe that these networks to protect the powerful exist. While questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) professed himself astonished at and amused by the notion that dozens of people might work together in secret to produce a particular effect — an electoral outcome, say:
Have you ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage? [Sen. Tom Cotton]
But if there was ever any doubt as to just how many people can collaborate to suppress a famous man's misdeeds — to collude and conspire to slime his victims and enable his predation, while keeping it all secret — we know now that it's doable. It was done, in fact, for decades. As Bowman says:
For Cosby to commit these assaults against multiple victims over several years, there had to be a network of willfully blind wallflowers at best, or people willing to aid him in committing these sexual crimes at worst. As I told the Daily Mail, when I was a teenager, his assistants transported me to hotels and events to meet him. When I blacked out at Cosby's home, there were several staffers with us. My agent, who introduced me to Cosby, had me take a pregnancy test when I returned from my last trip with him. Talent agents, hotel staff, personal assistants, and others who knowingly made arrangements for Cosby's criminal acts or overlooked them should be held equally accountable. [Washington Post]
There's a conspiracy here any way you slice this story. It's just a question of which conspiracy is more likely. One conspiracy is that the women are to blame. Dozens of strangers of all races and ages must have secretly conspired to smear Cosby and bring him down. Their motives are admittedly oblique: They didn't do it for profit, since none of them are getting anything for speaking up. For fame, perhaps? The privilege of being torn to shreds in the press? Of being known to family and friends as victims? Maybe dozens of strangers banded together for the simple pleasure of destroying a good man.
The other conspiracy is that a rich and powerful man with influence was able to get a large group people — including people at his agency, who happened to be profiting off him — to keep his secrets.
10. We trust the system.
Maybe people aren't tuning in because Cosby's conviction seems like a foregone conclusion. In his deposition, he admitted to obtaining Quaaludes with the intention of administering them to women with whom he wanted to have sex, knowing full well that it was illegal. This was bad plotting, then; where's the suspense?
Maybe the deadlocked jury will jerk our heads back in this awful story's direction. If it fails, it will be sad but unsurprising that this story's legal end resembles its quiet beginning. It took a long time for these allegations to come to light. It took a lot longer for people to start believing them; Janice Dickinson was forced to excise her account of Cosby's abuse from her autobiography, and dozens of other women had their allegations dismissed or (as in Beth Ferrier's case) actively suppressed. When a few women did manage to air their grievances, no one paid them much mind. The long, slow process of making these allegations sayable was supposed to put Cosby's malfeasance on our radar once and for all. It was supposed to make us think a little harder about what was happening to women all over the United States while America's Dad collected accolades, admiration, money, and love.
Let's hope we can keep from forgetting all over again.