As it becomes clearer that the essential allegations against Bill Cosby have been known for years, it becomes weirder to understand why now is the time that suddenly his career crashes. At least since 2005, when a sexual assault lawsuit against him was settled out of court, with a dozen women willing to testify that he had done similar things to them, it should have been clear that something was going on. The explanation everyone is giving now is that a black male comedian mentioned in his act that Bill Cosby was a “rapist,” and his short riff “went viral.” The media picked it up, and once the media picked it up, it became untenable for NBC, Netflix and other organizations to go ahead with their plans for new Bill Cosby programs or reruns. That still prompts some obvious questions: Why did the riff go viral, and why did the media then pick it up? As one of the women commented, “Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it?”
Did it have to be a black male to make the charge? Was the media concerned that a white woman or white male making the charge would appear “racist,” hurting a beloved, iconic, black male figure in both white and black households? If so, what does that say about our “postracial” society, and the other things we don’t know about other beloved celebrities, political and nonpolitical alike? That so many women were ignored over the years, not taken seriously, should undermine our trust in the media and in what we “know” and “don’t know.”
The same question can be applied to the media and agenda setting in the 2014 election. Would the most important issue in the election be the unpopularity of the president, or the unpopularity of the Republicans in Congress? Would the most important issue be the unpopularity of “Obamacare” (which of course is not the name of the “Affordable Care Act”), or what the Republicans would propose in its place? Can anyone really imagine Republicans standing in front of the cameras eagerly saying, “We must repeal the Affordable Care Act”? How would the millions who gained coverage under “Obamacare” respond to having their coverage taken away? Should they perhaps be interviewed?
What would be the issue?
Would a fundamental issue in the election be “the Obama economy,” as David Gregory called it, or would it be the Boehner/McConnell economy? Would the Republican successes in blocking an increase in the minimum wage that would raise wages for millions, and blocking infrastructure spending that would put thousands of construction workers and others back to work be the issue? Well, no. Note that in all of these cases, the media sided with the Republican talking points, and not the Democrats. Why? Answers aren’t simple, just as they aren’t simple on the Bill Cosby sexual-predation issue.
Polls indicate that going into the 2014 elections roughly one-third of the American voters did not even know that the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, or that Republicans in the Senate could block nearly every Obama economic proposal through the filibuster. Why did they not know that? When the American people don’t know basic facts necessary to make sense of gridlock or policy choices, the media can’t just “report” this as if their hands are clean. There is a reason they don’t know: The media don’t focus on it, any more than they focused on the charges against Bill Cosby over the years.
Of course the media are obsessed with ratings, without which they could not survive. But reporting on explosive charges against Bill Cosby would have increased ratings, not hurt ratings, so that can’t be a satisfactory answer there. Yes, Ebola is dramatic and scary, and it was easy for the media to focus on that leading up to the elections, and perhaps increase ratings. Yes, ISIS is scary, both with the beheadings and with showing how easily members of the U.S.-trained and U.S.-supplied Iraqi army would abandon their posts and flee at the first signs of combat. Both of those issues should have been covered.
Noting the importance of funding for public health, and for research into an Ebola vaccine should have come naturally to this topic. Equally obvious would be why drug manufacturers have not devoted resources to such a vaccine, with the answer being that the disease is rare enough that expected profits don’t seem to make such an effort worthwhile. How much were these corollary issues part of the public agenda? Noting the collapse of the Iraqi army after more than a decade of American support should have led to the obvious question: Seeing what we are now seeing, was it a good idea to invade Iraq in the first place? Was Iraq ever destined to be a free, unified country?
Media exercise enormous influence
On all these issues the media, collectively and individually, exercise enormous influence over what we “know” and what we don’t know, what we think about, and what never enters our minds. Every dictator knows this. Just look at how Putin, Hitler, Stalin, or any authoritarian treats independent journalism. But in our supposedly “free” society, why do the media ignore so much that knowledgeable observers think is essential for informed decision-making?
I haven’t even mentioned global warming. Some people blame the pressure of “corporate sponsors,” or the biased views of the owners of these media conglomerates. Certainly with Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, such an explanation holds. But what about the “mainstream” media? The answer isn’t quite as clear. Roger Ailes has said that in his long, successful career, he has followed the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid!” Certainly a simple narrative (Ebola scare) has an advantage over some other issues, but many of these other issues can be explained to people. Blocking votes isn’t that hard to understand. Refusing to say what you would do about people already on “Obamacare” isn’t that hard to understand.
Whatever the confluence of reasons is (and there are likely many), the issue of agenda setting must be addressed. Until informed, concerned citizens can figure out what is driving the news and what is not, and can effect change toward a more informed citizenry, American democracy will continue to sputter. When politicians know that cynical behavior and cynical words bring them dividends, and that their constituents don’t know what is really going on, the incentive to “race to the bottom” will just continue, with the media being active participants.
John Shockley is a semi-retired professor of political science, specializing in American politics. He will be teaching constitutional law at Augsburg College this spring.
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