Bill Cosby might be the perp. But he had help from an unlikely source: the nation’s media.
Cosby was the beneficiary of a strange journalistic impulse, ignoring a great story that’s right before your eyes. It is almost impossible to believe that no journalist with a national audience picked up a hint that many women accused Cosby of terrible things — over a period of 50 years (the first accusation dates back to 1965).
After all, journalists love to gossip, especially when the subject is famous, rich and hypocritical. (“Journalism is organized gossip,” the writer Edward Eggleston once said.) Any journalist will tell you that the Cosby accusations are prime fodder for bar talk when colleagues get together after writing about a campaign rally or a ballgame—or an entertainer’s performance.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that we journalists have missed the big story. The White House prohibited photographs of Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair, and no one raised a fuss.
Likewise, most of us somehow overlooked the fact that police officers kill many young black men—and lots of people in general. Any of us who knows people of color have heard them warn their children about “driving while black” (or brown). But it wasn’t until Ferguson, Mo., that serious journalists focused on the issue. The Washington Post now methodically has identified almost 400 police killings, counting victims of all races, so far this year.
In yet another case, I’ll bet a ticket to an LSU football game that every pro-football writer in America—that’s a lot of reporters—wondered why so many players were accused of domestic violence. But it wasn’t until the video of Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée that journalists produced serious coverage of a league-wide problem.
In the case of pedophile priests, many news organizations nibbled away for years as if the abuse were a routine local story. But no one thought big until the Boston Globe in 2002 conducted a sustained, painstaking investigation and found that this was a national — and international — story.
Famed editor Gene Roberts often says that the biggest story of his lifetime that no one wrote about was the migration of Southern blacks to the North over a period of 40 years.
How is it possible that trained observers, as we like to think of ourselves, miss some of the biggest stories of our lifetime?
Journalists will give you lots of excuses: the lack of time to investigate complex cases, the personal nature of many of these subjects, the instinct to respect people and institutions, the pack mentality of some press rooms, the lack of vision to grasp that one anecdote might lead to a national story.
But the biggest obstacle is mindset, which blocks our ability to see what’s in front of our eyes. This isn’t exactly the “bias” that media critics babble about, often with no substantiation. Instead, it’s an inability to multitask—to cover Cosby the entertainer while being open to the fact that he might at the same time be Cosby the sexual predator. Or to cover football as a sport while leaving open the possibility that the players may be beating their wives after the game.
Psychologists call this “unconscious selective attention.” Writing in Scientific American two years ago, Dr. Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina asked, “Is it really possible that we are constantly failing to notice things right in front of us?” His conclusion was yes, because of selectivity: “Prioritizing one thing and neglecting everything else are two sides of the same coin.”
It gets worse.
Payne wrote that we might be making unconscious decisions for bad reasons: “Scads of studies have suggested that the unconscious mind is riddled with stereotypes and biases, even among people who are consciously well intentioned.” In other words, we just know that Bill Cosby couldn’t be a predator.
The solutions won’t be simple, but I know what the first step will be for my ethics students. In addition to learning about Socrates, they’re going to learn about mindset and unconscious selective attention.
Jerry Ceppos is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU. He is a former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and former vice president for news of Knight Ridder Newspapers.