Gov. Andrew Cuomo stands accused by three different women of sexual harassment. And yet, oddly enough, he is still serving as governor. And that, friends, may be a good thing.
In Monday’s New York Times, Michelle Goldberg suggests that the failure of high-profile Democrats to demand Cuomo’s resignation in the face of credible (and contemporaneously reported) claims about inappropriate comments, texts, and behavior suggests a diminution in the power of #MeToo. As she argues, not incorrectly, “if this scandal had broken a few years ago, high-profile Democrats would have felt no choice but to call for Cuomo’s resignation.” Goldberg also surmises that part of this failure stems from a public pivot away from gender to race concerns, and a lingering regret on the part of Democrats about ejecting Al Franken from the Senate.
Goldberg’s points are all true enough. But what if the lesson here is not that #MeToo has somehow failed, or lost steam, but rather that the #MeToo movement—which rightly encouraged people to speak out about abuse, prompting plenty of reckonings and buckets of important journalism—was never sufficient to do all the work of remedying sexual predation? As I have tried to argue throughout the #MeToo era, journalism when it is not followed up by fact-finding and due process was never going to be the answer to the power and information imbalances that lead to sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, in government, and in the judiciary. Perhaps Democrats who demanded that Al Franken depart the Senate before any formal investigatory process was undertaken haven’t so much soured on the possibility of bringing sexual predators to justice as they have come to realize that insisting on resignations before there has been an investigation is not a good strategy. Paired with the Republican insistence that no matter what the evidence shows, Roy Moore is a sterling humanitarian, one can start to see that this evolution toward demanding formal processes is not backsliding but a reaction to two sides of the same coin—reflexive blame on one side and reflexive denial on the other. The asymmetry issue isn’t merely that liberals sometimes punish their worst miscreants while Republicans often reward them; the issue is that both behaviors react to a press report as though it’s a conclusive finding. Of course reporters strive to achieve that. But there are times when the media fails at that task, which means the asymmetry in the demand for resignations can be mirrored by asymmetry in the quality of reporting.
I am a journalist myself, and I am wholly in favor of a sober and serious probe into Cuomo’s alleged conduct. It’s not a terrible thing to allow an independent investigator to gather all the facts and arrive at a formal conclusion before calling for his immediate ouster. To allow a formal fact-finding process to play out is neither a disparagement of his accusers—whose accounts should be taken absolutely seriously—nor a get-out-of-jail-free card for the governor. It is merely an acknowledgment of something that should have been clear from the vitally important beginnings of the #MeToo era: There is a difference between having the media surface and report predation, and having something akin to a formal process investigate and determine what occurred and what should be done about it. The press has never pretended to be experts at that latter function.
This isn’t a knock on the crucial role played by journalism, which has been invaluable in smoking out abuses that are all too often obscured by confidentiality agreements, acute power imbalances, and victim shaming. It’s simply a recognition that journalism should launch the process of due process, as opposed to finishing it.
Investigations are, if done correctly, lengthy and confusing. They may allow predators to ooze out from under the shame cycle of our peripatetic media spotlight. But by and large that precision and care should be seen as a feature, as opposed to a bug. If we’d spent the time we’ve spent calling for people to step down immediately in formulating and refining an actual process that could formally investigate claims and issue guidance on what should be done about them, we might have ended up in a place where more sexual predators could be held accountable rather than fewer. When an accusation reported in the news is enough, we land in a place where predators dismiss deeply reported press accounts as mere witch hunts and claim that the lack of investigation renders those accounts inconclusive. If we learned anything from the 2020 election cycle, it was that judicial fact-finding can put the lie to false claims about stolen elections. Nobody would argue that drawn-out sexual harassment investigations are perfect, but that doesn’t make the press-and-rush-to-resignation version a perfect substitute.
To refuse to come to immediate irrevocable conclusions isn’t a repudiation of #MeToo so much as an acknowledgment that serious problems demand sober due process. That isn’t a failure of the left or a double standard. It’s an acknowledgment that facts matter, that they are discernible, and that doing so takes more patience than the blink of a news cycle allows.
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