Maybe media shaming isn’t always a bad thing, especially if injustice otherwise goes unanswered

Media shaming is hot. It’s the new spectator sport in which hapless people say or do something that unexpectedly provokes general wrath, and get their skin torn off by online abuse from thousands of furious, abusive, and hateful strangers.

Justine Sacco was among the early headliners. She was a New York public relations practitioner who tweeted, as she got on plane for Capetown in December 2013, an ironic remark about how she probably wouldn’t get AIDs in South Africa because she was white. Within hours Sacco was inundated with ferocious, Twittered scorn and denunciation, and wound up losing her job.

Now comes Walter Palmer, the hapless dentist from Minnesota, who killed a lion in Zimbabwe in July. It was named Cecil, apparently had a devoted following, and was allegedly lured illegally from a wildlife sanctuary so the hunter could put an arrow in it. Palmer was the subject of 670,000 tweets in the first 24 hours after he owned up to shooting Cecil.

These cases and the many others that the feverish pace of online chatter is churning up involve misdeeds, often trivial, for which people are vilified and insulted, sometimes with serious consequences. They aren’t charged formally with wrongdoing that they can deny or explain. They can’t rely on a forum where they can argue they did no real harm, they can’t offer to remedy their wrongdoing, they can’t appeal to a disinterested panel.

If they could do that, they’d be in the realm of guilt. That’s where wrongs are clearly identified and punishment is pronounced after evidence is heard, explanations are offered, and some reflection is given to what might be necessary to set things right.

But this isn’t the republic of guilt, it’s the empire of shame. Both are mechanisms by which people are held accountable for wrongs, but they’re very different. Guilt is a response to a wrongful act, while shame instead blankets the person who appears to have done wrong with moral condemnation.

Guilt can be mitigated by showing that the action didn’t do much harm or that the harm was unintended. Any response by the wrongdoer that reduces the harm is pertinent. Punishment that seems to even the score, makes whoever was hurt whole again, ensures the wrong doesn’t continue or isn’t repeated—those are all part of a venerable formula for redress that seems rational and fair.

Shame is different. It’s about a lack of moral worth. The crook who robs the bank may be guilty, but the one who mugs the bank teller is shamed. In the old days, guilt got you flogged, shame got you shunned.

Shame can’t be relieved; it must be suffered and endured and, at best, can in time be forgiven, through an accumulation of evidence that the person who was shamed has done the prescribed penance.

Shaming rituals have elements about them that are pre-modern, almost tribal, and which are hard to square with fairness and proportionality. They constitute punishment without trial, inflicted by anonymous strangers acting under standards of their own, and they trigger reprisals that may be grossly excessive. (Why was Sacco fired? Should Palmer have been hounded into suspending his practice?)

That said, what should the response be to wrongdoing in instances when the rational machinery of deciding guilt isn’t up to the job?

Maybe, sometimes, shame has its place.

“Scorn or shaming are important in reaffirming the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior and helping ensure that people adhere to them,” Continue reading “Maybe media shaming isn’t always a bad thing, especially if injustice otherwise goes unanswered”

Cosby affair asks whether media can be engines not of news, but of justice

To someone who came of age regarding The Washington Post as the journalistic gold standard, it was a puzzling moment. On The Post’s website Nov. 13 was a first-person account by a former actress titled: “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”

The 1,200-word article never answered that question, but Barbara Bowman, now a married mother of two in Arizona, did describe a relationship with Cosby in the mid-‘80s when she was a teenage ingenue and he was a huge star. Cosby purported to take an interest in her career, she wrote, but his mentoring was a fig leaf for predation and ended with him drugging and abusing her sexually in New York.

Now, the Post hadn’t investigated her account itself and didn’t do its own story on Cosby until more than a week after it ran Bowman’s, when it weighed in with a richly reported chronicle of what was becoming a cascade of similar allegations.

This seemed like a case of “fire, ready, aim.” I couldn’t remember another instance when a top-tier news organization had published a detailed denunciation from somebody it couldn’t vouch for, against a person generally regarded as a public benefactor, that it had not first examined independently.

Women have continued to come forward, and the number who’ve accused the onetime comedy giant of various depravities stands at 20, by Slate’s count. Cosby’s intended show biz comeback has been stowed in the deepest of deep freezes, and he’s being consigned to a seemingly irretrievable disgrace, suitable for no comedic use beyond a punchline.

Well deserved, it appears. But my interest is in the media, and I think it’s important to point out that Bill Cosby’s destruction is entirely the work of the news media. That’s not a criticism. When it came to gathering evidence, assessing the record, making judgments about credibility and falsehood, and ultimately deciding reward and punishment, there has been nobody around but the media.

That isn’t the way the system normally works. And I worry that if this becomes a precedent, it will assign to news media a power they may not be able to handle properly.

Normally, the media set in motion the machinery of justice. They blow the whistle on apparent wrongdoing. They tee up a case like Cosby’s by doing the background reporting, encouraging reluctant witnesses to step forward. Reporters offer findings they believe are strong enough to warrant the attention of authorities; then the systems of criminal or civil adjudication get to work—charges are brought, suits are filed, justice is served.

Ultimately, there will be reckonings that are regarded as authoritative.

But the Cosby affair is different. There is no higher court here. Whether it’s because victims were too scared, police were too timid, laws were too weak, plaintiffs too willing to settle, or evidence too thin—the judicial system is by now largely irrelevant.

So there may never be authoritative verdicts about whether Bill Cosby hurt those Continue reading “Cosby affair asks whether media can be engines not of news, but of justice”