American icons Bill Cosby and Tom Brokaw are in the headlines today, but one deserves to be there and the other probably does not.
Cosby was convicted Thursday of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman 14 years ago. Dozens of other women have made similar claims about the actor known as “America’s Dad.”
Cosby, who once headlined NBC’s number one sitcom, certainly deserves the 30-year prison sentence he may receive. What he did is the very definition of “assault.”
But before we judge “America’s anchor,” who once led NBC’s number one newscast, as guilty of sexual assault, we must stop. We must think. We must examine that word.
We must examine the #MeToo movement, which is crucial in its importance … but which is dangerous if used cavalierly to ruin people.
The Washington Post and Variety reported late Thursday that former NBC news anchor Linda Vester says Brokaw “assaulted” her in New York more than 20 years ago.
Brokaw, who now works as NBC News special correspondent has strongly denied the allegations.
Vester describes her experience in an edited Variety video and longer transcript, and I encourage you to read it.
Here are the basics: Allegedly, Brokaw tickled Vester along her waist in a conference room with others present, which Variety described as her being “groped.”
Sometime later, when Vester was reporting from New York, she says Brokaw asked by computer message to have drinks with her. She says he then wrote, “Nah, too risky.”
She says that she wrote back: “I only drink milk and cookies,” and then: “There is nothing I would like more than a great chat with someone I admire, but if appearances are a concern, that’s valid.”
She says these messages were meant to clearly show Brokaw that he was acting inappropriately.
She said Brokaw later called her to say he was coming to her hotel “to order milk and cookies,” and that once there, he tried to “forcibly” kiss her. He left when she refused his advances.
Vester insists at all points she was terrified by the powerful man she says could have ruined her career and that she was too frozen to tell him to not come to the hotel or, once he was there, to not let him in or tell him no when he asked her to come sit on the couch with him.
She says it all happened over again in London shortly after.
What allegedly happened may have felt awful for Vester. Men may never understand how hard it is for many women to stand up for themselves and risk confrontation, disapproval, or upsetting someone. I believe women often act contrary to their wishes to save others’ feelings.
But a fair reading of Vester’s side of the story, which Brokaw denies, simply does not make him a monster.
Caught in an immoral moment of weakness considering his marriage? Yes.
Sexual harassment? Probably, especially considering his position.
But sexual assault? I just do not think so.
If true, it sounds like Brokaw understandably misunderstood her messages and actions as flirty invitations and did what he should have done when he realized he was wrong: he stopped and left.
We must listen to accusers, but we must listen to the accused.
We must ask ourselves if misunderstandings, flirtings, and even some forms of touch should come even close to being described with the same language we use for rape and sexual violence.
I’ve been hesitant to write about the #MeToo movement for a reason I think is best described by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in the excellent book “Thanks for the Feedback”:
Human emotions don’t necessarily cancel each other out. I can love spending time with you and still be anxious that you’re coming. I can genuinely appreciate your mentoring and decide not to take your advice. I can be sad that I’m hurting you and proud of myself for doing the right thing. Contradictory feelings sit side-by-side in our hearts and minds, clacking against each other like marbles in our pocket.”
I have contradictory feelings about the #MeToo movement. Sexual injustice and abuse of women and children is a hot-button issue for me – one of the main things that gets me fighting mad.
As a news organization, we post stories about rapes and sex trafficking and child porn and on and on and I’m not calloused to it.
Every time I get mad.
Every time I clinch my fists and want to punch the mugshot on my computer.
That’s part of the reason we publish articles about such horrific acts, even though it makes us all sick – so we’ll stay mad. So we won’t forget what’s at stake. So we will feel the injustice and be moved to do something about it.
But I also feel empathy for men who aren’t monsters, who are trying to navigate the mating minefield with all our culture’s inconsistencies.
On the one hand, cultural elitists berate moral standards once considered the norm – such as sex outside of marriage always being wrong – as arcane and ridiculous.
But then in pure Puritan outrage, we act surprised when some men try to be intimate with women they think seem interested.
It doesn’t help that men and women communicate differently. Many women are less confrontational than men and less likely to frown and say “go away,” preferring to send signals that fly right past many men (it’s exhausting that such an obvious reality mustn’t be acknowledged for the sake of political correctness).
Add to that these dilemmas suggested by research evidence:
— Men tend to mistakenly think a woman is more sexually interested in them than she actually is, which some researchers think may contribute to sexual harassment.
— Men tend to assume that the more attractive a woman is, the more interested she is in sex.
— Men tend to lose self-control around women they find sexy.
I am NOT making excuses for boorish men who grab, humiliate, speak in crude ways, or otherwise act nasty. There are some things everyone knows are horribly wrong. What Cosby did, what Weinstein allegedly did, these are unspeakable injustices and men like that deserve every ounce of punishment they receive.
But what about socially unsmooth men who may lack Emotional Quotient (EQ) – a person’s adequacy in such areas as awareness, empathy, and dealing sensitively with other people?
What’s it like navigating modern romantic waters without that “sixth sense” that helps some people quickly understand how others are feeling and adjust accordingly, particularly if a woman seems coy and flirty, and our culture says anything goes?
Morality aside, I feel bad for men with low self-awareness who read the tea leaves wrong – and get called out and ruined on social media for it.
So, yes, let’s be grateful — women were believed and Cosby was convicted of sexual assault.
But let’s stop. Let’s think … before condemning Brokaw for the same thing.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Cosby was sentenced to 30 years. Updated at 4:30 p.m. to say Cosby could receive a 30-year sentence.
Update: Another woman has alleged that in 1968, Brokaw kissed her against her will.
Rachel Blackmon Bryars is managing editor of Yellowhammer News