If there’s one lesson to take away from New York Attorney General Letitia James’ report on sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, it’s a boring and decidedly dispassionate one: Fair and thorough processes may take time, but they are worth waiting for.
The early deluge of #MeToo media stories alleging sexual harassment and assault by powerful men has slowed to a steadier stream. But in the years since the blockbuster allegations against Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein kicked off a worldwide reckoning, a quieter secondary conversation has also begun about how we should evaluate assault and harassment claims outside of the courts of law. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a standard in criminal court and not in the court of public opinion, but those of us who want women to have more space to speak out, who want to see wrongdoers held accountable, and who believe that the accused have the right to a fair and predictable process have sometimes struggled to balance all three aims.
James’ report offers one answer. These kinds of deliberative processes virtually never go as quickly as the public would like. It’s understandable that women, sick of lifetimes of mistreatment and the resulting physical, professional and financial costs, don’t want to be told, yet again, to wait; we want to see men who do wrong face swift and serious consequences. We want the bravery of speaking out to engender immediate and tangible results. We don’t want to put accusers on trial. But a clear and thorough process benefits victims of sexual harassment and assault, too, and this document shows just how important and valuable that can be.
The report is meticulous and fair, laying out the allegations against Cuomo one by one, along with corroborating evidence and his response to them. It includes accusations that were already published and some that were not. It’s also, crucially, not simply a play-by-play of conversations and physical touches, but an assessment of power dynamics and how those feed into plausible deniability. The report quotes one senior Cuomo staffer who wrote, in a note to herself, “I’m disgusted that Andrew M. Cuomo — a man who understands subtle power dynamics and power plays better than almost anyone in the planet — is giving this loopy excuse of not knowing he made women feel uncomfortable. Either he knew exactly what he was doing (likely) or he is so narcissistic that he thought all women wanted these kinds of questions (crazy excuse even to write it).”
Cuomo’s public response was a jarring mismatch to the care and nuance of James’ findings. Where the James report was layered with context, Cuomo was simple and context-free. He focused primarily on details that had been discussed in earlier New York Times reporting, also laid out in great detail in James’ report. That Times reporting included allegations from a young woman named Anna Ruch, who said that Cuomo placed his hand on her bare lower back at a wedding and that when she removed his hand, he responded by saying “Wow, you’re aggressive” and then put his hands on either side of her face and asked to kiss her. The story ran with a photo of him with his hands on her face — pretty solid corroborating evidence.
In his speech defending himself, Cuomo shared images of him hugging and kissing other friends, colleagues and supporters to make the case that he touches and kisses everyone, without regard for gender and unrelated to sexual desire. It was the kind of ham-handed approach that is almost comical coming from a man whose own staffer rightly observed that he “understands subtle power dynamics and power plays better than almost anyone on the planet.” And one need not be a master of human emotion to look at the photo in question and see clear discomfort on Ruch’s face: Her eyebrows are knitted together, her hands pulled toward her chest, her mouth is open in what appears to be some mixture of jaw-dropped shock and forced uncomfortable smile.
That back-and-forth — Ruch’s account in The Times, Cuomo’s rebuttal on television — is precisely the kind of media pingpong the James report transcends. While journalists from reputable publications who have investigated #MeToo stories — The New York Times, the New Yorker and New York magazine, to name just the ones with “New York” in their names — have examined the accusations thoroughly, applied a newsworthiness judgment and balanced the accusations with the right of an accused to respond, the Wild West nature of the internet has also meant that publications that take their journalistic obligations less seriously have — sometimes inadvertently and sometimes intentionally — undermined the #MeToo movement by publishing politically motivated, false, specious, inconsistent or simply lurid accusations of wrongdoing.
When it comes to politicians specifically, it also helps to take politics out of the process as fully as possible. It has been troubling to see the #MeToo movement co-opted by politicians and talking heads who otherwise show zero interest in standing up for women’s rights and who go out of their way to protect those in their own party who are accused of sexual assault (see, for example, the many pro-Trump Republicans calling for Cuomo’s head).
But it’s not just conservatives who are perceived as politicizing sexual harassment and assault. Part of the reason the departure of Al Franken, D-Minn., from the U.S. Senate in early 2018 remains a divisive issue for Democrats is that even many feminist-minded liberals didn’t believe that the process was fair. And, indeed, there was very little process, and no full investigation. Franken resigned of his own accord, a decision he now says he regrets. But the feeling that he was pushed out created, among some Democrats, a persistent knee-jerk skepticism of #MeToo claims against progressive politicians. The counterfactual — a detailed investigation about Franken that would have taken weeks or even months to put together — would no doubt have come with its own downsides, and very well may have resulted in the same outcome. But it also could have established a clear process back then, thereby avoiding some of the subsequent post-Franken Democratic drama and creating a set of procedures to which Democrats could demand Republicans be subjected. They would probably simply refuse to comply, but at least there would be a clear set of fair demands and expectations.
Simply put, an impartial and independent investigative process, motivated neither by politics nor page views, protects victims and extends fairness to the accused, not all of whom are guilty, and not all of whom should face identical and maximal penalties for wildly different behaviors and offenses.
Big social changes often feel as though they arrive too slowly. The shocking #MeToo accusations against some of the world’s most powerful men forever changed the way we think about gender and power, but they didn’t immediately transform the intersection of the two. Not all has been righted. Not all wrongdoers have been held accountable. But in this moment of relative calm after the initial cathartic storm, it’s heartening to see some structures taking shape. And the James report is a key reminder that what we may lose in speed, we make up for in fairness, accuracy and public trust.