Megan McArdle: Consider the consequences of #BelieveAllWomen

Moral panics aren’t good for anyone, including the victims they’re trying to protect.

FILE - In this April 27, 2016 file photo, Tavis Smiley appears at the 33rd annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards in Los Angeles. PBS says it has suspended distribution of Smiley’s talk show after an independent investigation uncovered “multiple, credible allegations” of misconduct by its host. (Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP, File)

First there was Harvey Weinstein, whose appalling behavior toward women was so amply documented by The New York Times and the New Yorker. The dominoes began to fall. And soon they reached into my own industry.

It wasn’t just Bill O’Reilly. Now the cascading accusations were reaching deep into the heart of the mainstream media. Charlie Rose … Matt Lauer … Mark Halperin … even liberal outlets like NPR and the New Republic were not spared. For that matter, not even the New Yorker and the New York Times were spared: At the Times, star political reporter Glenn Thrush is under investigation, and the New Yorker has just fired its star political reporter, Ryan Lizza, over “improper sexual conduct.”

Some of these cases were clearly and inexcusably abusive — the actions egregious and the corroborating accounts damning.

Others, however, were less clear. Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic seems to have been accused mostly of making young women who were not his subordinates uncomfortable through risqué comments and the occasional clumsy pass. Thrush apparently is accused of hitting on younger women who work in his industry, and occasionally at his outlet, though he had no managerial power over them. And Lizza is accused of … what? We don’t know.

Normally when a publication decides to fire a reporter for cause, it does one of two things: It quietly announces their departure without stating a reason, giving the reporter some room to find another job; or, when the malfeasance may have impacted the reporting, it announces exactly why the person was fired, publishes the results of the internal investigation, and makes it clear which stories are being corrected or rescinded as a result of the reporter’s misbehavior.

The New Yorker did neither; after what appears to have been a fairly brief investigation, it announced that Lizza was a sexual abuser, but left the rest of us to guess at what sort of abuse might be involved. Lizza, meanwhile, says: “The New Yorker has decided to characterize a respectful relationship with a woman I dated as somehow inappropriate. The New Yorker was unable to cite any company policy that was violated. … This decision, which was made hastily and without a full investigation of the relevant facts, was a terrible mistake”.

Tavis Smiley of PBS reports a similar experience:

PBS launched a so-called investigation of me without ever informing me. … Only after being threatened with a lawsuit, did PBS investigators reluctantly agree to interview me for three hours. If having a consensual relationship with a colleague years ago is the stuff that leads to this kind of public humiliation and personal destruction, heaven help us. The PBS investigators refused to review any of my personal documentation, refused to provide me the names of any accusers, refused to speak to my current staff, and refused to provide me any semblance of due process to defend myself against allegations from unknown sources. Their mind was made up. Almost immediately following the meeting, this story broke in Variety as an “exclusive.” Indeed, I learned more about these allegations reading the Variety story than the PBS investigator shared with me, the accused, in our 3 hour face to face meeting.

Now, I don’t know the truth of Smiley’s or Lizza’s cases; I don’t have enough detail to form an opinion. And yet, that in itself seems disturbing. It seems safe to say that few of these men will ever work in journalism again; there is a blacklist, and unless they can conclusively clear themselves, most of their names are on it.

Some of these accusations are both clear enough and credible enough -- with multiple sources and good documentation -- that the economic death penalty is clearly justified. But what about cases like Thrush, where it’s not clear exactly what line is thought to have been crossed?

More disturbing still is what Lizza and Smiley both seem to be alleging: hasty investigations, reminiscent of the Star Chamber, in which the verdict appears to be predetermined and the accused is not offered adequate chance to defend himself.

Blacklisting people so cavalierly is hard to defend. But with “believe all women” the order of the day, that’s effectively the new regime we’re looking at. No outlet wants to be deemed insufficiently concerned with sexual abuse. And even if a company were willing to endure the public outrage, its lawyers seem likely to advise against it. After all, if you hire the guy who got accused of sexual harassment, and he does it again, the company is going to be on the hook for a whole lot of money.

Unfortunately, when we accept no limits on what constitutes a crime, and when we lower the standards of evidence for believing a crime has occurred, we aren’t necessarily furthering the cause of crime-reduction.

Of course, some people might say that that’s just too bad, but we’re going to have to expect some casualties in the war on the patriarchy. Women have left jobs for years because they couldn’t stand the harassment; have found their careers stalled because they wouldn’t play along; have spent far too many hours desperately trying to dodge creeping hands. Why should we weep because a few innocent men are now victims?

One answer is that “truth and justice matters.” That’s a good answer. But if it doesn’t satisfy you, here’s another: Moral panics aren’t good for anyone, including the victims they’re trying to protect.

In the early days of the University of Virginia rape scandal, when questions were first raised about Rolling Stone’s story, battle lines developed between those who wondered about the rather cinematic details, and those who asserted ”#IBelieveWomen.” In truth, even many of the people asking the questions confessed how uncomfortable it made them to do so (and you can add my confession to the list). How can we risk adding insult to the already-grievous injuries of a woman who has been raped, by also demanding that she prove she’s not a liar? And yet, if we don’t, we risk convicting people who are innocent, and damaging our own cause.

Ultimately the norm of reflexively believing every accusation, and meting out harsh treatment to every man who is accused, does grave harm to the cause of fighting rape and harassment. #BelieveAllWomen elides the messy reality that women, like the rest of humanity, aren’t always telling the truth-and that even when they are, their interpretations of events is not always the most reasonable one. If we reify too many weak or false claims, the norm will quickly slide toward “believe no women.”

In a column next week I’ll talk more about that damage, and how we might look for a better way.

MCARDLE, Megan Bloomberg News

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.