NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania—The first time around, I called this place “the gauntlet.” Reporters, photographers, and TV cameras stands littered the courthouse steps here last year for Bill Cosby’s criminal trial. Exiting the courthouse was, if you did it at the wrong time, daunting. The cameras and reporters crowded in front of the doors—to me, it seemed the man from Inside Edition was always in front—their microphones out, questions ready. Even if you weren’t their target, it left a haunting impression; so many cameras shoved in one face.
This time, the gauntlet is gone. There are still reporters at the Cosby retrial, still TV cameras on the front courthouse steps, but there’s far fewer. On a typical day, when I’m walking into the courthouse, I count about 10 TV stands around the front steps, many of them for local Philadelphia area stations.
Last year, reporters were packed onto courthouse benches, sitting arm to arm with hardly a free seat to be found. This year, there’s plenty of space.
On Tuesday, with Andrea Constand and her mother, Gianna, both finished with their testimony, the drop off was even more significant. Of the nine benches in the main courtroom set aside for media, one or two rows were completely empty at various points in the day. One row consistently had only one person. Just three rows are consistently full: Two set aside for local media, and the one (of six) set aside for outside media with the best view of the witness stand.
Cameras aren’t allowed in the courtroom—none are in any Pennsylvania courts. So the best illustration of this has to come from the outside. Cosby spokesman Andrew Wyatt is still giving press conferences outside the courthouse. Here’s the group for one held yesterday.
Here’s Wyatt giving a press conference while reporters were waiting for a verdict last year.
It’s tough to tell who isn’t here anymore; it’s not like we all wore T-shirts with our names and news organizations on them at the first trial. I reached out to the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, which coordinated press credentials for print and digital media, asking how many credentials were issued this year. Lisa Strohl, who coordinated our requests, said that there were 110 seats available for all media with 60 in the main courtroom and another 50 in an overflow room, which is just 10 less than the last trial. Those were evenly split to distribute, at 55 a piece, between the PNMA and the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters, which credentialed the broadcasters. Of the PNMA’s 55, Strohl said she handed out 50. So outlets were asking for credentials, but they weren’t necessarily sending lots of reporters.
This doesn’t mean the courthouse scene will stay like this forever. More reporters suddenly appearing wouldn’t be a big surprise right before the jury has a verdict. But it’s hard to ignore the sense that the shock of seeing “America’s Dad” on trial for sexual assault has worn off and, with that, much of the national press is gone. All following an intense six months, starting in October with the Harvey Weinstein allegations, when it suddenly seemed like women’s lives—and the many ways American women, men, and nonbinary people are abused, harassed, and violated—were finally being treated like significant stories, worthy of regular reporting, deep analysis, front pages, and boldface type. There are many reasons news directors can give for why they haven’t sent reporters: the Stormy Daniels story, the James Comey book, the other perpetual scandals seething from the Trump White House, a sense that the court of public opinion already has convicted Cosby, or the (wrong) belief that this trial is the same as the last one.
But it’s hard to ignore how writeup after writeup dubbed this one of the first big measures of the #MeToo movement. So far, it’s also one of the better reminders of why violence and discrimination against women remained, until recently, a topic at the margins of most American media. Divorced from celebrity and scandal, the mundane details of a sexual assault—whether a victim will be believed or not, whether a jury will convict or not—aren’t seen as big news. Now, the Cosby retrial is just another sexual assault trial. Who cares about that?