Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people facing bribery charges. It has been corrected.
Americans are outraged after the Justice Department charged 50 people – including wealthy CEOs and actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman – in what is being called the nation's largest college admissions cheating scandal. But does the idea that money equals merit for some college applicants surprise anyone?
Some radio stations stopped playing Michael Jackson music after HBO's documentary "Leaving Neverland" featured two men who accuse Jackson of abusing them as boys. But accusations against Jackson go back to the early '90s. Similarly, R. Kelly faced boycott protests after Lifetime's "Surviving R. Kelly" aired, featuring women who accuse him of abuse, even though allegations of such behavior plagued the singer throughout his career.
In August, many people found it shocking that a grand jury said Catholic Church leaders protected more than 300 "predator priests" in six dioceses across Pennsylvania. But the Catholic sexual abuse scandal first broke wide in Boston in 2002.
In some ways, the only thing shocking about these events is that they're shocking at all.
It raises the question: How does a bad thing go from being an open secret to being the center of national debate?
"Few people in or associated with higher education believe that it constitutes a fair system," says Amy Lippert, a professor of American history at the University of Chicago. "The legacy system ... provides built-in advantages for the children and grandchildren of elite university alumni, and wealthy families employ their wealth to secure a variety of advantages for their children, from private tutors and coaches to expensive test-prep classes and summer programs or unpaid internship opportunities.
"This latest scandal, with its attendant arrests and ample documentation, simply channels that latent anger, sparking the powder keg of simmering resentment among everyone who feels the injustice of it."
Deny, deny, deny ...
But when does it go from being latent to blatant? How long do we have to hear about something wrong before we acknowledge it? Believe it? Care about it?
"A long time," says psychologist Kate Roberts.
Denial, she says, is a strong force in our everyday lives. It's part of the way we cope with negativity around us. Roberts likens it to therapy: Just as therapists repeat key points to clients before they accept them, the public needs to hear the same accusations over and over.
"It has to be repeated again and again when it's something we don't want to see about our ourselves or someone else important to us," she says. "We don't want to hear the message until it's absolutely essential for us to hear it."
Catholics don't want to think their church protected pedophiles. Michael Jackson fans don't want to associate music that brought joy at weddings and school dances with accusations of child molestation (Jackson was never convicted, and his estate denies all allegations). White people don't want to believe that police protect them but abuse black people. Cinephiles don't want to admit that the men behind their favorite movies sexually exploited women in the process.
"I think that we have faith that there's some integrity in the world," Roberts says. "We have some faith that there's some truth and compassion in the church. We don't want to see the side that is exposed in these kinds of scandals. So the initial reaction is: 'No, it's not true, it can't be like that. If it's like that, what does that mean? How does that affect me?' ... These questions that people don't want to ask themselves come to the surface when something bad happens that is out of their control."
It's normal to want to distance ourselves from atrocities we read in the news each day. We try to tell ourselves it could never happen to our children, to someone we love, to ourselves. It's why rape victims are often so readily blamed for their behavior after an assault. We want to believe we can control whether that can happen to us.
In American culture, particularly, there's a baked-in skepticism because we "don't like the thought of being taken or of being naive," Lippert says. "People have a tendency to sit back and wait and see whether accusations are going to be supported by other evidence."
Experts say there are several factors at play when skepticism gives way to acceptance and eventually outrage:
Cause célèbre, because celebs
The Justice Department indicted 50 people in the college admissions scandal. But most people are fixated on two names: Loughlin and Huffman. It's entirely possible that the scandal would not be trending on Google and splashed across TV news without them.
"Fame can cut both ways: It can enable celebrities to bring attention to worthwhile causes or to abuses of more vulnerable populations, as in the Time’s Up Movement – but it can also make them the most readily identifiable lightning rods for larger scandals, as in the pay-to-play admissions indictments," says Lippert, who also teaches in the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Sexual exploitation in Hollywood and casting couch rumors are as old as cinema itself, but it took actresses willing to be named, such as Ashley Judd, coming out against mogul Harvey Weinstein to spark widespread outrage. Sexual harassment and assault are even older, but many victims had never shared their stories publicly before #MeToo. Begun more than a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke, #MeToo was meant to help young women, especially women of color, who have been sexually abused, assaulted, exploited or harassed. It was 2017 and a tweet by Alyssa Milano that sent it trending.
Daniel Golden, author of the 2006 book "The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates," exposed how wealthy parents use charitable contributions to secure their child a spot. He reported that real estate developer Charles Kushner pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998. Shortly after, his son Jared Kushner was admitted to the school.
But the specificity around Tuesday's federal indictment turns something obscure into something distinct. It has names, numbers and explicit explanation of flat-out bribery. Such details can change people's minds, experts say.
"Most people are very concrete. Especially in our day in age, information is coming in snippets very, very quickly. The more concrete evidence you can offer, the more real it's going to become," Roberts says.
See it to believe it
Imagery has a major impact on our belief, says Lippert, author of "Consuming Identities: Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco."
"Video recordings and photographs of assaults and injustices have a unique power to galvanize the public, and in turn, lawmakers, because of a long history of public fascination with and faith in visual media as a reliable documentation of actual events," Lippert says.
It's why cellphone and dashcam video has helped propel the Black Lives Matter movement, after decades of African-Americans trying to call attention to police brutality. It's why seeing R. Kelly's accusers, tears streaming down their faces, is harder to ignore than a printed news report. Seeing Jackson's accusers display the jewelry he gifted them seems to bolster their accusations. Bill Cosby rumors were often dismissed as just that. Then 35 women appeared on a New York Magazine cover – a single, powerful image that felt impossible to ignore.
"Some of this has to do with changing values and the technology that can sometimes assist that social transformation," Lippert says. "Twitter, phone cameras and other forms of social media or outreach to journalists ... can empower victims of sexual harassment or police brutality to record their experiences or reach out to share their stories. Through the power of the internet ... one woman’s story of sexual assault at the hands of Harvey Weinstein becomes multiplied to the point that the scale of his abuse becomes almost impossible for journalists – or anyone else – to ignore."
With the college admissions scandal, Loughlin's daughter, social media influencer Olivia Jade, put an image in people's minds.
"People think, yes, this has happened before, but images come into play," Lippert says. "Lori Loughlin's daughter is a social media star, and they showed a clip ... where she says she's much more interested in going to parties than going to school. The imagery of that further enrages families who worked hard to get into those schools and get an education. It adds fuel to the fire."
How something applies to our everyday lives is also part of what fuels outrage. Many American families have kids who are approaching college age, and they can see clearly that the system favors the wealthy.
"When the crime is close to home, the tipping point of belief has been hit," says psychologist Kim Metcalfe. "It occurs when less wealthy parents see that the cheating and lying of others harms students who may have lost out on acceptance letters. This is especially true when it is their children who miss out on opportunities."
Getting out of the outrage cycle
To avoid falling into the trap of reflexive deniability, Roberts says, more people must think independently.
"It's healthy to question information but not to ignore data," she says. "Take the pedophiles in the church. There's a lot of data there, so to be skeptical in the face of that data is not healthy. But to automatically assume something because the people in your town believe it is not healthy either.
"There needs to be a process of evaluation, to ask: 'Does this add up? Does this make sense?' Through that process people can come to a decision that they feel they can own."
But the ability to take time, to evaluate and to apply logic can be difficult in the age of social media.
“Social media is essentially dialing up the volume on moral outrage by ... making it less costly to express," says Molly Crocket, a professor of psychology at Yale who studies social decision-making told USA TODAY in May.
Our recent expressions of outrage around topics long discussed may be a reflection of changes in the things we care about. It may also be a reaction, Roberts says, to today's political moment.
"Right now there's a very tense climate in the country – people are more likely to be outraged," she said. "Whether it's R. Kelly or the priests in the Midwest or the college scandal, any of those things are going to be magnified because people are already on edge."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Surprising no one: What Lori Loughlin and Michael Jackson uproar teaches us about denial