Reporter who first introduced Duggars to the nation ignored myriad red flags

Reporter who first introduced Duggars to the nation ignored myriad red flags

The bill finally came due for Josh Duggar on Wednesday. More than six months after being convicted of receiving and possessing child sex abuse material, the oldest scion of America’s most infamous babymakers (and unfit parents) was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison, followed by 20 years of supervised release. While on supervised release, Duggar will have to register as a sex offender and will not be allowed any unsupervised contact with minors—not even members of his own family. The sentence was not quite as long as I and others hoped, in part because the prosecution and defense agreed to vacate the less-severe possession charge. Nonetheless, it all but assures that Duggar won’t be alone around minors for at least the duration of his own kids’ childhoods. 

And yet, the people who are ultimately responsible for Duggar going down the path that resulted in him bearing the well-deserved opprobrium of a felony conviction have, so far, escaped earthly justice. Namely, his so-called parents, Jim Bob and Michelle. For the better part of two decades, they hoodwinked the nation—especially their fellow fundamentalist Christians—into believing that they were heads of a somewhat quirky, if extremely conservative, Christian family. We now know beyond reasonable doubt, and all doubt, that Jim Bob and Michelle covered up their failure to adequately address Josh’s fondling of his sisters and other female acquaintances when he was a teenager.

In 2002 and 2003, we also know that the media had several opportunities to expose the Duggars as the unfit parents who we now know they are—and blew every chance eight ways to Sunday. This includes yet another such opportunity, revealed on Tuesday. The first media coverage of the Duggars came in 2003, via an article in Parents magazine. The author of that article, Andrea Cooper, is now wondering if she bears responsibility for their reality-television rise.

She does indeed bear responsibility—for missing a lot of concerns that could have likely ended the Duggars’ ascent to household names before it ever started.

In an opinion piece for HuffPost, Cooper recalled that in early 2003, she started working on an “as told to” story about Jim Bob, Michelle, and their then-14 children. That story, “Count Our Blessings,” ran in the September 2003 edition of Parents. It featured “homespun observations” about how the Duggars handled mundane tasks like shopping and washing clothes. According to a 2020 blog post from Michelle, this story was originally slated to run in Ladies’ Home Journal, but ended up running in Parents after LHJ passed on it.

When the story ran, it featured a photo of 13 of the 14 Duggar kids lined up according to height behind Jim Bob and Michelle.

But why only 13? Cooper began reporting this story not long after Josh was sent away to a Christian “rehab” program—after Jim Bob and Michelle discovered that he’d molested his sisters and other girls. Cooper later said that she didn’t know this at the time.

Until the news of Josh’s depravities broke in 2015, Cooper writes, she saw her role in the Duggars’ story as just a footnote—or, as she put it, “a funny story followed by an eye roll.” She has since felt “deep sadness” about Josh’s misdeeds, even more so because she endured a childhood full of emotional abuse.

When the story ran in Parents, Cooper had some concerns about at least one of the Duggars’ quirks.

In the family’s paired “buddy” system, the older siblings made sure their younger buddies were changed, washed, and dressed. Older siblings helped their buddies with meals and schoolwork, and tucked them in at naptime. It sounded to me like the older children were co-parenting the younger ones, with responsibilities I wouldn’t have asked of teens.

But there were other, more fundamental problems that should have been plainly obvious to Cooper at the time. First and foremost, per a 2015 report in Inquisitr, around the time Cooper was reporting this story, the Duggars lived in a three-bed, two-bath house in Springdale, Arkansas, not their now-famous mansion in nearby Tonitown. That house was designed for six people at most. How did Cooper not flag that 16 people were crammed into a house designed for only a third that many?

Had Cooper done even a little digging, she would have seen that living situation was grossly illegal. The Duggars were knowingly flouting occupancy limits written into the building permit for the house. And as real estate professionals, Jim Bob and Michelle were required to know about these limits, but they simply ignored them.

Cooper should have also seen that Jim Bob was somehow able to find $250,000 to finance his unsuccessful Senate bid—and a quarter-million was more than enough to get an appropriately sized house in Arkansas at the time. If she’d done her homework, she would have wondered how any father with any kind of love for his wife and children would have placed a run for office ahead of getting a better living situation for his family. Additionally, between the money for the Senate bid and his real estate investments with Michelle, Jim Bob had more than enough means to get a bigger house. His failure to do so meets the legal definition of child neglect in Arkansas.

To be sure, there was a lot that Cooper might not have been able to find out about Josh’s misdeeds, since he was still a minor at the time. But there was enough she would have seen to lead her to realize that she shouldn’t have been doing a story about the Duggars. She should have been calling the police and child protective services. If Cooper didn’t see it, someone at LHJ or Parents damn well should have.

These failures, as it turns out, are part of a long list of media missteps that helped the Duggars launch a platform they didn’t deserve. More importantly, it’s likely that had anyone paid attention to the warning signs that were present—even without knowledge of Josh’s depravities—the Duggar kids would have likely been rescued, and Jim Bob and Michelle would have been up on a laundry list of criminal charges.

Another example? The local media in Arkansas doesn’t seem to have adequately vetted Jim Bob during his Senate bid. And of course, when Discovery Health ran several documentaries that proved to be precursors to the family’s multiple series on TLC, those red flags and flashing red lights were on full display, such as how boys and girls not only had to share the same bedroom, but often the same bed.

As we now know, the snowball that ultimately obliterated the Duggar charade only started rolling down the hill in 2006. The Duggars were due to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show when producers at Harpo Productions got a tip about Josh’s teenage depravities. The producers did what Cooper and her editors, as well as the producers at Discovery, should have done—they sent the Duggars packing and referred the tipster to the police. Unfortunately, because so many people failed to accept that they were looking at a crime in progress rather than a salacious story, it’s unlikely that Jim Bob and Michelle will ever answer in court for their misdeeds.

And even while Cooper concedes that she feels “a little responsible” for first introducing the Duggars to the world, she believes that “if I hadn’t written about them, another writer eventually would have.” She misses the point so badly here. It cannot be repeated enough—had Cooper realized that she should be calling the police and child protective services on Jim Bob and Michelle, rather than writing a story about them, this two-decade charade might have never happened.

There’s a good chance that Josh would have gotten some real help—and avoided the path that now has him in prison, and left his siblings the survivors of his abuse. 

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