The Cosby affair and the limits of mainstream journalism

In the awful narrative around the allegations of sexual assault and rape made against iconic American entertainer, Bill Cosby, a major theme has been the perceived failure of the media to challenge him on his alleged crimes over the 40 years or so the offences were claimed to have taken place.

In a revealingly honest article in the New York Times, journalist David Carr writes of his own interview with Cosby in 2011. Admitting that he knew about the allegations of drugging women and sexual assaults, Carr states that he, ‘looked away’ when he accepted the job, knowing that he should have refused the task: “my job as a journalist was to turn down that assignment…” In doing the interview and not confronting Cosby, Carr felt that he, amongst others, was letting, “down the women who were brave enough to speak out publicly against a powerful entertainer”. 

Another journalist, Ta- Nahesi Coates writes in 2014 of the time he spent in 2006 -7 following Cosby around the US whilst the comedian addressed the state of morality in Black America. In the article resulting from the research, Coates states that though he made a, “brief and limp mention of the accusations against Cosby…..There was no opinion offered on the rape accusations.” This despite, as he admits, “I believed that Bill Cosby was a rapist.’ It something that today he regrets: I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough”.

That these two men admit contrition for omission is something to be applauded – but is it possible that we should have a certain amount of sympathy for their actions? As Coates says, “lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists”. Let us not underestimate the ‘power’ of Cosby, too. We should not forget that he is (was) probably without equal in terms of the status he occupies as ‘America’s dad’. As head of the Huxtable family in the phenomenally successful Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, Bill Cosby was instrumental in the portrayal of a successful black family whose comedic highs and lows were not reliant upon stereotype and prejudice. For Carr, the prestige of Cosby was such that he was, “never just an entertainer, but a signal tower of moral rectitude”.  If Carr had broached the subject of his alleged crimes there is no doubt that his time with Cosby would have ended and would have found himself at the mercy of his, “ferocious lawyers and stalwart enablers.”

The threat of legal action is very real for those in the mainstream media and remember this very crucial point: in the eyes of the law Cosby is innocent. He has not been charged, let alone convicted for sexual crimes or otherwise.  Remember too that journalists exist within society and not apart from it. We might expect a reporter charged with interviewing Cosby to bring up the allegations, but would we, in a similar situation, risk the threat of interview termination, legal action, career meltdown and the wrath of an editor without a story who has sent us to interview the world’s most famous entertainer? To be clear I request a little understanding of the constraints under which  journalists operate and not to excuse the behaviour of the media. In general I agree with the view of Bill Wyman who wrote in the Columbian Journalism Review that traditional media culture tends to venerate celebrity to the degree that,‘seems to somehow repel news that isn’t in keeping with the stars image. The narrative of the star is so powerful that digressions that clash with it are discarded.’

But the admissions of Carr and Coates should not lead to the belief that the media previously ignored the claims around Cosby, either. As Tom Stocca illustrates, in 2005 a woman who claimed she was drugged and raped by Cosby was interviewed on the NBC Today programme. The same year, FOX news reported Beth Ferrier coming forward to allege Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her, months after she ended a consensual affair with him. In 2006 People magazine ran the ‘Cosby under Fire’ story which was concerned with Andrea Constand who claimed he had drugged and sexually assaulted her in his Philadelphia-area mansion in 2004. Scocca says, as a result of this, “Four women said publicly, in major media outlets, that Bill Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted them”.

That the scandal has regained currency now is largely due to the comments of US stand up Hannibal Buress, who on stage in Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia last month said, ‘“Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the 80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.” The routine has been viewed over 91,000 times on YouTube.

It’s the case that events such as these emphasise the power of social media to, in the words of Anna Palmer and Darren Samuelsohn  spread old news to new audiences. They argue that part of the reason the past does well on social media is because users of Twitter, for example, tend to be younger and not familiar with the first cycle of a particular story. It is also an evidently useful forum for the outraged and previously unheard to voice their discontent. In this sense behaviour which was once considered socially unremarkable can be now “held to current moral standards.”

The key to understanding the resurgent publicity around Cosby’s alleged crimes is through acknowledging public attitudes toward celebrity and sexual crimes have changed. Rupert Cornwell wrote in the Independent that “a decade or two ago, a celebrity could still get away with such behaviour; women feared they wouldn’t be believed, and that to come forward would bring only humiliation. All that has changed…..sexual abuse towards women generate headlines every day. “

Consider the success of the Everyday Sexism Project . In May 2013 its founder Laura Bates launched a “Women, Action and the Media”, international campaign against Facebook content which she felt incited rape and domestic violence. Laura Bates wrote “the sheer numbers of people who joined our campaign in just one week, men and women, testifies to the strength of public feeling. More than 60,000 tweets and 5,000 e-mails were sent using the #FBrape hashtag, while advertisers were flooded with demands to suspend their accounts with Facebook”.  Within days Facebook issued a statement promising to act upon each of the stipulations Everyday Sexism called for.

It is highly unlikely that Cosby will face criminal charges now. As Connor Adams Sheets argues, the time period that accusers have to file charges differs from state to state but most of Cosby’s accusers are unable to bring criminal or civil suits against him because the alleged offences happened too long ago. What is becoming increasingly apparent though is that this fresh controversy has killed Cosby’s career and demolished his reputation. Sensitive to the furore and conscious of public mood, NBC has cancelled the development of his new project. Netflix has postponed a broadcast of his live show  and Viacom’s  cable and satellite station, TV land, has stopped repeating the Cosby show in the week it was due to have been part of a Thanksgiving sitcom marathon.

The final point to make is: in ‘taking down’ Cosby, what the mainstream media couldn’t manage in decades took the internet just over a week. And that, surely, is of great importance and concern.

A shorter version of this post appears here at The Conversation