As difficult as it might be, for a few minutes, let’s disregard the critical question of whether Bill Cosby is guilty of rape or not.
Instead, let’s focus on the public reaction to the blooming scandal, as expressed both through traditional media and social media. What’s particularly fascinating about the current outrage is that Cosby’s name was linked to date-rape allegations nearly a decade ago—and back then, barely anyone batted an eyelash. One accuser went on the Today Show in 2005 to tell her story of allegedly being drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby in the 1970s. People Magazine dug into similar accusations in 2006, soon after Cosby had reached a financial settlement with a Philadelphia-area woman who’d claimed that she’d been drugged and sexually assaulted by the TV icon. Thirteen other women had come forward with similar stories about Cosby, and were willing to testify if that civil case had reached a courtroom.
Months later, he was the celebrity commencement speaker at Carnegie Mellon University; in 2009, he was honored with the the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Though the narrative hasn’t really changed, the wind has blown in a very different direction for Cosby in 2014. In February, in the midst of renewed child molestation charges against Woody Allen that ignited a media firestorm, Gawker published a story that revisited the tawdry chapter still littered with red flags. The title: “Who Wants to Remember Bill Cosby’s Multiple Sex-Assault Accusations?”
Still, most people shrugged; it was Allen’s rekindled scandal that was then burning white-hot, pitting the acclaimed filmmaker once again against his ex, Mia Farrow, and her adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, who accused her estranged father-figure of abuse. Celebrities took sides, and passions ran high. Allen tried to diffuse the situation with an open letter in the New York Times, and nine months later, nothing has been resolved. Still, the outrage seemed as though it had run its course—for now.
Cosby’s public trial has been a much slower burn, but it finally began to smoke in September. First, author Mark Whitaker published Cosby: His Life and Times, a 500-page authorized biography that conveniently omitted all mention of the rape allegations, including the out of court settlement. “I was aware of the allegations, but ultimately decided not to include them in my book,” Whitaker wrote in an email statement to Buzzfeed. “There were no independent witnesses and no definitive court findings, which did not meet my journalistic or legal standard for including in the biography.”
One month later, comedian Hannibal Buress poured gasoline on the fire. Philadelphia Magazine posted a tape of him calling Cosby a rapist who had no ground to stand on when it came to criticizing young African-Americans: “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…”
The video went viral, shocking people who had somehow avoided the unsettling news reports over the years—consciously or subconsciously—because they so conflicted with Cosby’s image as a beloved funnyman and national father figure.
Team Cosby’s subsequent effort to launch their own viral PR campaign—in which they invited people to meme-ify him on Twitter—massively backfired. Users used the provided meme generator to call Cosby a rapist, and online criticism of Cosby mushroomed.
Over the weekend, Cosby and his wife were interviewed on National Public Radio. They were there to talk about African art—but Scott Simon cautiously addressed the elephant in the room, asking if Cosby had any response to the renewed charges. Cosby remained silent and refused to answer Simon’s questions. The next day, Cosby’s lawyer released a statement saying, “Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment.” [Update: The original statement was removed from Cosby’s website and replaced by this.]
Cosby is clearly not winning the battle for public opinion. Years of chastising the African-American community for shirking their social responsibilities has cost him support from what was once his “base”—though that might also be the same reason that conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have rushed to his defense.
Not to be cavalier about these serious accusations—which have scarred and damaged real people—but: Why do we care so much now? What’s changed in nine years, from when Matt Lauer and People Magazine, among others, reported these ugly charges? It’s a fair question that one of Cosby’s early accusers, Barbara Bowman, addressed in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post:
“While I am grateful for the new attention to Cosby’s crimes, I must ask my own questions: Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it? Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged by victim blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?”
The answer more than likely lies in technology, which only magnifies our natural human impulse to rant and criticize others. True, the 2005 accusations against Cosby didn’t take place in ancient times—but the media landscape has shifted and accelerated exponentially even since then. The Internet and social media are now a grassroots platform for outrage and the court of public opinion; issues that emerge there very quickly gets picked up by more traditional media, like the evening news.
The pitchforks are out, and current public opinion seems to have found Cosby guilty. Even if that communal rage turns out to be justified in this case, it’s still a potentially queasy development for justice and our legal system; we’d need another 1,000 words to examine the long-range ramifications of online kangaroo courts.
But will the outrage last, or is it all just smoke? Last night on the NBC Nightly News, Penn professor Jonah Berger, who studies the science of social media, said, “I think [the Cosby story] caught on very quickly, but it’s also going to die out very quickly when the next piece of juicy news comes along.”
That’s awfully cynical, but perhaps not entirely off-base. Intensity of outrage doesn’t always translate to permanence. And it seems that Cosby and his advisors have a similar view. His decision to remain silent on NPR—which Simon perceived as a deliberate strategic maneuver—might actually be shrewd in the long run: just let the fire burn itself out.
After all, Woody Allen just wrapped his next movie.