The nagging question in the Bill Cosby scandal is not why it took so long for the women accusing him of sexual assault to come forward. It’s why it took all the rest of us so long to pay attention.
The short answer is social media, and the longer answer is that we live in a world where full transparency is the rule, not the exception. The onstage joke by Hannibal Buress accusing Cosby of rape went viral, and then the joke took a pointed, personal edge when Cosby’s invitation to create an Internet meme with his name led to an outpouring of Twitter rape accusations.
In the space of two weeks, one of the most revered comedy icons in America has had his reputation shredded, his status reduced to rapist. All without the involvement of a single lawyer.
Trial by Twitter is becoming the rule, but the truth is, we should have paid attention long ago to what more than a dozen women were saying about Cosby: that he had drugged and raped them. We didn’t want to believe.
I have written elsewhere about the dark side of social media. The ability to instantly accuse someone with no knowledge, or share that accusation with an exponential number of people, is dangerous. The ability to mercilessly mock someone who makes a thoughtless remark, makes a stupid mistake in public, can lead to the spinning up of a digital mob that is not interested in nuance or explanations. They just want blood.
In this case, the outcry in the Twitterverse led the mainstream media to finally pick up the story, starting with an op-ed in The Washington Post by one accuser, Barbara Bowman, and then a series of interviews with other accusers.
To all this, Cosby remains stubbornly silent. That is not helping his cause. We don’t know who is right or who is wrong. But in the absence of a legal airing of the matter, his reputation is likely to be permanently tarnished. Clearly his ability to work as an entertainer is on hold for an indefinite time, with NBC cancelling his show in development, Netflix cancelling a stand-up special and even TV Land pulling his reruns.
Deserved? We know that sometimes celebrities get accused of wrongdoing by people seeking publicity. We have the recent case of Bryan Singer and three other prominent entertainment executives being dragged through the mud over alleged sexual misconduct, in lawsuits claiming horrific crimes of predatory sexual behavior that evaporated overnight.
We have all – most of us, anyway – loved Bill Cosby with a loyalty that may have made the mainstream media take the initial allegations not seriously enough 20 years ago. Compounding public sympathy for the comedian was the tragic killing of his only son Ennis in 1997, a random act of violence that ended the promising life of the 27-year-old graduate student.
Now that Cosby is an old man, at the moment where he thought he could wander about the media landscape to plug his new book, a show of his artwork, a final bow on network TV – it’s all ending for him.
I doubt that Arnold Schwarzenegger – accused of sexual misbehavior during his run for governor at the turn of the millennium – would today withstand the death by a thousand pricks that Twitter promises.
What is happening to Bill Cosby – a public trial by Twitter – is a cautionary tale to other famous figures who have skeletons in their closets.
Here’s that NPR interview: