Editor’s Note: This piece was published at Death and Taxes on June 9, 2017, part of a series on the first Cosby trial. It disappeared from the internet in a corporate reshuffling a few months later, along with the rest of that publication’s archives. Thanks to the Internet Archive, a copy still exists, so we can republish it here. The ease with which work like this could vanish in a puff of smoke is a huge part of the reason we urge readers and journalists to consider the benefits of supporting and participating on the Civil publishing platform.
[Today Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in prison after a retrial. I believe that justice was finally served on behalf of the Constand family and so many others. I won’t say that the news feels good, but it feels right.]
In 2005, 13 Jane Does came forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault in connection with the Andrea Constand case. Philadelphia journalist and author Bob Huber, who’d long covered Cosby, thought it inevitable that the star would face criminal charges, back then. We learned in court this week from Cheltenham police Sgt. Richard Schaffer that District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. abruptly declared the matter closed in the middle of his investigation in 2005, and the case was settled in November 2006, to the surprise of media watchers like Huber.
But what about after that, I asked him. When you continued to report on Cosby, after the case had been so much in the news… was it an open secret? Did people continue to talk about it?
“No,” Huber said. “When I would tell people what I knew, colleagues, even — ‘Look, Cosby is a sexual predator!’ — they would look at me like I had two heads.” The explosive story, covered in depth in multiple newspapers, in People magazine and on “The Today Show,” had somehow faded away.
Between late 2006 and 2014, not one single article focusing on the subject of Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct appeared. Zero.
And then? The conventional wisdom is that a YouTube clip from comedian Hannibal Buress, containing an incendiary standup bit flatly accusing Cosby of being a rapist, went viral in October and November of 2014.
Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. 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 raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.
I don’t curse on stage. Well, yeah, you’re a rapist, so, I’ll take you sayin’ lots of “motherfuckers” on “Bill Cosby: Himself,” if you weren’t a rapist.
… I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch “Cosby Show” reruns… People think I’m making it up… That shit is upsetting. If you didn’t know about it, trust me. You leave here and google “Bill Cosby rape.” It’s not funny. That shit has more results than “Hannibal Buress.”
The Buress clip is widely thought to have led to the reopening of the criminal investigation, and eventually to the trial we’re witnessing now. (Buress declined to comment for this story.) A particularly well-reasoned and thought-provoking examination of Buress’s role came from Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker.
Buress saw the lurid stories around Cosby not as evidence of a prominent black man being brought low but as the exposing of a serial rapist who had masterfully manipulated both the white desire for an icon of post-racialism and the black desire for the type of dignified success that Cosby represented. And in publicly voicing this sentiment, Buress effectively made it safe for others, particularly white people, to do the same.
There’s just one problem with this narrative, which is that it was a white person in the first place — though admittedly, one relatively unconcerned with the “safety” of which Cobb wrote — who’d broken the long silence around Cosby’s alleged crimes, eight months previously, on Gawker. (Cobb did not respond to requests for an interview on the subject).
In a widely-circulated February 4, 2014 post, “Who Wants to Remember Bill Cosby’s Multiple Sex-Assault Allegations?” Scocca drew a parallel between Cosby and Woody Allen, whose stepdaughter had recently and publicly accused him of having molested her: Americans would take any excuse to avoid believing terrible things about their heroes. “Nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator,” Scocca wrote.
But what if that world is the real world?
In the months following, evidence has mounted that that world is, alas, the real world. There are now sixty women who’ve come forward with accusations of sexual assault against Cosby. For most of them, the applicable statutes of limitations have long since passed — meaning that these women have nothing to gain, and much to lose, by going public. But despite all that has come out against him, there were those who are not slow to insult and degrade Cosby’s accusers.
IT’S SHAMEFUL WHAT THEY KEEP DOING TO BILL COSBY. PROSECUTERS SHOULD DISMISS ALL CHARGES! ALL THOSE WHORES, SLUTS ARE LYING!
— Margarita Rodriguez (@gitantaespanola) November 3, 2016
Have any of these Cosby accusers looked in the mirror lately????
Bunch of bull…so sick of lying witches crying rape and sexual harassment.
— Tammy Soloway (@TammySoloway) June 7, 2017
Cosby Accuser is a lying piece of shit! She’s caught in several lies first day in court, second day she fails AGAIN https://t.co/lbZrh9TvoQ
— NG504 (@NiceGuy504) June 8, 2017
Gawker, and Scocca himself, along with Katie Baker of Newsweek, who did thorough follow-up reporting to the Scocca piece, faced similar abuse at the time of publication. The Wrap and many others spoke disparagingly about the “dredging up” of old allegations, and angry Cosby fans went after the journalists on Twitter with the usual rants about Gawker’s depravity. But given their taste for exposing the secrets of the powerful, Gawker writers and editors more or less relished being harangued by their critics. The brickbats were proof that they were doing their job.
In reality it was Scocca, and Gawker, who made the story safe for Buress to talk about. Not to knock Buress in any way: It was his huge, diverse audience and the incisiveness and wit of his Cosby bit that really blew the story open, as if Scocca had pitched the ball and Buress had hit a home run. (We know that Buress read Scocca’s piece because he tweeted about it within a couple of days of publication, in a since-deleted tweet.) The victims in the Cosby trial, in short, owe everything to one journalist’s memory at the late, lamented Gawker, the unpopular truth-telling publication ignominiously killed off by billionaire sneak Ayn Rand fan and loser Peter Thiel, who is now to be found staffing sensitive jobs in the White House with his fellow loser Silicon Valley libertarian loser freak friends.
I’m not writing this because I think Scocca should be given the credit for setting the events in motion that brought Cosby into this courtroom, though I believe he should. I’m writing this because I strongly believe that if we want media that can take on powerful interests effectively, the path by which this particular story was buried, and then came back to light, is important. By settling with Constand and paying for a ton of favorable media, by paying tons of PR people and lawyers and god knows who else, Cosby had succeeded in creating public amnesia to the degree that he continued to collect awards and honors; he won the Mark Twain Prize in 2009 and the Marian Anderson Award in 2010 (honoring “critically acclaimed artists who have impacted society in a positive way”); he was in talks for a new sitcom on NBC, since dropped.
Because of Scocca’s piece, every writer who came after him to discuss Cosby was shielded from the criticism that comes with insulting a popular public figure. The information was already out there to be commented on. When I suggested that it had been he who “made it safe,” Scocca said, “There are just sort of ever-expanding circles of safety, right? It was safe to write the thing on Gawker because Philadelphia Magazine had done a good piece before, and Barbara Bowman had come forward before.
“Safety comes from the accumulated willingness of people to say things,” he continued. “Everything that happened, happened because somebody had taken a step forward, right? So Katie Baker went to [Cosby’s accusers] and got their stories after the Gawker piece, and that created a body of material that was there for Hannibal Buress. And once Hannibal Buress had referenced it, then people felt that they could talk more about the story. It’s any number of things that come together.”
This is correct and it is how media should work. Still, it is not too much to say that no Scocca — no Gawker — no Cosby trial.
“Gawker was a place where it was safe to say something true about bad things that had been reported about famous and powerful people,” Scocca said.
Where might Scocca, or anyone, be able to publish a piece like his Cosby piece today?
Thanks to my editor Brian Abrams, author of Obama: an Oral History, and to Tom Scocca, editor of Hmm Daily.
Maria Bustillos, sexual abuse, criminal justice, entertainment, Hollywood