The Internet is a wonderful thing. If not for the Internet, I would not have the privilege of writing articles and blog posts for The American Spectator over the past five years. But like any wonderful thing, the Internet can be used to commit harm. Who could forget the horrifying images this past summer of the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS? Sadly, we can now add American aid worker Peter Kassig to that list. The web is also cluttered with thousands of jihadist videos exhorting their followers to kill Americans in the name of Islamic radicalism. Closer to home there is also the terror of online bullying of children. While not as insidious as the sight of grizzly decapitations this too has resulted in tragedy as a number of these children have ended up committing suicide.
Then there are attacks on public figures such as the one we are now seeing against comedy legend Bill Cosby. In the space of only a month, Cosby has gone from renowned public figure to Public Enemy Number One and none of it would have been possible without the Internet. What we are now seeing right before our eyes is the online lynching of Bill Cosby.
It all began when an obscure comedian named Hannibal Buress called Cosby a rapist during a performance in Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia last month:
It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the f*#kin’ smuggest old man black persona that I hate. 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 of notches.
Buress didn’t stop there:
I guess I want to just a least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns. I’ve done this bit on stage and people think I’m making it up. When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape’. That s*#t has more results than Hannibal Buress.
A generation ago, Buress’s comments would have come and gone once the show was over and the audience walked out the door. But in this day and age, we have smart phones which can record these moments can upload them in an instant on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and scores of other sites. Sometimes these moments go viral and take on a life of their own.
Unfortunately for Cosby, he unwittingly fed into that frenzy when he took to Twitter last week and asked his fans to meme him. Instead, what he got was a bunch of trolls making reference to Buress’s accusations. Among the tamer memes was “Hello my name is Bill Cosby. I am the star of the classic ’90s comedy ‘Ghost Dad’. Also I am a serial rapist.”
Things would get worse when the Washington Post published an online article by a woman named Barbara Bowman who claims Cosby drugged and raped her on more than one occasion when she was an aspiring actress nearly 30 years ago. Bowman states that she was supposed to testify at the civil trial between Cosby and Andrea Constand, a woman who accused Cosby of sexually assaulting her a decade ago. However, the suit was settled out of court late in 2006. At the time the suit was settled, People magazineran an article which mentioned Bowman’s claims. The WaPo’s title for the article left little room for ambiguity or subtlety: Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?
I will get back to the substance of Bowman’s article later. But it would seem the Washington Post wasn’t overly concerned that Cosby might file a defamation suit against it. If The WaPo is planning on making this a regular feature, I wonder if it will extend invitations to Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey to write articles about their allegations of sexual assault against former President Bill Clinton? I’m not holding my breath on that one.
For his part, Cosby has been on the defensive. He has cancelled scheduled TV appearances with both Queen Latifah and David Letterman. Cosby did sit down to a joint interview with wife Camille on NPR to discuss their lending some of their African art for an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. At the end of the interview, Sam Simon broached the question with Cosby and he twice nodded his head in the negative to indicate he would not discuss the matter.
If I were in Cosby’s shoes, I would be inclined to sue Buress, Bowman, and the Washington Post for defamation. Of course, even if Cosby does that or otherwise publicly addresses the matter, there’s no guarantee it will do him any favors. At this point, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Renee Graham writes that Cosby has likely come to the realization “his reputation is a lost cause.”
But why is this so? What has actually changed in the past month? The only thing that has changed between then and now is Buress, which Bowman herself acknowledges in the WaPo article. Indeed, Bowman complains that it took “a man” for people to start taking her seriously. So back to Buress.
By Buress’s own admission, he hates Cosby because he said, “Pull your pants up, black people.” What Buress is referring to is a speech Cosby gave to the NAACP in May 2004 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated schools. It was in this speech that Cosby declared the black community could not continue to blame whites for their social problems. Among other things, Cosby criticized black women for having children with multiple partners, black parents spending money on sneakers instead of Hooked on Phonics, and black youth going to jail for killing people over “pound cake.” Here’s where the pants come in:
Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up (laughter and clapping). Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack… and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body. What part of Africa did this come from? (laughter). We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans, they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail. (When we give these kinds names to our children, we give them the strength and inspiration in the meaning of those names. What’s the point of giving them strong names if there is not parenting and values backing it up.)
So because Bill Cosby strays from liberal orthodoxy and criticizes his own community for its shortcomings, Buress sees fit to call him a rapist. Does Buress know any of this information first hand? No, he says Google “Bill Cosby rape.” O.K., so Buress knows how to use a search engine. But if Buress were to Google “Holocaust hoax,” would he then tell us that 6 million Jews didn’t die? Or if he were to Google “9/11 inside job,” would he tell us that al Qaeda wasn’t responsible for destroying the World Trade Center?
Sadly, Buress is part of a generation that believes if it’s on the Internet then it must be true. Indeed, Buress notes with some bitterness that “Bill Cosby rape” gets more hits than “Hannibal Buress.” Like many in his generation, Buress wants the world’s undivided attention. Unfortunately, Buress isn’t very funny. So if you can’t get laughter then go for slander instead.
But what about Bowman’s claims? In the WaPo article, Bowman describes an attack that took place at Cosby’s brownstone in New York and another attack that took place in Cosby’s hotel room in Atlantic City. Bowman said she notified her agent who did nothing, a girlfriend who took her to an attorney who did not believe her story, and would later tell other friends. But at no time did Bowman report the attacks to authorities either in New York, Atlantic City, or anywhere else. Bowman writes, “Their dismissive responses crushed any hope I had of getting help; I was convinced no one would listen to me. That feeling of futility is what ultimately kept me from going to the police.”
In 1985, the year these attacks allegedly took place, there were 5,706 reported cases of violent rape in New York City, which represented an all-time high between the years 1960 and 2013. It is true there are women who are reluctant to report a rape to authorities. Indeed, many women never tell anyone. Yet it seems that Bowman talked with everyone but the police. Did Bowman honestly think the police wouldn’t believe her or did Bowman not report the incidents because they never happened in the first place? The authorities don’t take kindly to people filing false police reports. It is grounds for arrest and criminal charges. But if Bowman genuinely didn’t feel comfortable talking to the police, then why not seek help from a rape crisis center? Surely this was an option available to her in 1985.
Keep in mind that Bowman doesn’t merely accuse Cosby of rape, but she also claims that there were “talent agents, hotel staff, personal assistants and others who knowingly made arrangements for Cosby’s criminal acts or overlooked them.” If this is the case then perhaps one or more of these individuals can come forward and corroborate Bowman’s story. Then that could change things significantly. But if not then it is simply Bowman’s word against Cosby’s.
Is it possible that Bowman is telling the truth? Yes, of course it is. However, at this point, I’m giving Bill Cosby the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to need a lot more than an angry rant from a mediocre comedian, some snarky Twitter memes and a one-sided, unsubstantiated Washington Post op-ed to convince me that Bill Cosby is guilty of rape. The preceding might be sufficient for some to take license and organize an online lynch mob to put a man’s reputation in ruin and have a few laughs while doing so. As far as I’m concerned, it is no laughing matter.