Cosby Case Shows Media's Muckraking Mania

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One
headline declares, “Bill
Cosby free of sexual assault charge.”

Another
states, “Cosby
says sorry to wife.”

The
headlines are technically true but they leave a curiously inaccurate
impression.

Cosby
is free of sexual assault charges because none were ever filed.
His apology was for any pain caused by the allegations and by his
innocent but “misinterpreted” actions.

Gossip
is gradually replacing news; sometimes, it is blatantly used for
political ends.

The
time-honored tradition of muckraking is properly a part of journalism.
The idea that the media should “comfort the afflicted and afflict
the comfortable” is a solid tenet of social and political justice.

Without
facts, however, there is no story. And justice is not served by
sensationalism, especially when the publicity is used for monetary
or political advantage.

The
non-sensationalized truth of the Cosby “case”: a former associate
of Cosby named Andrea Constand leveled a highly-publicized charge
of sexual assault that allegedly occurred in January 2004. The police
have now closed their investigation
due to “insufficient credible and admissible evidence.”

A
civil suit for monetary damages was filed Tuesday.

If
society’s love of a second act holds true, then the civil case will
be surrounded by a glut of innuendo and gossip-mongering. A stream
of political commentators and legal consultants will frame the gossip
in legalese and raise issues that lend social importance to their
fishwifery.

For
example, in discussing the non-existent criminal case against Cosby,
one TV commentator expressed indignation that the accuser had been
named by the press. She was apparently unaware that the name was
deliberately
released
to the Toronto Sun by the woman’s parents during an
interview.

Everyone
of prominence seems to be a target these days, and the only protection
they have is a media that will demand facts.

Cosby
is popularly identified as the Jell-O-pudding
Dad
, a product for which he has been a spokesman for 30-plus
years, and as the perfect husband and father Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable
in the hit comedy series “The
Cosby Show.”

His
reputation may survive.

His
survival depends on audiences who will not accept fact-free reporting
and who recognize gossip packaged in legalese. It also depends on
a streak of cynicism by which audiences ask, “is there a payoff
for those making or circulating the accusation?”

Fortunately,
this seems to be happening.

One
indication: The National Enquirer – a periodical whose
name is almost a synonym for muckraking – is the voice that
broke Cosby’s account of events. Instead of running with unsubstantiated
scandal, as the Enquirer is notorious for doing, the circulation-savvy
paper decided to support the accused through a sympathetic and exclusive
interview.

(For
his part, Cosby’s decision
was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that, in 1997, the Enquirer
offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest
and conviction of a man who murdered Cosby’s son, Ennis.)

In
the interview, Cosby appears
to be taking the high ground. When asked whether his accuser’s motive
was money, he responded, “Let’s not go there.” But, then, he added,
“I am not going to give in to people who try to exploit me because
of my celebrity status.”

Perhaps
the high ground, coupled with a hard stand, will ensure Cosby a
receptive audience. If so, the receptivity will reflect, in part,
a growing awareness.

Of
what? Of sexual accusations being politically used to discredit
people’s beliefs by spotlighting their bad acts. Often there is
no connection between one’s private behavior and political positions.

For
example, committing adultery does not invalidate someone’s monetary
or foreign policy beliefs. But that’s the package being sold.

The
accusations brought against Cosby are almost certainly not politically
inspired, but they are being used by those who oppose Cosby’s political
and social views to discredit Cosby’s criticism of the way some
black parents raise their children. In past months, he has argued
with vehemence and controversy that parents need to take responsibility
for the drug use, illiteracy and criminal activity of their children.
Segments of the black community have been outraged by his remarks.

In
the wake of the sex scandal, some of the attacks on Cosby’s politics
have been so blatant and offensive that they are easy to dismiss.
Consider the raw assault launched by BlackTown.net.
But even the mainstream media has been linking the sexual accusations
to Cosby’s political beliefs.

A
recent ABC
News article
is subtitled, “After Allegations of Groping and
Controversial Speeches, Cosby’s Image May Never Be the Same.”

Like
old-fashioned muckraking, smearing people for political advantage
is nothing new but it has recently become "respectable"
enough for the smearing to be done proudly, with no holds barred.

Consider
the political blogsite DailyKos. The site is widely quoted by mainstream
media and has broken several hot news stories, such as GannonGate.
On March 4, DailyKos launched a deliberate smear
campaign
against Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve
System.

In
order to perform “a halo-ectomy…[on] St. Alan,” the site is encouraging
a co-ordinated effort to dredge up “anything Greenspan has ever
written, said or done that reflects poorly on him.” This includes
an expose of “Andrea Mitchell, his NBC reporter wife.”

How
can the smear campaigns be ended?

The
answer is simple and it can start with Cosby.

People
should refuse to watch broadcasts or read newspapers that present
gossip as news or use political smears. As a final irony, they should
buy The National Enquirer instead.

March
10, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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