Cos and effect in the eye of the storm

Under normal circumstances, hearing a 67-year-old near-billionaire opine that the underclass would benefit from better education, fewer teen pregnancies and a lower incarceration rate hardly qualifies as stop-the-presses material.

Yet the media tumult that arose after Bill Cosby dared say as much weeks ago pretty well defines the state of the news biz, where trumped-up controversy is the fuel that keeps the machinery running and celebrities representing minority groups deviate from pre-approved scripts at their peril.

The comic’s remarks about the African-American poor “not holding up their end in this deal” at a Washington, D.C. event triggered a flurry of response on cable news, talk radio and op-ed pages. Pundits quickly mobilized and took to their media pulpits, outraged but more than willing to exploit Cosby’s fame.

The main idea behind the criticism, apparently, is that an African-American shouldn’t say anything deemed critical of a segment of his community. In short, Cosby was charged with thinking while black, in a media sphere programmed to dismiss stars as “those silly liberals” (witness the flap involving Whoopi Goldberg’s comments at a John Kerry fundraiser) while simultaneously cashing in on their celebrity.

The irony is that anyone paying minimal attention knows the entertainer has long harbored such views and seldom felt any compunctions about expressing them. At his induction into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1992, Cosby — no fan of the rap/hip-hop culture — begged the slack-jawed crowd of industry heavyweights to shed its “drive-by” mentality toward African-Americans and “stop this horrible massacre of images being put on the screen.”

Whether one agrees with the latest broadside or not, what’s most disturbing is how the statements have been misrepresented, spindled and mutilated as they were squeezed through the media grinder.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, for example, Earl Ofari Hutchinson blasted Cosby for “giving credence to the idea that all the problems of poor blacks are self-inflicted.” In the New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich took the “blame the victim” argument a step further, saying it’s unfair to “blame babies” for their poverty, “and that’s, in effect, what we’re talking about here.”

Actually no, it’s not. Cosby has also been clear to state subsequently that he doesn’t feel government and conservative politicians have done poor blacks any favors, which doesn’t contradict his suggestion that those who are economically disadvantaged take more responsibility for helping (as well as not harming) themselves.

Many also noted that Cosby is far removed from the challenges facing lower-income African-Americans, which isn’t exactly a news flash. As one of the super-rich, he isn’t especially representative of anybody, rendering him ill-equipped to serve as a spokesman for anyone but himself — an individual who has earned enormous wealth via crossover popularity, with an act that’s virtually color-blind.

Cosby declined an interview request, and he certainly doesn’t need me to defend him. Nevertheless, I’m troubled by the realization that had Tom Selleck been similarly quoted he would never be subject to the kind of vitriolic attacks Cosby has faced. (Selleck comes to mind because his hit series, “Magnum P.I.,” was driven into retreat by “The Cosby Show” two decades ago.)

Ehrenreich did concede that Cosby’s speech derived its “piquancy” from the fact that he is black. Still, neither she nor other critics have taken the logical next step and acknowledged the thought-police tyranny that imposes.

Media outlets, meanwhile, lap these stories up precisely because of their “man bites dog” element, accustomed to treating conservative blacks or gays as the equivalent of the two-headed boy in the circus. It’s as if they expect viewers to flock to the set yelling, “Hey, Marge, come quick, there’s a conservative gay guy on TV!”

In Los Angeles, local talk station KABC-AM features six consecutive hours of such iconoclastic talk, with back-to-back hosts Larry Elder (who is African-American) and Al Rantel, who is gay, serving as standard-bearers for conservative ideology. Indeed, Elder regularly espouses views about the black underclass’ plight much like those attributed to Cosby.

“I thought he hit the nail on the head with virtually everything he said,” Elder told reporters at a TV Critics Assn. session last week plugging his upcoming syndicated daytime TV show, adding, “The real controversy is why it was so controversial.”

Elder, of course, knows better. It’s controversial because Cosby is black and famous, he said something to which black leaders object, and well, we have to fill those op-ed pages and news channels with something, don’t we?

Personally, I’d happily agree to a moratorium on reporting what actors, athletes and pop stars have to say about matters of public policy, a tedious and cynical media hobby. Alas, that will never happen as long as stars offer the promise of helping lure the mildly interested (and young) into the political space.

So Cosby gets his forum, the trade-off being that he temporarily becomes a talk-show pinata. The media gets a zesty little controversy, and the usual suspects garner another five minutes of airtime. Everybody wins, I suppose, except those who support the quaint notion of self-expression versus the knee-jerk impulse to transform individuals into symbols.

The entire fracas brings to mind a classic Cosby stand-up routine about his boyhood. In it, he scares the bejesus out of himself listening to a radio horror program, setting the sofa on fire and smearing Jell-O on the floor to ward off the monster, an enormous Chicken Heart.

From where I sit, the smear’s already happened and the flames continue to smolder. As with the Chicken Heart, the only sure-fire way to stop the monster is simply to turn off the radio.

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