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Bill Cosby Scandal Boils Over in New Media Climate

Bill Cosby Rape Allegations Social Media
Olaf Hajek for Variety

There’s the court of law — and then there’s the court of public opinion.

Bill Cosby has not been charged or convicted of a crime, as wary commentators keep repeating.

But social media has already rendered its verdict, and by the morning of Nov. 19 — after a week of relentless onslaughts — the comedian had become too radioactive for national media outlets. NBC dropped the sitcom it was developing with him; Netflix decided to postpone, probably indefinitely, the hourlong comedy special that had been set to premiere Nov. 28; and TV Land pulled its reruns of “The Cosby Show.” On Friday, Cosby’s planned Nov. 28 show at Las Vegas’ Treasure Island resort was canceled.

At issue are allegations of sexual misconduct and marital infidelity. The charges and innuendos aren’t new, but the climate in which they are reverberating has changed.

Cosby’s downward spiral is just the latest example of the hothouse environment for celebrity scandals in a media-saturated age. In the past year, Stephen Collins, Bryan Singer and Woody Allen have also made the kind of headlines that are the stuff of PR nightmares, with social media stepping in as judge and jury.

“Even though you are innocent until proven guilty, in reality, it doesn’t play out that way,” says litigator Ben Fenton.

The more disturbing the allegations, the greater the amount of news coverage they engender. And there are more outlets on which the public can weigh in, with everything from crude humor on an Internet meme to a lengthy treatise on Facebook or Tumblr. The amplifying effect of that echo chamber is what made NBC and Netflix run for the hills.

Cosby in particular was vulnerable, because his public image has long been that of “America’s favorite dad,” cemented by his 1984-92 stint on NBC’s blockbuster comedy “The Cosby Show.” The reason he commanded a lucrative deal with NBC was because of the good will he brought from the “Cosby Show” years and his standup performances, which revolve around parenthood and marriage.

But comic Hannibal Buress revived the allegations of inappropriate behavior during a standup bit in October, and a few weeks later, after Cosby’s website tried to counter with a meme generator that was quickly hijacked by the allegations, the floodgates opened. Multiple women came forward with stories alleging they had been drugged and raped by the comedian. These were stories that could not be easily dismissed as situations involving overzealous groupies or gold diggers.

By the time CNN aired a lengthy interview with Barbara Bowman, who accused Cosby of drugging and sexually abusing her in the 1980s, it had become impossible for NBC to produce and market a sitcom featuring the entertainer as a curmudgeonly patriarch.

Cosby’s firestorm echoed the swift fall from grace last month of Collins, another actor known as a TV dad from his long run on the WB Network’s “7th Heaven.” Collins lost a role in the movie “Ted 2,” and reruns of “7th Heaven” were pulled from cabler Up after an audiotape surfaced on TMZ in which Collins allegedly admitted to having sexual contact with children. The tape came from a counseling session between him and his wife, who are going through a divorce.

While the report about Collins hit like a bombshell, Cosby has been dogged for years about rumors of infidelity and questionable sexual behavior — which were the focus of a lawsuit filed in 2005 by Andrea Constand, a former employee of Temple U., Cosby’s alma mater.

Cosby’s team in the past had mostly kept the discussion out of mainstream media outlets by issuing flat denials. Constand’s suit was settled out of court, and even the existence of legal documents with explosive claims didn’t cast an overarching cloud over the comedian. But the particulars of that case — notably the initial claim that Constand’s lawyers had 13 other women ready to share similar stories — now came back to haunt him.

Cosby initially had refused to comment — leading to moments of high drama during a Nov. 15 NPR appearance, when he refused to answer an interviewer’s question, or during a video session with the Associated Press where he became visibly agitated at the questioning.

That might not be the best strategy, observers say.

“When accused, it is always better to be proactive and issue a statement, something, anything, to quell the doubt created in the minds of the general public,” says PR strategist Seth Horowitz.

Allen wrote a defensive op-ed in the New York Times in February after 20-year-old claims that he had molested his young daughter were reignited by his ex, Mia Farrow, and his estranged children. That denial is widely credited with allowing the director to quiet the storm — at least enough to continue making movies.

Director Bryan Singer took that route after he was accused in a lawsuit of repeatedly molesting a man who was underage at the time of the alleged incidents. Combative litigator Martin Singer (no relation) became a forceful mouthpiece on the director’s behalf, guiding him through the PR gauntlet until the suit was dropped in August. The scandal forced Bryan Singer to step out of the spotlight during the promotional campaign for “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” but otherwise doesn’t seem to have done longterm damage to his directing prospects.

Cosby does not appear to be in retreat just yet, and recently got a standing ovation at a Florida performance. As the accusations piled up last week, he engaged Martin Singer to return fire on his behalf.

The attorney has challenged the veracity of some of the accusers.

“This situation is an unprecedented example of the media’s breakneck rush to run stories without any corroboration or adherence to traditional journalistic standards,” Singer said in a statement.

Whatever the outcome, the damage to Cosby’s career will not be easily undone.