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Cosby case shows media's muckraking mania

By Wendy McElroy
web posted March 14, 2005

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 last 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.

Wendy McElroy 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). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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