It’s as if we learned that Mr. Rogers was a pedophile, or Marcus Welby had sexually assaulted patients in his exam room. This week we learned that Bill Cosby, the apogee of middle class respectability both in character (as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show) and in person (universally honored, including locally a few years ago by the esteemed Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston), stands accused of being a serial rapist.
As widely reported this week, comedian Andrea Constand sued him for drugging and groping her genitals ten years ago. The evidence did not lead to criminal charges, but in 2006, he settled with her out of court. Another dozen women echoed her charges. This week, an op ed by another victim, Barbara Bowman, appeared in The Washington Post, detailing that 30 years ago Cosby had repeatedly exploited and raped her, a then beautiful blond teenage actress. Bowman also wondered on CNN three days ago why it took 30 years for the world to take her charges seriously. Back then, even her agent wouldn’t believe her story about “America’s dad.” Other victims have recently come out of the woodwork.
Are the charges true? Or are women piling on, hoping to get their own financial settlements? A Cosby spokesperson says that just because something is repeated doesn’t make it true. When Cosby went on highly respected NPR reporter Scott Simon’s Weekend Edition Saturday morning to talk about his and his wife Camille’s loan to the Smithsonian Institution of 62 African and African-American paintings, Simon concluded the interview by saying that he wouldn’t be a good reporter if he didn’t ask about the charges. Cosby twice shook his head no and said nothing, rejecting an invitation to comment on the charges.
But the physical equivalent of “no comment” never works. He did settle with Constand, and, while accused individuals sometimes do “settle” to make a story go away and deny that settlement is an admission of guilt, Cosby’s unwillingness to say anything about the multiple women who have subsequently come forth is, I think, the wrong public relations strategy (unless, of course, he is guilty).
The problems for both sides are manifold. In Bowman’s case, decades after the alleged assaults and exploitation, there’s no forensic evidence that she was raped. It’s hard enough today to make charges stick; 30 years ago it was next to impossible. Plus, discussions of the sexual assault of a beautiful young white woman by a powerful black man, no matter his huge success or positive image, taps longstanding emotions around black-on-white rape. If we’ve learned nothing else in this “post-racial” era, it’s that racial prejudice is never far from the surface, even today.
Finally, however, unless Cosby does at least put out a statement, his refusal to do so feeds a “where there’s smoke” mindset. Cosby has cancelled planned interviews on David Letterman and other media outlets where he had been scheduled to talk about his current work projects. That makes sense. But he’s left with a major, probably life altering, reputation management problem. He may never be held to account in a court of law, but he most surely is paying the price in the court of public opinion.
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