Bill Cosby faces growing chorus over sex abuse claims

Comedian Bill Cosby Image copyright Getty Images

This time it started with a stand-up comedy video that went viral and an ill-considered Twitter campaign.

Now Bill Cosby, oft-celebrated comedian and star of one of the highest-rated US television programmes in the 1980s, is being asked to once again publicly deny allegations that he committed multiple sexual assaults over the course of his career.

For the moment the comedian is only commenting through his lawyer.

"Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr Cosby have resurfaced," writes Mr Cosby's lawyer, John P Schmidt, in a statement on Mr Cosby's website. "The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment."

That much was readily apparent on Saturday, when Mr Cosby responded with silence to questions during a radio interview with NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.

"This question gives me no pleasure, Mr Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days," Simon said.

When Mr Cosby didn't speak, Simon continued: "You're shaking your head no. I'm in the news business. I have to ask the question. Do you have any response to those charges?"

When Mr Cosby again refused to reply, Simon said that he wanted to give the comedian a chance to give an answer to "people who love you".

The first allegations against Mr Cosby came to light in 2005, when two women publicly accused the comedian of drugging and sexually assaulting them while they were unconscious. One of the women, Andrea Constand, filed a civil lawsuit against Mr Cosby, which they settled out of court in November 2006.

In the ensuing years more women have come forward with similar stories - 14 total at this point - dating back to the 1970s, but the allegations didn't generate significant outcry until last month, when a short video clip of another comedian, Hannibal Buress, was posted on and became an internet hit.

In his routine Mr Buress, who is also black, jokes about the allegations against Mr Cosby, who he says has the "smuggest old black man persona".

"Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches," he says.

Also in October the Daily Mail published a detailed account from one of Mr Cosby's accusers, Barbara Bowman, who says the comedian assaulted her multiple times in 1986, when she was a 17-year-old aspiring model.

The extent of the ongoing damage to Mr Cosby's reputation became clear on 10 November, when a message from Mr Cosby's official Twitter account asking his fans to write captions for photos of the comedian with the hashtag #cosbymeme was dominated by references to the rape accusations.

By that evening the original tweet and the program that allowed the creation of captioned pictures had been taken down.

Image copyright Zahra Tahiran
Image caption The #CosbyMeme Twitter hashtag is flooded with references to rape allegations against the comedian

On Thursday the Washington Post published a first-person piece by Ms Bowman, in which she says she's been trying to get her story out for 10 years.

"Only after a man, Hannibal Buress, called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy act last month did the public outcry begin in earnest," she says.

"While I am grateful for the new attention to Cosby's crimes, I must ask my own questions: Why wasn't I believed? Why didn't I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it?"

She says it's because there is "a network of wilfully blind wallflowers at best, or people willing to aid him in committing these sexual crimes at worst". They, she continues, should be held as accountable as Mr Cosby himself.

The allegations of sexism and a deeply engrained rape culture protecting Mr Cosby have been picked up by other commentators.

"Given how a culture of victim-blaming underpins that rape culture, it gives me a sort of perverse pleasure to say: Cosby really was asking for it," writes Maya Dusenbery for the website Feministing, referring to the social media uproar. "Though let's not forget - if public opinion (on Twitter at least) really has turned against Cosby, it is, per usual, pretty damn long overdue."

British TV figures convicted

  • presenter Jimmy Savile, now dead, thought to have had scores of victims
  • publicist Max Clifford serving eight years for sex offences
  • entertainer Rolf Harris sentenced to five years for indecent assaults
  • broadcaster Stuart Hall in prison for multiple sexual offences
  • others were investigated but never charged

Bustle's Alana Bennet cautions that Mr Cosby has not been charged with any crime - the statute of limitations on rape cases in most states is 10 years - and the public is not a "judge or jury". But, she goes on to write:

"It is also important to acknowledge that rape culture is present in every inch of things like this, especially when you are dealing with someone as powerful and wealthy as Cosby - and especially when you are dealing with someone who the public is very resistant to looking at the dark side of."

There's a conservative political angle to this story as well.

Some columnists, like Brietbart's John Nolte, says the media are showing a racist double standard by ignoring rape allegations surrounding former President Bill Clinton while playing up sexual assault and harassment stories involving prominent black Americans like Mr Cosby, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. All deny the accusations made against them.

Others are pointing to Mr Cosby's outspoken criticism of what he perceives as negative aspects of black culture - including dress style and obscenity-laden language - as well as leaders on the black community.

This has some questioning whether Mr Cosby is being singled out because of his views.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh says that liberal media outlets are "trying to destroy Bill Cosby".

"Bill Cosby has, numerous times, in the recent past, given public lectures in which he has said to one degree or another that black families and communities had better step up and get hold of themselves and not fall prey to the forces of destruction that rip them apart," he said. "And the next thing you know, he's the nation's biggest rapist as far as CNN's concerned."

Another conservative critic, WorldNetDaily's Jesse Lee Petersen, says it's not just Mr Cosby's views that those attacking him hate - it's what his wise-father persona on his hit comedy represents.

"Could it be that Cosby's accuser is aligned with the man-hating feminists who want to destroy Cosby's traditional patriarchal image?" he writes.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption After a storm of attention in February, coverage of sexual assault allegations involving director Woody Allen is tailing off

Politics aside, one thing is clear. This story has taken hold largely thanks to the internet. Mr Cosby's Twitter public relations debacle, as well as the viral stand-up video, have fuelled the fire, says the Washington Post's Sarah Kaplan and Jessica Contrera. The mainstream media have been forced to take notice.

"The resurgence of interest in this old news story didn't happen at random," they write. "It's the result of what we, in the age of information overload, are inclined to click on."

A number of commentators have compared this story to the sexual assault allegations that emerged involving award-winning director Woody Allen. Last winter that story also generated high levels of interest after years of dormancy - both in the media and online.

Mr Allen denied the accusations in a New York Times opinion piece and said it was the last time he would discuss it.

After that the story largely disappeared off the public's radar.

How Mr Cosby's situation develops at this point is still anybody's guess - but he has cancelled several public appearances, including a guest spot on David Letterman's night-time talk show scheduled for Wednesday. And pressure is mounting on NBC, which recently agreed to a deal for Mr Cosby to star in a new comedy programme for the network.

"I think it's irresponsible to put him back in a position of a patriarchal father, in an authoritative and trusted position," Ms Bowman said in an interview. "I'm very disappointed that he would be endorsed in that [type of role] again."