Man who was once 'America's Dad' is being erased from societal memory
What a way to end one of the greatest careers in the history of American television and popular culture.
Your statue is removed from Disney World's Hollywood Studios Theme Park. Reruns of your groundbreaking shows are banished from the airwaves. Longtime colleagues and supporters publicly denounce you. A judge cites your self-anointed posture as a moralist as the reason to unseal a 10-year-old court document that contained the smoking gun: your own testimony that you obtained quaaludes to give to women with whom you intended to have sex.
Call it the week of the cultural death of Bill Cosby.
I appreciate what an enormous cultural force Cosby once was. In fact, I am one of the guys who helped create and burnish the image of him as "America's Dad" in my work as a pop culture and TV critic at papers like the Detroit Free Press, Dallas Times Herald and The Baltimore Sun.
I also believed he was making a difference in attitudes about race, particularly in the 1980s and '90s with the series "The Cosby Show," in which he starred, and "A Different World," which he produced.
Writing about the sweaters he wore on screen and their history as a symbol of patriarchal authority for the white TV dads on shows like "Father Knows Best" in the 1950s and '60s, I argued that by adopting this simple wardrobe prop and so owning it, he appropriated the authority that came with it for men of color. And that was just one of the ways that Cosby's TV persona subtly helped normalize the idea of black men in power for millions of white viewers.
On a personal level, as much as I believed that I understood the difference between person and persona and was immune to confusing the two, Cosby became a role model who had a profound effect on my life. I didn't understand it until years later, but Cosby was one of the reasons I went back to school at the University of Maryland, College Park in my 40s to get a Ph.D.
I was so impressed by the way Cosby had grown intellectually and artistically during his midcareer return to school for a doctorate in education that I wanted some of that for myself. The shows he made after going back to school were not only huge commercial hits, but offered what I considered genuinely wise messages about cultural heritage, education, traditions and family. And that was rare for network sitcoms of that era.
So you'll forgive me if I now pause to look for takeaways from the rise and tremendous fall of Bill Cosby.
One takeaway that must be celebrated is how the traditional, fact-based, nuts-and-bolts journalism of the Associated Press finally brought some closure to a discussion that had been going on in the media — especially cable TV — for the past nine months. For some of the more than 30 women who allege that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them, that discussion has been going on for more than a decade.
In October, comedian Hannibal Buress called Cosby a rapist during a standup routine, and video of that performance went viral.
"He gets on TV, 'Pull up your pants, black people. I was on TV in the '80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.'" Buress said. "Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby. So turn the crazy down a couple of notches."
Then, in November, the Associated Press did an interview with Cosby in which he not only refused to address questions about the rape allegations but tried to bully the reporter into not reporting his refusal.
Ever since that portion of the interview was made available, cable TV has been talking about it in its sensationalist, polarizing way. The result of that kind of conversation can be seen in the clash between protesters and supporters of Cosby in Baltimore when he appeared in concert in March at the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
The Associated Press, meanwhile, quietly stayed on the case. The end came Monday, when U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled on an AP request to unseal documents from a 2005 lawsuit Cosby had settled. Among the documents was testimony from Cosby that he had purchased high-powered sedatives to give to women with whom he intended to have sex.
That's the kind of fact that says "case closed" to most fair-minded individuals when it comes to whether Cosby's accusers were lying when they say he drugged and then sexually assaulted them. And it was obtained the old-fashioned way: AP earned it by digging for documentation.
But there is also a let's-hear-it-for-digital-media takeaway here in the way the YouTube video of Buress tore through the culture and helped ignite the debate in social media and on cable. Digital gave voice to a much younger (31 years old) and far less established performer to call out Cosby for his hypocrisy.
Robreno cited Cosby's hypocrisy as well in explaining why he unsealed the documents: "The stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations, concerning improper, and perhaps criminal conduct, is a matter to which the AP — and by extension the public — has a significant interest."
The takeaways here on hubris and hypocrisy need no further comment.
The question that still begs a fuller and more honest discussion than any I've heard on television is how Cosby could have been allowed to get away with what his accusers said he was doing for so long — and then hold off any real public condemnation for almost a decade.
A number of analysts have pointed to the vast economic and cultural influence he wielded when his series led NBC to prime=time dominance and huge profits in the 1980s. And that is surely part of it. For a time, he was the most powerful performer-producer in television.
I've given this explanation myself on Sunday morning cable television, because it fits soundbite TV and it is accurate — as far as it goes.
But the real explanation is far more complicated. It involves sexism and the way women's voices have traditionally been ignored or discredited when challenging those of powerful men — especially women who have been sexually exploited by those men. Think of the young women exploited by David Letterman when he was their boss.
The answer also involves standards of evidence for publication in legacy media.
Cosby benefited from the fact that codes of ethics for traditional mainstream media outlets, the kind I have always worked for, insist that the greatest care and highest standards of evidence be used when dealing with reputations. Without iron-clad evidence, individual allegations so sensational in nature were never going to get much traction in the newsrooms where I worked.
I agree with that journalistic standard. Care with reputations is a good thing, but it can also be used as an excuse to not write about the sins of the rich and powerful.
I don't know any of my media reporter colleagues who wanted to write the story that has come to be written about Cosby. I certainly didn't.
Just as he was a personal role model to me, he was a societal role model as well. He was someone black viewers could watch and feel good about as a symbol of black achievement. White viewers, meanwhile, could watch and enjoy him not just for his great talent but also because his success and friendly persona made some of them feel good about the state of race relations.
With Cosby, the achievement part was real, but the feel-good vibe for white viewers was more problematic since it was the result of seeing a TV version of what it meant to be black in America — not social reality for millions of persons of color.
Adhering to legacy media standards of fairness, it must be noted that Cosby has not been convicted of sexual assault or rape in any court. And he probably will never be tried, because the statute of limitations appears to have expired in most or all of the cases.
But in the court of public opinion, it's over for him.
Cosby isn't the first beloved public figure to have been exposed as someone quite different off-stage. Most are fortunate enough, though, to not be plunged into such ignominy before their actual deaths.
This once-revered performer turns 78 Sunday. Somehow, "Happy birthday, Bill," doesn't seem appropriate in this week of his cultural death.