The Bill Cosby case transcends the boundaries of America’s political, cultural and social sphere. Millions of viewers have watched him on television since 1965. Cosby is one of the household names in comedy – with eighteen honorary degrees from multiple universities, four Emmys, nine Grammys, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and twelve books by his pen. The fact that somebody who has been a trustworthy and likeable father figure on national television, is said to have drugged and raped multiple women is a shock to everyone.

While previous allegations have been voiced, the true media storm started in 2005, when Andrea Constand spoke out publicly, accusing Cosby of drugging and raping her. The case was settled out of court for an unnamed sum. Money solves everything, apparently.

We live in a society where ordinary people can take part in virtually everybody’s lives via media outlets and information that is available 24/7. The big problem with Cosby’s case is that we are treating it too much like a celebrity scandal and less like the criminal case that it is. Yes, Cosby is a famous public figure, but the people involved in the allegations are real people that are affected by real actions. The women speaking out are in one aspect empowered, but also undermined by the fact that most of their stories are circulating the media freely without regulation and are not being handled in a courtroom.

The media enabled these dozens of women to come forward and speak to somebody who would hear them. After Constand’s case in 2005, the women who were listed as witnesses, under a “Jane Doe” cover, came forward. They spoke of the same thing but in very, very different ways. While some chose to legally pursue action, multiple women chose to sell their stories to magazines, such as People, or go public on chat shows, like Dr. Phil. One of the accusers even posed an incredulous ultimatum, claiming that Cosby either waive the statute of limitations or give 100 million dollars in compensations to the victims. A newspaper or television show is not a courtroom, so is it appropriate to bring something that is actually a crime into the pages of a gossip magazine or a lifestyle journal?

“The women speaking out are in one aspect empowered, but also undermined by the fact that most of their stories are circulating the media freely without regulation and are not being handled in a courtroom.”

Hannibal Burress, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler openly talked about Cosby in 2014. “Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.” Fey and Poehler’s statement is far more than just a blow to Cosby, but also a huge way of turning Cosby’s victims’ allegations into a massive, tasteless joke. Burress’s lines on Cosby (“Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”) in multiple stand-comedy routines offer a more serious tone.

Were Fey and Poehler right to make a Disney joke out of 46 (or more) women’s traumatic experiences? Probably not. Did it make people listen, react and share their thoughts on social media? Absolutely. The New York magazine article (July 2015) also unleashed a hashtag on Twitter (#TheEmptyChair), intended to represent the millions of women who are not able to speak out about their experiences with sexual abuse. That is the power of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It allows anyone to comment, to reveal and to judge online, whether using their real identity or anonymously.

It is doubtful that Cosby will receive any form of legal prosecution – but the damage to his legacy has been done. Netflix, NBC News, CAA talent agency, Walt Disney World and countless other institutions parted ways with Cosby amidst the claims. The act of pulling scholarships in Cosby’s name and cancelling re-runs of The Cosby Show is a heavily symbolic one that truly sends a message that networks and organisations do not want to be associated with rape.

“It is doubtful that Cosby will receive any form of legal prosecution – but the damage to his legacy has been done.”

Lack of evidence and the statute of limitations are the main factors preventing any true pursuit of the allegations. The statute of limitations prevents a victim from pursuing a lawsuit as little as three years after the incident, although the laws vary from state to state. If a victim reports the case within 72 hours, they are exempt from the limitations. Cosby’s lawyer, Monique Pressley, asks why victims did not speak out immediately after what happened. What the law consistently fails to understand is that a sexual assault victim might not be ready to speak out against their offenders within 72 hours, 3 years or even 15 years. Neither does Monique Pressley, clearly. She does, however, reiterate that the “sheer volume or number of people who are saying a particular thing does not make it true.”

This is not to say that the victims are not being truthful in their allegations, but that ordinary people will never know the full story. As much as social media can allow voices to be heard, it can also distort. Let’s not blindly follow the media’s portrayal of Cosby nor condemn him for every crime he is accused of. His real victims deserve more respect than that.

Flora Maier

Image: Kate Haskell via Flickr

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