How the Cosby Story Finally Went Viral — And Why It Took So Long

Nicole Weisensee Egan | An excerpt adapted from Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America’s Dad | Seal Press | 14 minutes (3,614 words)

In October 2014 Bill Cosby was in the middle of a career resurgence. His biography by former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker had just come out to rave reviews and was climbing the bestseller list. He had a comedy special coming up on Netflix and was in development with NBC to star in a family sitcom. He was about to embark on another comedy tour based on a special that had aired on Comedy Central the year before. The special, Far from Finished, was Cosby’s first stand-up TV special in three decades, and it attracted two million viewers.

It was as if the scandal in 2005 had never happened, as if fourteen women hadn’t accused him of heinous offenses. The book didn’t even mention Andrea Constand’s allegations, let alone her civil suit or any of the other accusers. And no one in the media was asking Whitaker or Cosby why.

The situation was clear: Cosby had successfully repaired what little damage there was to his reputation after Andrea’s case made the news. He slipped right back into his revered status as public moralist and children’s advocate, chalking up even more awards and honors, including his entrée into the NAACP’s Image Awards Hall of Fame in 2006 for being a “true humanitarian and role model.”

He’d written Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors with Alvin Pouissant, a book that took a “hard look” at the state of black America while offering advice on how to overcome the “deep-rooted” challenges of the poor, embodying the message of those controversial town halls.

He was also the recipient of Philadelphia’s prestigious Marian Anderson Award in 2010, given to prominent artists who achieved distinction through their humanitarian work. Prior recipients included Harry Belafonte, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, and Danny Glover. In announcing the award, then-Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter called Cosby “a comedian whose gentle humor . . . pioneered a path forward for African American artists.”

His accusers, meanwhile, were all but forgotten. Andrea finished massage school, purchased a loft in downtown Toronto, and began her career as a massage therapist. Tamara Green sold her seaside home and hid herself away on a little fruit farm she purchased in the hills outside San Diego, with just her dog and cat for company. Beth Ferrier began competing in triathlons and finally became a teacher, and Barbara Bowman went on to star in thirty TV commercials, including ones for McDonald’s and Holiday Inn.

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But then came Hannibal Buress.

Buress was a comedian on the rise, and in October of 2014 he was on tour with a new national stand-up comedy show. After more than a dozen years as a comedian, he was finally starting to make it big. The thirty-one-year-old Chicago native started his career in New York City in 2006 with just $200 in his pocket, walking right into an open-mic night at a comedy club. He was so strapped for money that he was actually homeless for a while, sleeping on park benches and subways in between performing gigs after he wore out his welcome at his sister’s home.

But now he was performing in actual theaters, and although he hadn’t yet been booked in any large arenas, he’d come a long way in eight years. And comedy wasn’t his only gig; he was also a regular on Comedy Central’s Broad City and Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show. For a short time he wrote for blockbuster shows like Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock and played the memorable Officer Watkins alongside Seth Rogan and Zac Efron in the hit movie Neighbors. His laid back, cerebral routines earned him raves from GQ to the New York Times.

It was as if the scandal in 2005 had never happened, as if fourteen women hadn’t accused him of heinous offenses.

In 2014 Buress appeared in the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia and performed a routine he’d been doing off and on for months. In it he referenced Cosby’s controversial town halls, criticizing him for lecturing people about how to dress and behave when he had skeletons in his own closet.

“It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old-black-man persona that I hate,” Buress said. He went on:

He gets on TV, “Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the eighties! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.” Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple of notches . . .

I don’t know what I’m doing by telling you. I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns. Dude’s image is a public Teflon image. I’ve done this bit on stage, and people think I’m making it up. . . . When you leave here, Google “Bill Cosby rape.” That shit has more results than “Hannibal Buress.”

Unbeknownst to Buress, sitting in the audience that evening was Dan McQuade, a contributing editor for Philadelphia magazine, who wrote blog posts for the magazine’s website. McQuade only went to the show that night because a friend had an extra ticket and offered it to him at the last minute. McQuade doesn’t quite remember why he decided to videotape Hannibal’s Cosby diatribe but thought he might have realized in the moment that anything said about Cosby in Philadelphia was worth a mention in his column.

“I just pulled my phone out and immediately hit record,” he later told the website Billy Penn. When Buress finished his Cosby bit, McQuade knew he had something. He wrote the piece, and it was posted online the following afternoon, a Friday, with the video he shot with his iPhone.

The headline: “Hannibal Buress on Bill Cosby: You’re a Rapist.”

McQuade’s story might easily have faded away, but Buzzfeed reporter Ariane Lange saw a post about it on Facebook.

“I noticed [Philadelphia magazine] hadn’t mentioned reaching out to Cosby or Buress, and I hadn’t seen the story anywhere, so it seemed worth aggregating with a request for comment,” she said. When she didn’t hear back from either camp, she posted her own story with a straightforward headline, similar to the one Phillymag.com used, that Monday.

Less than an hour later Gawker picked it up and posted a story.

The gossip website was in its heyday and was particularly interested in the angle on Cosby because it had just resurfaced the 2005 allegations in a piece they ran in February; that story also covered Dylan Farrow’s letter in the Times accusing her father, Woody Allen, of molesting her.

The February 2014 Gawker article ran under the headline, “Who Wants to Remember Bill Cosby’s Multiple Sex-Assault Accusations?” Gawker had speculated that there had been no public outcry about Cosby, even after it got national coverage in People in 2006, because “nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator. It was too much to handle.”

Then Newsweek followed up, publishing interviews with Cosby accusers Tamara Green and Barbara Bowman. Slate jumped in with a piece pondering why no one cared. More likely, it said, it was because the allegations were a relic of the past, like Cosby himself.

Whatever the reason, the story didn’t pick up and take hold in February, just eight months earlier.

This time it did.

The online coverage spread so rapidly that even Buress himself was stunned.

“Boy, that escalated quickly,” he wrote on his Twitter feed less than four days after McQuade’s story and video were posted. “I mean, that really got out of hand fast.”

That same morning Howard Stern interviewed Buress on his radio show, and the shock jock made the most of the controversy to promote Hannibal’s appearance. “The Comedian Who Toppled Cosby Stops by to Talk Fame, Jokes and the Future,” was the headline on Stern’s website.

All the attention bemused Buress. He wasn’t trying to take down Cosby or start a discussion about rape, he said. “If I was going to do it, I would have did it on my own,” he said. “It was just something that I was doing at that venue right there. . . . I just read some stuff and researched . . . anybody can get that information.”

The scandal was about to get bigger — and an unlikely party fueled it. The British tabloid the Daily Mail — with one of the biggest readerships in the world — posted a story online around the same time Buress was wrapping up his interview with Stern, and it traveled the globe.

Buress mentioned the Cosby brouhaha again at the top of a performance in St. Louis on October 25. “I don’t know if you heard . . .” he told the crowd ironically.

He said there’d been some backlash with people asking how he could say such a thing about a pioneer like Cosby. “You can’t be a pioneer and a rapist?” he joked.

He added that he’d been accused of attacking Cosby to help his own career. “That’s not how you help your career,” he deadpanned.

Buress said he even texted his longtime buddy and fellow comedian Dave Chappelle to ask him for advice on how to handle the situation.

“He said Chappelle first told him it would be best to have a conversation with Cosby and squash it,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story said. “Then he said Chappelle watched the video and quickly told him not to call Cosby.” The video spoke for itself.

Cosby’s people were able to control the media. But they couldn’t control social media.

After that, Buress pretty much stopped talking about Cosby. He’d gotten hate mail and death threats — not everyone was happy with what he’d done. “It was just weird to see people talk shit about you,” he said. “I saw people I thought I was cool with bashing me online. People were writing me. It was a weird thing.”

Like it or not, what he’d unwittingly started couldn’t be stopped.

The Daily Mail took its coverage a step further and interviewed Barbara Bowman, who had just spoken to Newsweek in February after being out of the spotlight for years. This time she hoped people would listen to her. “I was drugged and raped by that man,” she told the tabloid. “He is a monster. . . . My hope is that others who have experienced sexual abuse will not be intimidated into silence by the famous, rich and powerful. If I can help one victim, then I’ve done my job.”

She told the same tale she’d told us at People in 2006, saying she feared that Cosby would soon be hitting the airwaves again in his new comedy, once again playing the quintessential family man. “Maybe he should also teach his fictitious TV family how to escape the talons of sexual predators,” she told the Daily Mail. “Bill used to tell me that he was my father figure and that I needed to trust him as a father, 100 percent. Then he’d drug me and attack me.”

Cosby was more than aware that momentum was gathering in the media and that his past was becoming present again. He postponed an appearance on The Queen Latifa Show, which the Washington Post noted in a story titled, “Is the World Starting to Turn Against Bill Cosby?”

The writer also made an interesting observation, noting that the allegations were nothing new. “Without intending to, Buress became a perfect example of the conundrum of male allyship: it wasn’t enough 13 different women accused Cosby of drugging, raping and violently assaulting them. It was only after a famous man, Buress, called him out that the possibility of Cosby becoming a television pariah became real.”

Barbara made the same point in an op-ed she penned for the Post a couple of weeks later titled, “Bill Cosby Raped Me. Why Did It Take 30 Years for People to Believe My Story?” In the essay she railed against all of those who refused to believe her. “As a teenager, I tried to convince myself I had imagined it,” she wrote. “I even tried to rationalize it: Bill Cosby was going to make me a star and this was part of the deal.” She told her agent, who did nothing, as well as an attorney, who accused her of making it up. She tried again when she granted interviews in 2006 with Philadelphia magazine, People, and, in February 2014, Newsweek. And still there was no public outcry.

Until Buress.

“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? Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged by victim blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?”

I was wondering the same thing as I watched in astonishment as coverage unfolded and the tale exploded. I was pleased but confounded: it was a “déjà vu all over again” situation because there was absolutely nothing new to any of these claims. Our 2006 story was even available online. At the time I was wrapped up in another major story that was emotionally exhausting, and without something new to report, I had nothing new to add. But I still watched for new developments in the case.

And I thought about the industry in which I’d made my career. What puzzled me most was how the media would jump on a story one minute while having ignored it the previous one. What kind of profession was I immersed in when stories had no logical reasoning for unfolding?

It was one thing for the media to ignore Barbara’s story in 2006, but she had just done a Newsweek interview in February that was ignored as well. Now, just eight months later, she was a media darling.


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In the end I had to agree with Slate writer Amanda Hess, who had speculated that the phenomenon was a combination of three factors. One was the timing of the story, which coincided with Cosby’s new biography, a Netflix special, and an NBC deal. Another was that there was a video of Buress’s routine, which had quickly spread across social media. And the third was that Buress was a comedian.

As a comedian Buress could just flat-out call Cosby a rapist instead of hedging and using protective language like journalists did, Hess said. “And as depressing as it is, a person in Buress’ position is not saddled with the same rape myths that victims are,” she told the website Billy Penn. “There’s a widespread belief that when a woman accuses a man of rape, she just might be lying for some sort of personal gain. It’s a totally irrational conclusion, but it’s a sadly prevalent one. It’s harder to argue that Buress has anything to gain by taking on Cosby.”

I believe it’s also because Buress spoke about Cosby being a rapist so matter-of-factly — urging people to Google “Bill Cosby” and “rape” — that the allegations took on a new ring of truth for those in the audience and anyone viewing the video.

As for why the scandal fizzled in 2005 and exploded in 2014, chalk it up to social media and the internet for spreading the word and inciting a response. In 2005, when Facebook was still for college students; Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram did not yet exist; and most news websites were in their infancy, Cosby’s people were able to control the media. But they couldn’t control social media. And once the public has access to information themselves, they can quickly come to their own conclusions.

I couldn’t help but think, Where were all of you nine years ago?

Andrea’s lawyer, Dolores Troiani, agreed that social media had made “trading up” — a term that both she and I had learned back in 2005, which in the world of national TV news refers to the shady practice of turning down a story in exchange for another, better one — almost impossible. “If some [news] organization kills a story, some other one will pick it up, and they don’t have to be an organization,” she said. “They just have to have a computer.”

It was also an entirely new, younger generation controlling the dialogue. They’d grown up learning about the signs of child sexual abuse in public schools. And they weren’t clinging to their image of Cosby as Dr. Huxtable because they had no idea who Dr. Huxtable was.

Many were also now working for the online news organizations that had sprung up since 2005 and were now driving the coverage, finally forcing the mainstream press to weigh in, whether they wanted to or not.

Cosby learned this for himself when his handlers tried to quell the growing scandal with a meme contest. Instead, they made it worse. The hashtag #CosbyMeme was launched on November 10, when Cosby posted a tweet inviting fans to meme him. The link led to a meme generator loaded with photos of Cosby mugging in various poses and sweaters on BillCosby.com — all wholesome, charming, dad-like visuals reminiscent of Cosby’s untarnished reputation.

Twitter followers responded with memes mocking him, focusing on the drugging and sexual assault allegations, including, “America’s Favorite Dad by Day, Serial Rapist by Night”; “My Two Favorite Things, Jello Pudding and Rape”; and “I Like My Women the Way I Like My Puddin’ Pops, Passed Out Cold.”

There were also followers who saw the contest as an opportunity to educate people about rape culture. One described it as evidence of “a culture in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.” In his Twitter thread, he gave examples of behaviors associated with rape culture like “victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial or widespread rape. Or refusing to acknowledge the harm of certain forms of sexual violence that do not conform to certain stereotypes of stranger or violent rape.”

A few hours after its launch Twitter users realized that Cosby’s social media team was removing the word “rape” from the memes. Not long afterward they deleted the original #CosbyMeme tweet and took down the meme generator, with the link now redirecting users to Cosby’s homepage.

*

The meme debacle did Cosby no favors, and after his team squelched the contest, he quickly canceled an upcoming appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

He didn’t cancel a previously scheduled interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, however. It was to be a joint appearance with his wife, Camille, to discuss sixty-two pieces of African American art that Cosby and Camille had donated to an exhibit in Washington, DC. The Cosbys had built an impressive collection since they’d visited the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles in 1967 and discovered the work of Charles White, an African American artist from Chicago, and they had agreed to loan some of that impressive collection to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on its fiftieth anniversary. It was widely viewed as one of the most valuable private collections of its kind in the world, and now the Cosbys were allowing the public to enjoy some of it as well.

But instead of focusing on the art, reporter Scott Simon asked Cosby about the various charges.

Cosby refused to answer.

The piece was so controversial that NPR’s ombudsman Scott Schumacher-Matos wrote a column a few days later about whether listeners thought it was unfair of Simon to ask Cosby about the allegations when the interview was supposed to be about the artwork. The number of responses he got was “overwhelming,” he wrote, revealing an interesting pattern that suggested a “generational divide” on the issue.

“Emailers, who presumably trend older, were mostly critical of Simon,” he wrote. “Some 400 Facebook posts were equally divided. All ages use Facebook, though its audience is growing grayer. The online commenters at the bottom of the web story sided mostly with Simon, but, meanwhile, what might be most telling is that so did the traffic on Twitter, which appears to have the youngest audience.”

*

I tracked down Tamara, who had been silent since her February interview with Newsweek.

It had been nearly ten years since we’d last spoken, but it felt like no time had passed as soon as I heard her voice. I felt this kinship with her. We had both been ridiculed in 2005 for trying to tell this story, and public thrashings, I discovered, can have a bonding effect. Only she could understand the incredulity I was feeling over how this case was exploding in the media. I couldn’t help but think, Where were all of you nine years ago? At the same time, though, I was glad the allegations were now getting the type of attention they deserved. And I was determined to claim the story once again from all of these Johnny-come-latelies.

Tamara hadn’t changed at all in the intervening years. Though I found out later she’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder, she was as feisty and quick witted as ever, the colorful phrases rolling off her tongue.

“He is in fact a sexual predator,” she said. “I don’t dispute the fact the man has done much good, but he is a flawed man. He’s not the fictional Dr. Huxtable or the Jell-O salesman. This is Bill Cosby who for years felt entitled because of his status as a celebrity and because for years he was above the law. And he’ll always be a small man because a great man would embrace his faults as well as his talents.”

She said she thought the scandal might go away for good if he would just admit what he did and apologize. “I keep thinking of two words — he needs to own it,” she said. “He needs to say, ‘I am a flawed character. I let stardom go to my head. I am an older and wiser man, and I want to apologize to the people that I have hurt.’ How hard can that be?”

Cosby said nothing.

* * *

Nicole Weisensee Egan has been the lead investigative journalist reporting on the Cosby case since 2005, first for the Philadelphia Daily News and then as a Senior Writer for PEOPLE magazine. She covered the trial for The Daily Beast and is already working on her second book. She lives in Royersford, PA.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky

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