The “outing” of Bill Cosby as, well what else can we call it but as a “serial rapist”? has kicked off a moment of journalistic soul-searching. It isn’t all that widespread and it won’t last long, but it’s a flicker of light worth prodding toward something more substantial.
But first, my one and only inter-raction with the man. It was the late ‘90s if I recall and Cosby was in town to give one of his ministerial speeches on the topic of family/male/black male responsibility. After more than the usual back and forth with his people I was granted a 10-minute window for an interview. As a lifelong fan as far back as his “Wonderfulness’ LP, which I wore out on the old Lambert family Magnavox, I was still expecting if not an affable, good-humored pro of the show biz game, a kind of Bob Hope with street cred, at least something other than a self-important dick.
It didn’t go well. Cosby clearly found the whole … 10-minute chat … a tedious ordeal (admittedly, I get that a lot), and his “person”, a middle-aged male toadie who looked as though he’d be beheaded if the boss were asked something he didn’t want to answer, interrupted virtually every (harmless) question for re-phrasing into something Bill would rather talk about, which, frankly was very little beyond his usual boilerplate of “pull up your pants and be (my idea of a) man”. Put another way, the interview lasted about eight minutes too long.
The broader point to this whole still unfolding saga, a multi-pronged tragedy, is again both how little we the public truly know about celebrated public figures and how our culture’s myth-making machinery sends down roots far deeper than reality. (For regular readers, this is an echo of my embarrassing infatuation with John Edwards.)
The media mea culpas going around include one from one of black culture’s most inightful and provocative critics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who cops to not pushing Cosby hard enough, in a story seven years ago, on assertions already made against him by over a dozen women. Says Coates in his recent Atlantic web piece, “ … it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another. It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn’t just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.”
One of the great revolutions in American cultural consciousness-raising would be a campaign to demystify celebrity myth-making. But rational skepticism about the show biz famous is not particularly welcome, even in places supposedly committed to it. If you ask, almost every pop news consumer understands fairly well the business plans of celebrity magazines/media and all their inanity-worshipping stepsisters, the “lifestyle” outlets of one silly sort or another. Not that the average consumer thinks about it much, but if you ask they’ll concede it’s all just a selling game.
A game they consume voraciously.
But as bad as the vast mass of all that celebrity silliness is, clogging our cultural arteries with stupendous flows of irrelevant non-news at best and pure, free publicity at worst, the problem is compounded by an unwillingness of so-called “serious” journalism to apply even the most minimal counter-balance.
I spent more time than I care to remember playing willing shill for the Hollywood hype-machine, interviewing the famous and beautiful with only rarely an untoward or impertinent question. (OK, I was thrown off the so-called “junket circuit” three different times for such transgressions. But because I “gave good profile”, I was eventually invited back.) But that was while working for a free weekly. When I arrived at a supposedly bona fide daily newspaper I had some (seriously misplaced) expectations that, at long last due skepticism would be encouraged … rewarded … cheered.
A guy has rarely been more wrong. The sad fact is that the features departments of mainstream newspapers, even the good ones, (and I wasn’t working at one of those), exert little to no skeptical energy on their show biz subjects. More to the point, they don’t tolerate “cynical”, “negative” rogue writers applying it independently.
From (long) direct experience I can tell you the features end of daily newspapering is completely happy and comfortable serving as yet another layer of the show biz publicity machinery. (If only those cash-strapped papers got a cut of the tickets they helped to sell.) The guiding (focus-group tested) rationale being that readers want the paper to reflect and enhance their excitement and delight in “the stars”, which is to say, the paper’s job is to magnify what “the stars’ ” publicity machinery has already established. (It goes without saying that local TV news, a show biz sales game in itself — morning, noon and night — hasn’t even imagined a skeptical thing to say about celebrities, other than an errant choice of a red carpet gown, or a Justin Bieber-like meltdown.
It’s easy to understand Mr. Coates’ dilemma. Here’s a prominent figure among the black intelligentsia (Coates) conflicted over a direct attack on a revered black icon, (Cosby). The record will show there are plenty of people undermining influential black leadership figures, so why would a young black intellectual add his name to that barrage?
Ironically, the predominantly white managers of mainstream news organizations, no doubt assessed the racial liabilities of reporting the accusations against Cosby as well, and demurred … until the tidal wave granted everyone cover to “reassess”.
But that’s Cosby. What of the mega-tonnage of so-called “journalism” heaped on show biz personalities of all persuasions with for all intents and purposes no application of skeptical perspective at all? Obviously, serial rape is a special level of depravity. But I can assure you that Bill Cosby isn’t the only revered celebrity icon who has successfully marketed a persona wildly out of step with his true nature, and marketed it with the full, albeit unwitting complicity of the allegedly responsible professional media.
Would we really be worse off if professional journalists refused to be a part of the bullshit brigade?