How will we remember Bill Cosby?

Bill Cosby: The accusations
Bill Cosby: The accusations

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Story highlights

  • Until recent allegations, Bill Cosby was admired and considered a role model
  • Other celebrities have -- fairly or unfairly -- been brought down by allegations
  • Crisis management consultant: Cosby should go directly to public

(CNN)It's as if the other Bill Cosby never existed.

You remember the other Bill Cosby. For a long time, he was the only Bill Cosby.
    He was a groundbreaking comedian, famed for his shaggy-dog storytelling on routines such as "Noah" and "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With." He worked clean, even when other comedians went blue.
    He was "television's Jackie Robinson," the first African-American to star in a dramatic role on TV, and he earned three Emmys for his work on "I Spy," the series on which he broke the barrier.
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    He was a promoter of education and values through "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" ("If you're not careful, you may learn something") and his philanthropy. He was an amusing, trusted pitchman, known for Jell-O and Coca-Cola commercials. He was a beloved TV father, the patriarch of "The Cosby Show."
    He was wealthy; he was generous; he was admired.
    Who is Bill Cosby now?
    In recent months, the news has provided a steady drip-drip-drip of rape accusations against the 77-year-old comedian. At least 20 women have spoken out to various media outlets, accusing Cosby of sexual misconduct. Many of the accusations date back decades.
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    Some of Cosby's concert bookings have been canceled, and at others he's been heckled and protested. His proposed NBC show was scuttled and a concert movie premiere postponed. TV Land yanked the "Cosby Show" reruns from its lineup. He has cut ties with his beloved Temple University, where he served on the board. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was defaced. Even the Navy revoked an honorary title granted Cosby in 2011.
    It should be noted that Cosby has never faced a judge or jury, let alone been convicted, over the allegations. His camp has repeatedly and vigorously denied them.
    It defies common sense that "so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years," said Cosby's attorney, Martin D. Singer, in a written statement sent to CNN.
    His wife, Camille, has also been resolute.
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    But it's clear that many people have already tried Cosby in their minds.
    "The court of public opinion has cost him all of his projects," said Michael Bilello, who heads Centurion Strategies, a PR and crisis-management shop. "His inactions, his mishandling of PR, his legal maneuvering -- those are characteristics you do not want to display, especially when you're accused of rape."
    The suddenness of Cosby's tumble reminds Bilello of the downfall of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. For 50 years, Paterno was venerated as "Joe Pa," a figure of such rectitude and honor that the college built a monument to him. Then, as the sexual abuse charges against his former assistant Jerry Sandusky accumulated, Paterno was accused of a cover-up and fired. He died two months later. His statue was later removed from campus.
    "Cosby's looking at the same sentence," Bilello said. "He's looking at this overshadowing everything he's done simply because there is guilt by assumption."

    'This story keeps just getting told'

    Cosby is far from the first celebrity to be lowered, fairly or unfairly, from his pedestal.
    In the 1920s, silent film star Fatty Arbuckle -- one of the most influential comedians of his day, a mentor to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton -- was accused of rape and manslaughter in the case of an actress, Virginia Rappe, who had attended a party for Arbuckle.
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    The case was tried three times. The first two trials ended in hung juries. Arbuckle, then 35, was acquitted in the third -- the jury even gave him a written apology -- but the damage was done: His reputation was shattered, his films were temporarily banned, and he had to take a pseudonym to find work. He died while attempting a comeback in the early '30s.
    More recently, there is the case of Michael Jackson. In 2003, the singer was accused of child molestation, conspiracy and alcohol charges. Eighteen months later, a jury exonerated him. However, despite the court's decision, allegations of sexual abuse followed Jackson right up to his death in 2009.
    What makes the Cosby situation even more challenging is that there has been no day in court, said Syracuse popular culture professor Robert Thompson.
    "There was a trial (in Michael Jackson's case). Evidence was presented; process was gone through," he said. "Here, this story keeps just getting told, and it keeps getting told with very little new information."
    In addition, Cosby is more than an entertainer, Thompson observes. He's also been an educator and a moralist, using his fame to promote schooling and propriety.
    Robert Huber, who wrote an extensive article on Cosby -- "Dr. Huxtable and Mr. Hyde" -- for Philadelphia magazine in 2006, notes that there's an irony in Cosby's alleged behavior.
    "He's lecturing African-American communities about their behavior and what they need to do, and at the same time, if these allegations are true, certainly hiding behind his own behavior," he said.
    In this respect, Thompson added, the fall of Cosby may be compared to that of evangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, who were brought down by scandals in the late 1980s. Swaggart was defrocked by his denomination; Bakker was convicted of fraud and served time. Though both resumed ministries, neither has the power or following they did 30 years ago.

    'How many more do we need?'

    However, those events all predated the social media age, which has kept Cosby's situation on the front page when it conceivably could have vanished down the memory hole. A handful of accusers first went public almost 10 years ago, in 2005, after Cosby was named by a Temple University staffer, Andrea Constand, in a civil suit.
    But it was a viral video by comedian Hannibal Buress that brought the Cosby story out of the shadows, and it was an attempt at creating memes -- proposed by Cosby's own Twitter account -- that made it widespread.
    It has shaken up many who normally would be defending a man who they greatly respect. In fact, with a handful of exceptions -- notably his "Cosby Show" co-star, Phylicia Rashad -- Cosby has received little support among entertainers, though many of them are reserving judgment.
    "I don't know what to say. What do you say? I hope it's not true. That's all you can say. I really do," Chris Rock told New York magazine. "I grew up on Cosby. I love Cosby, and I just hope it's not true. It's a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin (Williams), we lost Joan (Rivers), and we kind of lost Cosby."
    Cedric the Entertainer agreed. In an "Entertainment Tonight" interview on the red carpet for Rock's movie "Top Five," he expressed both admiration and sadness.
    "We all grew up on him, and we know and respect him, not just as a comedian but for the things that he's done outside of comedy, with the colleges and giving back (to the community) and spending his money where his mouth is," he said. "But if the allegations have any truth to them, you want the truth to come out. You want justification for all the people. That's all you can really say. It's an unfortunate scenario."
    Other entertainers have openly questioned Cosby.
    On his new late-night show, "The Nightly Show," Larry Wilmore bluntly addressed the allegations.
    "I would say enough (women) have come forward ... how many more do we need?" he said.
    Later, during a panel discussion, he told a Cosby defender, "People are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. However, this is the court of public opinion and this is my show, and that (bleep) did it."
    Another comedy celebrity, writer and director Judd Apatow, has become notably anti-Cosby. The writer and director of such films as "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" has gone on occasional Twitter rants against the comedian.
    "I have numerous personal connections to this situation and the victims. I think he is a coward and clearly a sociopath," Apatow wrote November 26. A month later he mixed it up with others on social media.

    'Those days are history'

    The Cosby story has shaken up some journalists, too, prompting many to offer mea culpas for not asking Cosby about the allegations.
    "I wrote my 6,500-word piece for Philadelphia magazine thinking that with all these women claiming that they have stories similar to Andrea Constand's, this thing is going to explode," said Huber. But, he observed, "(Other journalists) didn't press Bill Cosby even though they themselves had read about these allegations and women. Who was asking Bill Cosby about that? Well, no one."
    Author Mark Whitaker, a former CNN managing editor who wrote a 2014 biography of Cosby, apologized for not including the accusations in his book. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a long piece grappling with Cosby's conservatism in 2008, wrote that he should have included more than "a brief and limp mention" of the allegations. And The New York Times' David Carr wrote that he should have asked Cosby about the accusations when interviewing him for an in-flight magazine.
    "We all have our excuses, but in ignoring these claims, we let down the women who were brave enough to speak out publicly against a powerful entertainer," he wrote.
    Carr, who died February 12, believed there was no repairing the damage to Cosby's reputation.
    "For decades, entertainers have been able to maintain custody of their image, regardless of their conduct," he concluded. "Those days are history. It doesn't really matter now what the courts or the press do or decide. When enough evidence and pushback rears into view, a new apparatus takes over, one that is viral, relentless and not going to forgive or forget."

    'He has to engage the public'

    Is there any way for Cosby to restore his name?
    Except for a pair of short exchanges -- one with a South Florida publication, another with the New York Post -- he has been silent on the matter. Literally so, in the case of a response to NPR's Scott Simon.
    Bilello said he believes that Cosby is beyond the standard media apology tour, usually capped by a visit to Oprah Winfrey's couch. Cosby has been hurt by social media, he said, and only social media will save him.
    "If he wants to have his final chapter written the way he wants to be recalled, he has to engage the public," he said. "Perhaps something social media-based, an open forum for maybe two hours, taking all questions -- and having a moderator who's not a celebrity." A Reddit AMA, say, or a live chat.
    On the other hand, 15 Minutes Public Relations' Howard Bragman said Cosby should just stay quiet.
    "He should shut the f*** up!" Bragman told TheWrap. "He should have his lawyers shut the f*** up and his PR people shut the f*** up."
    Cosby does run the risk of becoming a sad punchline, Thompson said. He's seen it happen. When he shows "Roots" in his television history classes, his students burst out laughing when O.J. Simpson enters the picture.
    "The entire mode of the show can't proceed," he said. "O.J. completely trumps everything else that's been happening in the episode."
    Either way, Thompson said, Cosby is already fading into history. His college students know the comedian as "a grumpy guy" more familiar from parodies than from his actual work. After all, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the fatherly Cosby of "The Cosby Show," left the air in 1992 -- more than two decades ago.
    "Talk to a 20-year-old (about Cosby), and they think, 'Oh, that's really creepy, that old guy was hitting on women,' but they don't feel about Cliff Huxtable the way people a little older do," he said.
    Cosby doesn't have to do anything, of course. For civil claims, the statute of limitations has expired for many of the claims about him, though it varies from state to state, observed Cornell law professor Cynthia G. Bowman. The statute of limitations also varies widely for criminal claims, she addedd, but it would be "extremely difficult to reconstruct events," never mind prove anything so many decades later.
    Cosby also remains one of America's wealthiest entertainers. He can return quietly to private life and enjoy the rest of his days in seclusion, if that's what he desires. He has about a dozen appearances still scheduled, but after a June date in Providence, Rhode Island, there's nothing on his calendar.
    Still, without a final word, Cosby goes from perceived hero to Greek-level tragedy. His circumstance brings to mind "The Natural's" Roy Hobbs, the exalted fictional baseball star who, in Bernard Malamud's novel, is left in ruins.
    As the book ends, Hobbs buys a newspaper and reads of his demise.
    "And there was also a statement by the baseball commissioner. 'If this alleged report is true, that is the last of Roy Hobbs in organized baseball. He will be excluded from the game and all his records forever destroyed.'
    "Roy handed the paper back to the kid.
    " 'Say it ain't true, Roy.'
    "When Roy looked into the boy's eyes he wanted to say it wasn't but couldn't, and he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears."