Politics & Policy

Bill Cosby & The Blogosphere

The new media.

The philosophical conundrum is a familiar one: If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to see or hear it, did it really happen? Now let’s put a modern and slightly nuanced twist on the question. Suppose that at an NAACP gala to celebrate the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school-desegregation case, Bill Cosby lambastes some lower-income black parents for irresponsibility, and the Washington Post reports on it.

Did Cosby’s speech really happen or not? The answer for several days seemed to be barely, or at best, maybe–judging by coverage in major U.S. daily newspapers. They should have been all over the story the second Post columnist Richard Leiby issued his two-days-later scoop on Wednesday, May 19.

Instead, there was a bit of a curious silence from most print-media outlets. It was mainly talk radio and a host of bloggers, including the widely read education writer and former newspaper columnist Joanne Jacobs, who ran with the story.

Most of the print-media world initially turned tail on the story because Cosby got uppity. After noting troubling school-dropout rates for American blacks, he said, “The lower economic people are not holding up their end of the bargain. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids–$500 sneakers for what? And they won’t spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics.” Plus, “They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English…. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads.” Cosby went on to criticize black parents who don’t keep their kids out of trouble, and challenged claims that many blacks are incarcerated unjustly.

In a follow-up column drawn from a tape recording of the speech, the Post’s Leiby published even more pungent remarks by Cosby. Coz took aim at babies making babies, promiscuity, street fashion, and what he described as phony pride in African roots. (Here’s one of my blog posts with a link, pull quotes, an early round-up of other coverage, and divergent comments from blog readers, many of them black).

The print-media logjam didn’t really begin to loosen until five days after Cosby challenged race-baiting blacks and by implication, guilty white liberals. The New York Times proffered a PC-filtered piece by reporter Felicia R. Lee. Lee labeled Cosby’s tough-love comments “inflammatory.” She did include a valuable follow-up interview with Cosby, who stuck to his guns despite lamenting that the Post hadn’t mentioned his opening remarks about dropouts.

Knowing how Big Media works, I figured once the Times “legitimized” the story, all the usual suspects–namely, black op-ed writers–would spill ink.

And so they did: Leonard Pitts, Clarence Page, Colbert King, DeWayne Wickham, and Cynthia Tucker, to name just a few promiment–and black–opinion writers. Most offered strong support for Cosby, too.

But there were also several indignant reactions in print, and Cosby was feeling sufficient heat to issue a press release on the matter. Joe Rodriguez of the San Jose Mercury News went after Cosby. Likewise, Theodore Shaw of the NAACP and critic Michael Eric Dyson. So did Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Village Voice, and Sylvester Brown Jr. at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Brown approvingly paraphrased a source who characterized Cosby’s comments as ill-timed and grossly negative. Brown himself opined, “Like a surrogate grandfather, Cosby took America’s youth to the woodshed. Unfortunately, he did it publicly where such acts are oftentimes misunderstood.” Wrong. Understanding comes from unfettered dialogue. There are plenty of university courses on “institutional racism,” and “white privilege,” but precious few on “wearing out the race card.”

The guy who really nailed the Cosby story was Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service editor Gregory Clay. He witnessed Cosby’s speech, and penned an op-ed. Clay wrote, “Cosby openly chastised some black people for our dirty, little secrets. We are exposed…. Cosby broke the black code…. Give Cosby credit for having the guts to voice his displeasure at such a regal event…. Some have said Cosby is pitting lower-income blacks against middle- and upper-class blacks. That’s silly. Cosby’s central theme simply was this: Better parenting and educational achievement are in black people’s best interest, and some have failed miserably. Don’t let the Brown case die on the vine. We have to admit this; it’s about survival.”

Yet when Cosby laid it on the line, editors who profess to care about racial and social justice, and who tirelessly promote “diversity,” skulked away from the story until they absolutely had to cover it. Even then, skittish U.S. dailies left it mainly to black columnists. Where were the dozens of newspaper editorials on l’Affaire Cosby, the scores of local reaction articles, such as the WaPo’s or the Louisville Courier-Journal’s? Why had only a handful of West Coast U.S. dailies covered the story in any form 15 days hence–and for the most part, timidly?

Dick Meyer of CBSNews.com gets it right: “Plenty of white writers or editors simply avoid wading into this altogether because it is perceived as too risky, too easy to be accused of prejudice, or meddling.” And that avoidance, as Meyer notes, “ensures the issues become even more buried. Pimp rap goes uncriticized. Schools stay bad.”

The slow but now-steady spread of the Cosby story illustrates one more way bloggers serve an invaluable function: not just by rebutting or correcting the news; but by watering and “sunshining” stories that are dying on the vine because they disrupt the pre-conceived liberal agendas of media elites.

Many bloggers who depend on the news hold in low regard the person whose job title is “Page One Editor,” “National Editor,” or “Foreign Editor.” And rightly so, all too often. These folks play up what they like according to their politics, and downplay what they don’t like. What gets two inches on page A12 might really deserve 25 inches, starting on Page One.

Enter the humble blogger. True, the percentage of Internet users who report they view blogs regularly is still low. But even then, we’re talking some 31 million regular blog viewers. Admittedly, some blogs are about knitting, snow-boarding, or origami. Others are authored by navel-gazing college students, polyamorists, vegan anarchists, or self-declared alcoholics detailing each wretched night’s debauch. But watch out for many of the rest. Their reach grows.

The Cosby story–like others before it–has shown that a news story can grow “legs” thanks more to repackagers in the blogosphere than to “legitimate” print and broadcast outlets.

Freelance writer Matt Rosenberg is a freelance writer who hosts Rosenblog.

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