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How the World Turned on Bill Cosby: A Day-by-Day Account

From a forgotten story bubbling in the shadows of the entertainment press to a full-scale media hurricane, the story of Bill Cosby shows how modern feeding frenzies are born.

12.01.14 10:47 AM ET

Mark Whitaker, whose well-publicized biography of Bill Cosby was published in mid-September, talked about allegations of sexual misconduct against Cosby in an interview with The Daily Beast on Sept. 24, but the story didn’t catch fire until two months later on—according to Twitter data—Nov. 18.

So what took so long? The most popular theory has been that the story went viral when comedian Hannibal Buress included a bit about the allegations in a stand-up comedy routine, but clips of Buress’s routine began circulating a full month earlier on Oct. 17.

In this era of instant sensations—when juicy stories burn through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media in a matter of hours—why did this one take more than two months to explode into the mass media?

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Here’s a breakdown of how it went down:

2004-2014 The allegations of sexual misconduct against Cosby are not new. As Matt Giles and Nate Jones detail in an excellent timeline for Vulture.com, four women—Andrea Constand, Tamara Green, Beth Ferrier, and Barbara Bowman—made public accusations from 2004 to 2006 that Cosby had sexually assaulted each of them. However, until 2014, Cosby spoke frequently about social issues, gave numerous media interviews, and extensively toured to perform comedy routines. The allegations against Cosby had essentially gone away. Early this year, Cosby had a sitcom in development for NBC and a stand-up special in development for Netflix.

Feb. 4. Gawker ran a piece about Dylan Farrow’s allegations of sexual misconduct against Woody Allen being old news and makes the analogy to the years-old allegations against Bill Cosby, noting that four women had made public accusations against Cosby and one had referred to nine Jane Doe witnesses with similar allegations that she intended to call as a witness against Cosby. Four plus nine equals 13 women who have claims of sexual misconduct against Cosby.

Sept. 5. The National Enquirer posted a story reporting that Whitaker’s forthcoming Cosby biography “rips the lid off the award-winning actor’s scandalous womanizing” and says the book reveals details about Cosby’s 1975 extramarital affair that he had previously acknowledged. The National Enquirer referenced its own 2005 interview with Cosby after he was “cleared of sexual molestation charges brought against him by a Canadian woman, who claimed she was drugged and attacked by Cosby in 2004.”

Sept. 12. A week later, the Wall Street Journal posted its review of the book, noting that Cosby’s “reputation as a moralist has been clouded by accusations by several young women that he drugged them and took advantage of them sexually” and that “the sexual-abuse allegations go unmentioned” in the book.

Sept. 15. The New Yorker posted a 6,000-word article about Cosby by contributor Kalefa Sanneh that was appearing in that week’s print edition. The piece is part profile of Cosby and his planned career comeback and part review of Whitaker’s Cosby: His Life and Times, a biography that would be published the following day. In the piece, Sanneh meets the rape allegations head on:

In the past decade, the tales of infidelity have been joined by much more serious allegations. At least four women, using their own names and telling similar stories, have accused Cosby of sexual assault. The accounts, made public in outlets that include the “Today” show and People, depict Cosby luring each woman to a private place, drugging her, and assaulting her. Cosby settled a lawsuit filed by one of the women, but he has never spoken of the allegations in public. (Earlier this year, his publicist dismissed one of the stories as “discredited.”) Whitaker doesn’t mention them, either—a remarkable omission.

Sept. 17. Buzzfeed posted a story noting that it had requested an interview with Whitaker and that he had declined. (According to the story, the publicist for Simon & Schuster “said that [Whitaker] was too busy to talk since the book was just released this week.” It’s not clear when Buzzfeed requested the interview, but Simon & Schuster was certainly making Whitaker available. I had interviewed him three days earlier for The Daily Beast, but the interview had not yet posted online.)

The Buzzfeed story included a statement from Whitaker saying he didn’t include any allegations he couldn’t “confirm independently.”

Sept. 18-23. Over the next week, reviews by The New York Times, New York Times Book Review, and Washington Post omit or make only a passing mention of the fact that the book glossed over the allegations of sexual misconduct.

Sept. 24. The Daily Beast posted an interview with Whitaker that I had conducted a little more than a week earlier. In that interview, Whitaker said he didn’t delve fully into the allegations because “I didn’t want to write a tell-all. I wanted to write mostly about his professional career and the impact that has had.” He also explained Cosby’s representatives demanded that any discussion of past sexual allegations “had to have iron-clad, independent reporting.” Finally, he said if he went into any detail about the allegations, “It would open the door for everyone who writes about this book to just repeat those allegations, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that.”

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Oct. 17. Philadelphia magazine posted a short video clip of comedian Buress’s comedy performance the evening before at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia. In the mobile phone video, Buress said Cosby is a pretentious moralizer who’s also a rapist and urged audience members to Google “Bill Cosby rapist.”

Oct. 20. Following a weekend of low-grade social-media chatter, numerous sites—Buzzfeed, Gawker, Jezebel, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and others—ran stories on Monday about Buress’s “rapist” comments.

Oct. 21. More mainstream media, like USA Today and TV Guide, begin picking up the Buress story. Buress went on The Howard Stern Show to talk about the Cosby story. “It's just information that's out there,” Buress said. “I said it and I gotta stand on it, but it is an interesting situation.”

Oct. 27. MailOnline, the website for UK’s Daily Mail tabloid paper, ran an exclusive interview with Barbara Bowman, one of the four women who had made public allegations against Cosby. “I’ve been silent too long,” Bowman said. “It’s time to raise a fuss. I’m a real person that this happened to. And it’s taken decades to get over what he did to me.” The next day, Gawker, InTouch, and other U.S. outlets picked up the story, but the Cosby story was still only a blip on Twitter.

Oct. 30. Hollywood Reporter, TMZ, and other entertainment sites reported that Cosby had cancelled an upcoming appearance on The Queen Latifah Show.

Oct. 31. The Washington Post ran a story called “Is the World Starting to Turn Against Bill Cosby?” citing the TMZ story about the Queen Latifah cancellation, the MailOnline interview with Barbara Bowman, and the decade-old Tamara Green allegations.

Nov. 2. It was starting to look like Cosby might not brush this scandal off. The New York Times ran a piece asking: “Has Hannibal Buress Changed the Way We Look at Bill Cosby?”

Nov. 10. Twitter traffic for “Bill Cosby” that had been running at 1,000 to 1,500 mentions a day for the last week spiked to 9,000 mentions when Bill Cosby’s website started a “meme generator” that allow site visitors to add text to various Cosby photos and post them on Twitter. The site had an approval process, but users began creating humorous photos, screen-grabbing, and posting them to Twitter with the hashtag #CosbyMeme.

Nov. 13. Barbara Bowman put Cosby back in the news with a Washington Post op-ed not-so-subtly entitled “Bill Cosby Raped Me” in which she described blacking out after having dinner with him. “When I came to, I was in my panties and a man’s t-shirt, and Cosby was looming over me,” Bowman wrote. “I’m certain now that he drugged and raped me.” Bowman talked about the allegations that evening on CNN Tonight. Twitter mentions of “Bill Cosby” doubled from the previous day to more than 7,000 tweets.

Nov. 14. Cosby cancelled an appearance scheduled for the following week on Late Show with David Letterman. Twitter traffic topped 10,000 tweets for the first time since the story began two months before as websites and blogs fed a growing feedback loop of stories that linked to earlier stories.

Nov. 15. Cosby ducked questions in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon. Cosby didn’t even answer the questions; Simon had to note for the radio audience that Cosby was shaking his head no. Later that day, billcosby.com posted a statement by Cosby’s attorney—deleted days later—that said Cosby “does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment.” Twitter mentions surged to 17,500.

Nov. 16. Cosby’s lawyered-up denial went mainstream—The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and nearly every other mainstream news outlet ran stories with headlines including the words “Cosby” “lawyer” and “rape.” Twitter mentions: 20,000, but still a tiny fraction of what was to come.

Nov. 17. On a Monday, typically the first day of the weekly news cycle, came the first bombshell since the Buress comments a month before: A new purported victim comes forward. Hollywood blogger Jeffrey Wells posted an interview with former publicist and journalist Joan Tarshis, who said Cosby drugged and raped her in 1969. Twitter mentions: 22,000.

Nov. 18. The dam broke. Netflix canceled an previously-taped Cosby comedy special, Variety reports that NBC was under “mounting pressure” to cancel a sitcom starring Cosby that the network had in development for fall 2015, and former model and reality TV star Janice Dickinson told Entertainment Tonight in a televised interview that Cosby had raped her in 1982. Tweets with “Bill Cosby” increased fivefold from the previous day to 103,000.

Nov. 19. Peak Cosby hits with 111,000 tweets. The Dickinson story bounced around the internet, NBC announced it would not go forward with its Cosby comedy, TV Land pulled reruns of The Cosby Show, and the Associated Press released video from an interview with Cosby and his wife. After refusing to answer questions about alleged sexual misconduct, Cosby had a fascinating and revealing exchange with Associated Press reporter Brett Zongker. When he thought the cameras weren’t taping, the actor asked that even his “no response” response not be shown.

“I think if you want to consider yourself to be serious, than it will not appear anywhere,” Cosby told Zongker, who gave a non-committal response: “OK, I appreciate what you’ve asked.”

“Thank you,” replied Cosby. “We thought, by the way, that because it was AP that it wouldn’t be necessary to go over that question with you.”

Nov. 20. Another day, two new allegations. Carla Ferrigno, the wife of former Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno, said on an LA radio show that Cosby sexually assaulted her in the late 1960s. And actress Louisa Moritz told TMZ that Cosby had once forced his penis in her mouth in the green room of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. But even with new revelations, interest was fading. Twitter traffic for “Bill Cosby” slipped to 91,000.

Nov. 21. Three more women—Angela Leslie, Kristina Reuhli, and Renita Chaney Hill—reported allegations to three different media outlets that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted each of them, but Twitter traffic declined for the second straight day. TMZ reported that the five concert venues had cancelled Cosby performances for early 2015.

Nov. 22. The Washington Post ran a lengthy investigative piece that included new allegations by three more women, Linda Traitz, Victoria Valentino, and Meg Foster, and details from some of the other accusers.

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In the last week, The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where Cosby received his masters and doctorate in education in the 1970s, asked him to step down as an honorary co-chair of a capital campaign. The Berklee College of Music in Boston announced it would no longer grant a scholarship in the actor’s name. And High Point University in North Carolina removed him from its board of advisors.

Even so, the story is back to a low simmer. Twitter traffic was down substantially this past weekend. And despite the corporate and institutional scramble away from Cosby, Cosby received a standing ovation at a Florida show on Nov. 21. A European newspaper reported over the weekend that Cosby would do a TV interview in December and that NBC’s Today and CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman were in the mix for the “get.”

Retweets and story counts are an imperfect measure of public interest, but one thing is clear: Nothing fueled the story more than when Cosby tried to finesse it. The failed #CosbyMeme PR stunt, the lawyer-attributed denial posted and later removed from Cosby’s website, and Cosby’s disastrous NPR and Associated Press interviews drove far more internet gawkery than new allegations of misconduct.

Cosby is still scheduling performances for early 2015, and not all of his December performances have been cancelled. His performance career may survive in some diminished form, but the first line of his obituary is written: Bill Cosby, who broke racial barriers on television and whose career tumbled in 2014 after a long list of women accused him of past sexual misconduct….