- - Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The takedown of Bill Cosby, from an attack of a comedian to allegations of sexual assault by a string of women, vividly illustrates the toxic mix of social media and irresponsible journalism.

This story is classic click bait — sensational material to lure readers and viewers.

Liberals have been uncomfortable with Mr. Cosby since his 2004 speech before an NAACP gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. That’s why it’s easy to try to take him down.

“We cannot blame white people,” he told the NAACP audience, listing a variety of ills black Americans needed to solve on their own. “In our cities and public schools we have 50 percent drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.”

Fast-forward to last month in Philadelphia, where Hannibal Buress, a Chicago comedian known for his profanity-laced routines, attacked Mr. Cosby.

Bill Cosby has the f***ing smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Mr. Buress said during a “comedy” act at the Trocadero Theater. “You rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”

Mr. Buress’ attack went viral on social and mainstream media after being posted on YouTube.

But what’s the “proof” Mr. Cosby raped women?

Accusers recounted incidents in the 1960s and the 1970s; another wrote a column for The Washington Post about allegations in the 1980s.

The “smoking gun” was Mr. Cosby’s settlement in 2006 of a civil lawsuit after criminal prosecutors determined they did not have enough evidence to take to court.

Mark Whitaker, the former editor of Newsweek who wrote a recent biography of Mr. Cosby, faced questioners who thought he failed to adequately examine the charges against the comedian.

“In these cases, there were no definitive court findings, there were no independent witnesses, and I just felt, at the end of the day, all I would be doing would be, ‘These people say this, Cosby denies this,’” Mr. Whitaker told The Huffington Post.

That’s the answer I wanted to hear from a journalist. If you don’t have the proof, you don’t hurl the accusations as many news outlets have done recently. The justification for airing the old charges again seemed to be that it was on social media, so the story was fair game.

Here’s an example from CNN: “Nasty allegations have been haunting one of America’s most iconic comedians, a man with a reputation for moral wholesomeness. For nine years, Bill Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by women who say they were the victims. Cosby has repeatedly said that the allegations are untrue. And he has never been prosecuted.”

Actually, nothing changed in the past nine years other than the rising power of social media. CNN and other news organizations simply regurgitated old news. But the stories got viewers and readers, irrespective of the truth or the currency of the allegations.

I don’t know if Mr. Cosby committed sexual assaults, but much of the media violated critical journalistic standards and practices in reporting the story. You don’t go public until you have more than statements from people claiming sexual assault.

As one famed editor told his reporters: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Unfortunately, many journalists no longer follow that cardinal rule.

(Disclosure: Mr. Cosby serves on the board of trustees of Temple University, where I teach. Mr. Whitaker and I worked together at Newsweek in the 1970s.)

Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter @charper51.

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