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Making Sense of the Bill Cosby Scandal

Dec 26, 2014

Credit npr.org

Decades old allegations of sexual assault have come back to haunt Bill Cosby in a big way.

And, it all started with a viral comedy routine about Cosby's dark past by comedian Hannibal Buress -- and a clumsy internet response by Cosby's handlers.

That made it the internet story of the year, according to Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-Making Project.

"It snuck up on us. Nobody predicted that this story was going to blow up this year," said McBride.  And it really blew up because of two particular things. You mentioned the comedian.  But Cosby's camp responded to the comedian with a meme generator that back-fired on them. They asked people to create memes of Cosby with their favorite quotes and instead people created some really vicious memes accusing him of being a rapist."

Now, it's not as if Cosby's handlers aren't used to dealing with the media, it's just they were not ready for the way media now handles a story when it goes viral on the internet.

"The Cosby camp was accustomed to the old media relationships that they had built," McBride explained. "David Carr of the New York Times did a great piece examining all of the journalists who had written about Cosby and not brought up the rape allegations -- even though they were very well documented. And he suggested that journalists were complicite in letting Cosby have a pass on that sort of scrutiny. And he was right. The Cosby camp was counting on the old media backing them up and instead the old media saw the social media interest in this story and started digging in."

The old media may have run with the Cosby scandal story now, but in doing so they exposed how much  the story has been ignored in the past.

"The allegations first came out in 2004 in Philadelphia with a Temple University employee," said McBride. "In 2005 there was a lawsuit. In 2006 Philadelphia Magazine did a well documented story called "Doctor Huxtable and Mr. Hyde." And then there was nothing until in 2014 Newsweek did an interview with one of his accusers and then the comedian did his thing and that started the ball rolling."

And there may be no way to stop the sex scandal ball from rolling through the rest of Bill Cosby's life.

"I'm pretty sure it will be mentioned in the first three paragraphs of his obituary," McBride said.