Bill Cosby (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The Wrap delivers the worst Cosby Op-Ed yet

The Wrap suggests the comedian has been raped by the media. Its editor's apology isn't much better


Mary Elizabeth Williams
November 25, 2014 1:45AM (UTC)

In all of the conversation about the recent onslaught of rape allegations against Bill Cosby, it's not easy to take the top spot for worst commentary yet, but it takes real flair to follow it up with the worst apology for it as well. So kudos to the whole team at the Wrap, who really went above and beyond this weekend.

It started with a Saturday post on the entertainment site by writer Rich Stellar that was called, I kid you not, "The Rape of Bill Cosby." Here's the opening line: "Bill Cosby raped me." Then, impressively, it gets worse. Here's the second sentence: "Now that I have your attention, consider this: the allegations of sexual misadventure and impropriety that have pummeled the Cos over the last few weeks is not the issue." There is so much wrong with that statement, it may take you a while to get around to the inconsistent verb tense. There's the fact that when someone is accused of rape, that is not the same as "misadventure and impropriety." There's also the fact that it's not ever the job of some guest blogger for an entertainment site to tell people who say they've been raped what "the issue" is.

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Stellar goes on to compare media outlets covering the Cosby story to "aging corpulent prostitutes, their hair dyed flame red and their nails like elongated daggers — waiting to blow any John who dares to topple those who may be kings." Stellar is angry that stories like "Ferguson, IS, immigration reform, and 46 abducted students in Mexico" have been "hijacked" by "the latest Cosby detractors," women he describes as "aging actresses who have one eye on the CNN camera, and the other on a book or reality show deal." He goes on to say, "If the statute of limitations was as long as the 15 minutes of fame that these lost souls are trying to recapture, then our prisons would be as vacant as the Holiday Inn in Acapulco (you probably have no idea what that means because you're not used to real news) ... A DNA swab on most of Cosby's detractors if done today would most likely come up exceedingly dry."

Hey, everybody, here's that rape culture you ordered. It looks like this. It looks like somebody, often but not always a man, declaring what qualifies as "real news." Spoiler: It's probably not going to be a story involving women, even if it's dozens of women, over the span of decades. If that arbiter of "real news" can work in some disparaging commentary about those distracting women's looks, ages or secret motives, so much the better. Note, for example, how Stellar manages to write a story involving a 77-year-old man and unflatteringly applies the word "aging" twice – to women. Note how he makes a crack about their imagined "exceedingly dry" DNA swabs, and come with me down the line of thinking that phrase invites. See, their rape kits would be dry because they're "aging." They're not even bangable, let alone rapeable, AM I RIGHT? Dear Mr. Stellar: I know many women – and more than a few men – who've been sexually assaulted, and honest to God, words fail me to explain how offensive that particular comment is. I'll just say this – enduring a rape test is an often traumatic event, and a person's status as a sexual assault survivor is not in any way connected to that person's current sexual viability to the likes of someone like you.

Stellar goes on to conclude, "I'm not saying that what these woman claim happened, didn't happen" before launching into an incomprehensible metaphor involving campfires and declaring, "Yes, that could well have happened, and once those women realized the violation that they endured at the hands of Cosby, then they should have reported it then — not a generation later ... His detractors and accusers smack of something else than truth — they carry the faint aroma of deceit, selective memory, and blind ambition."

Stellar mentions zero specifics of the Cosby allegations. So here's a start for you. The linchpin of the whole story is Cosby's 2006 settlement in a civil lawsuit with Andrea Constand. Constand was at the time a 32-year-old Temple University employee who said she was assaulted two years earlier. She was not "aging," she was not an actress eyeing a reality show, and she did report the incident shortly after it occurred. Thirteen other women came forward as part of the case. And as for the ones who've spoken out more recently, their current ages and their careers bear no correlation to what may have happened to them. Credibility is not tied to youth or job status. But Stellar wrote a piece suggesting as much, not based on a single detail of their cases, but on his gnawing discomfort with the "faint aroma" around them. And the Wrap published it.

On Twitter this weekend, Wrap executive editor Joseph Kapsch defended the choice to run the piece, saying, "It's important to present both sides not that there's was a chorus begging take this side [sic] … I've been vocal about sexual assault being delicate and no one really knowing truth except Cosby & alleged victims…. We don't edit guest blogs for context that's why it's in our contributor section." And Wrap founder and CEO Sharon Waxman similarly commented, "Damn straight it's about free speech. #freespeech times a million. @thewrap (i welcome debate, abhor the mob.)" Ah, free speech. As a character from Feminist Princess Bride would say, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

On Sunday, the Wrap changed the title of the post to "In Defense of Bill Cosby," and included a hilariously contradictory new introduction from Stellar saying, "The furor over my recent blog that was misconstrued as defending Bill Cosby was unexpected, but not unwarranted." Stellar apologized to "anyone who has faced the horrific physical and mental pain that comes with forcible abuse and unwelcome sexual advances" but explained, "The purpose of the blog was to bring damnation down on the media." In a separate letter, Waxman, meanwhile, apologized for the "not intentional" offense the piece gave but said, "The fierceness with which Stellar's views are attacked truly gives me pause (i.e. any questioning of an accusation makes him pro-rape?), and makes me wonder what we are losing in our society as polarized opinions retreat to their own echo chambers ... My strong belief is that the antidote to speech you do not agree with is more speech. And more speech. That's the underpinning of our democracy." Who wants to break it to Sharon Waxman that publishing garbage is not the same as championing democracy?

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What's uniquely galling about the Wrap's piece is Stellar and Waxman's continued insistence that the real point of the blog was "to bring damnation down on the media." This is what is now known as "the ethics in gaming journalism defense" – pretend you're crusading against the big bad media in the cause of truth when you're really just being horrendous to women.

Here's why it's gallingly disingenuous to say that the piece was anything but blatantly offensive word puke. You want to write a guest Op-Ed explaining the distinction between the criminal justice system and the court of public opinion? Fair game. You might want to cite some specific examples of the egregious behavior of the press you're angry about, though. Or even one example. You want to ask questions about why so many women are coming forward now, as opposed to decades ago, or plead for people to give a fair, open-minded viewing of the facts of these cases as they are known? You know what? That's reasonable. Plenty of us – believe it or not, even plenty of us of a feminist, liberal bent – believe in the ideals of justice and fairness, which includes assessing the evidence before reaching conclusions. And if you'd like to look at some actual reporting to help you make up your mind, the Washington Post this weekend did a meticulous job of presenting the accounts of many of the women themselves. You don't hide behind the words "free speech" without taking ownership of the responsibility that speech imposes. You don't publish snarky, mean-spirited and pathetically sexist speculation about women who say they've been raped and call it fair and balanced. That's not how true dialogue works. That's how trolling does. You don't get the moral high ground, Waxman and company. You don't get an inch of it here. And you don't get to be self-righteous about taking the bold stance that journalists investigating the story are basically fat, old hookers, and that Cosby's accusers are a bunch of lying, dried-up fame chasers.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Cosby Editor's Picks Journalism Media Sexual Assault Sharon Waxman The Wrap

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