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John Doyle: The Bill Cosby case is the most toxic of them all

Bill Cosby was supposed to be on David Letterman's show on Wednesday night. He is not.

As a CBS news report told it, Cosby is currently going about his business, "amid a swirl of controversy." The phrase "a swirl of controversy" is a rather understated way of conveying that several women claim he raped them over the past 30 years.

He has not been charged or convicted of a crime. His lawyer said the other day: "Over the last several weeks, decades-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment." Then the lawyer added that Cosby "would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support. …"

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The Cosby case, which seems to grow bigger daily, is a truly toxic mess for the entertainment industry.

First, why do all those people – mainly men – who work in TV, movies, radio and the comedy industry never speak out about the abuse of women? Hereabouts, the Ghomeshi case has become murkier than ever, as suggestions emerge that numerous people knew about the alleged violence against women and said nothing. We're smug to an extraordinary degree in Canada and in recent weeks reading the sanctimonious blather of some of the most vicious men in Canadian entertainment and media has been a vomitous experience.

In the United States, the Cosby case is heightened by several factors, all of them rage-inducing.

There is the fact that he still has many fans, as his lawyer suggests, and they support him. That CBS report that mentioned "a swirl of controversy" covered a recent stand-up gig by Cosby, and several members of the audience are quoted as saying the allegations are obviously untrue and the accusers are "just looking for attention."

Cosby's decades-old public persona of an affable, lovable comedian in public and serious-minded philanthropist, art collector and scholar in private, has been rock solid.

That fact is an answer to a question asked in a headline in The Washington Post last week. A Cosby accuser, Barbara Bowman, wrote a column under the headline: "Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?"

The adoration of Cosby is a thing to behold. Only now, thanks in part to social media, is the matter of allegations against him getting a full airing. When that headline asks, "Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?" we must take into account that the 77-year-old Cosby settled a civil suit in 2006 with another woman over an alleged sexual-assault incident.

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What arises here is responsibility. The public's perception of Cosby was fastened forever by the success of The Cosby Show in the 1980s. As the fictional Dr. Huxtable, patriarch of an upper-middle-class African-American family, Cosby personified so much – the cultured, bourgeois African-American male. He also made NBC a vast amount of money and, as some see it, saved the network.

One can, maybe, understand a wrong-headed professional reluctance inside the TV industry to speak ill of him. But surely personal integrity must trump professional pragmatism? A vast army of people has worked with Cosby over the decades and yet it is only the victims who actually speak out.

And then, because it is the U.S., always enveloped in some cultural or race antagonism, there is Cosby's iconic status as an African-American male whose public persona is acceptable to those suspicious of African-Americans in general.

CNN has been spending a lot of air time on the allegations against Cosby. This, of course, angers others. Here's what Rush Limbaugh said: "What did Bill Cosby ever do to tick off some producer at CNN? Or some reporter or some assignment. What happened here? And then I had to stop and remember. Bill Cosby has, numerous times, in the recent past, given public lectures in which he has said to one degree or another that black families and communities had better step up and get hold of themselves and not fall prey to the forces of destruction that rip them apart. And basically he started demanding that people start accepting responsibility. And the next thing you know, he's the nation's biggest rapist as far as CNN is concerned."

While we can only stand back and watch some of this unfold with dismayed awe, we can also learn something from it. Learn that women who go public with allegations of abuse by powerful men are shamed, vilified and even blamed for what happened to them. Learn, too, that in the entertainment industry many people, men and women, submit to the higher power of star power and keep fictions alive when they should be speaking the truth.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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