The turnaround is stunning, in retrospect. Bill Cosby has lost a Netflix special, an NBC sitcom, a spot on Temple’s board of trustees and years of accumulated respect as the sexual assault accusations that followed him for 14 years have finally stuck. The beginning of this rapid public shift can be traced to a friend having an extra ticket to a comedy show, a Facebook post and the sometimes random luck of what turns an everyday post into something viral.
Dan McQuade, a contributing editor for Philly Mag, shot the video of Hannibal Buress saying “You rape women, Bill Cosby” at an Oct. 16 Trocadero show. He only went because his friend offered him a ticket that night.
McQuade told Billy Penn he doesn’t remember why his phone was in his hand when Buress went off; he said he was probably texting on his phone when he heard the name Cosby. With his phone handy and realizing anything said about Cosby in Philadelphia is likely relevant (Cosby is arguably Philadelphia’s most famous native son), he recorded the bit. After all, he was in search of material for his next Philly Mag shift.
“I just pulled my phone out and immediately hit record,” McQuade said. “And then when I finished I was like, ‘that’s a post.’ It was newsworthy.”
The Trocadero technically bans the recording of its shows. But a Trocadero employee said they generally don’t care if people used smart phones to record clips, unless an artist has a specific request. She said there was no such request for the Buress show.
McQuade didn’t expect his post would go viral. It didn’t even appear on the Philly Mag web site until late Friday afternoon. McQuade freelances for New York magazine’s pop culture site Vulture.com, and after he posted it, he messaged a staff member to alert him of his story. He didn’t get a response. Given the late Friday afternoon publishing time, the story could have easily died over the weekend.
Then on Monday afternoon Buzzfeed’s Ariane Lange ran an aggregated story about Buress’ comments. Lange told Billy Penn said she got wind of Buress’ comments by pure chance: An acquaintance of hers had posted McQuade’s story on Facebook.
“I noticed they hadn’t mentioned reaching out to Cosby or Buress, and I hadn’t seen the story anywhere else, so it seemed worth aggregating with a request for comment,” Lange said via email.
Cosby did not respond. Less than an hour later, Gawker hat-tipped Buzzfeed and posted on Buress, including the video and a link to the Philly Mag story. In February, Gawker had discussed the allegations amid new furor over Woody Allen, and Newsweek followed up by interviewing two women who claimed that Cosby sexually assaulted them. Outside of those two, Buzzfeed, Slate and Salon, hardly any other major news sites paid attention that month. In fact, Cosby went on to draw raves for this performance at South by Southwest in March. What allowed the story to continue spreading this time?
Slate’s Amanda Hess says the February stories of the Cosby allegations didn’t attract widespread attention because there was no news peg. She told Billy Penn the story likely gained traction this time through a combination of three factors: Buress being a comedian, the timing and video.
As a comedian, Hess said Buress didn’t have to hedge and use protective language like journalists. He could flat-out say he thought Cosby was a rapist, and Buress did.
“And as depressing as it is, a person in Buress’ position is not saddled with the same rape myths that victims are,” Hess said. “There’s a widespread belief that when a woman accuses a man of rape, she just might be lying for some sort of personal gain. It’s a totally irrational conclusion, but it’s a sadly prevalent one. It’s harder to argue that Buress has anything to gain by taking on Cosby.”
While in February Cosby was largely removed from the public eye, his stand-up special was scheduled to be released on Netflix in late November, and he was gearing up to promote it, along with a new NBC sitcom that had been finalized. That increased publicity was a way for younger viewers to see him in a new light, rather than as the old guy from Jell-O commercials.
Lastly, the video. Buress told Howard Stern he had been using the Cosby routine “off and on” for several months. But none of his previous acts caused anyone to act. Said Hess: “Both internet and television news thrive on video content.”
McQuade’s original post has accumulated nearly 615,000 pageviews. He said he doesn’t want to take any credit for what’s happened because he feels like all he did was shoot a video and write an easy blog post. He’s still puzzled by why that video he randomly shot has resonated so deeply.
“I’ve thought about that a lot when I see how much attention it’s gotten,” McQuade said. “Honestly I have no idea.”