The Bill Cosby saga, as it’s played out over the last few weeks, represents a massive systemic fail for the media. This wasn’t just a story that the media missed. It’s a story that was already on the record and about a guy whom various newspapers, magazines, and TV networks helped promote in all sorts of ways over the last 10 years.
There are legitimate reasons for journalists not to pry into the private lives of celebrities, of course, and of course any story should be vetted and put in context. But this wasn’t about Cosby's personal life; allegations of violent, felonious behavior were made by multiple women who spoke on the record and told similar stories—and were represented by a lawyer who said they had almost 10 more potential victims waiting in the wings to testify. Despite this, networks and papers got into the habit of giving it a pass.
Have we learned anything? Here’s a test. In the next few months Fox is premiering two TV shows. One, which has already been heavily promoted during the MLB playoffs, is called Empire. A musical show about a hip-hop impresario, it premieres Jan. 7. The other, a miniseries about a small town in Idaho, is called Wayward Pines and is on Fox’s docket for mid-season. What the shows have in common is actor Terrence Howard, who’s the star of Empire and has a recurring role on Wayward Pines.
As those shows are promoted and their stars begin doing press, will Howard ever be asked about the six times women have gone on the record saying he hit them?
What exactly is Howard’s history? It’s complicated. His relationships clearly seem volatile. And divorce documents don’t always contain true information. But here’s what he’s been said to have done, based on news stories and police reports compiled by the Smoking Gun, TMZ, and other journalistic outlets—with due credit to this Gawker post, which collected the allegations in August of 2013:
1) In 2000 Howard got into an in-flight altercation with a stewardess, allegedly grabbing her wrist and trying to push her. He was arrested when the plane landed. The Smoking Gun said that he was not charged because of a lack of jurisdiction.
2) In 2001, according to documents posted by the Smoking Gun, Howard was arrested for assaulting his wife, Lori McCommas, from whom he was separated at the time. According to the police report, McCommas said the actor had slugged her twice—and that the arresting officer saw marks on the woman’s face. The cop quoted Howard saying, “I broke the door down and hit my wife.” The Smoking Gun: “After being charged with a variety of crimes (simple assault, terroristic threats, harassment and stalking), Howard subsequently pleaded guilty in 2002 to disorderly conduct.”
3) The next incident occurred in 2005. It was dug up by Philadelphia magazine last year. (Howard lives in a northwest suburb of Philadelphia.) Quoting police reports, the magazine said that Howard had gotten into an argument with a couple over seating at a diner in a nearby town. According to the magazine, the report said Howard had beat the man, a U.S. Marine, to the ground, hit the woman he was with, and then fled. He was eventually caught and arrested and pled guilty to disorderly conduct.
4) In 2011 the gossip site TMZ, citing court documents, said that Howard’s wife, Michelle Ghent, had obtained a temporary restraining order against him. According to TMZ and the Daily Beast, divorce documents accused him of throwing her across the room and moving to throw her off a balcony during one altercation, and “smacking her in the face and chipping her tooth with his wedding ring” in another. In his defense, Howard contended that his wife had struck him during those incidents.
5) In May 2012, Philly.com published an account of a hearing in which a girlfriend of Howard’s had been charged with hitting him during an altercation at his home. May Seng Yang later told the New York Daily News that she went to his house in 2012 and found him with another woman. She said he’d choked her and punched her in the face. The Philly.com story quotes her attorney saying that Howard was a foot taller and outweighed Yang by 100 pounds. It also said, “The police report states that there was a cut on Howard’s nose but also mentions bruising on Yang, who refused medical treatment when paramedics arrived on the scene.”
6) Howard divorced Ghent in May 2013, but in late summer the pair went on a trip to Costa Rica. According to TMZ, Ghent claimed in court documents that, during a fight in their hotel room, Howard approached her with a knife. She pepper-sprayed him and he then “knocked her down and then kicked her repeatedly in the head.” TMZ published photos that allegedly show Ghent’s injuries.
As with Bill Cosby, the issue isn’t whether the star should be punished; that’s the justice system’s job to determine. The question is whether the media should mention the charges as it does its time-honored job of promoting movies and TV shows for actors and producers.
Should every story about a celebrity mention every parking ticket he or she has received? Probably not. But a half-dozen allegations of violence toward women? The only real evidence I can find of reporters asking these questions is this clearly pre-arranged Entertainment Tonight interview from the premiere of The Butler. In it, he flatly denies ever having hit anyone: “I've never laid my hands on that woman, or any woman, that’s just not my way.”
Have Howard’s co-stars—people like Oprah Winfrey in The Butler, or Bill Murray in St. Vincent—heard about his criminal history? Does Lee Daniels, who directed him in The Butler and cast Howard again in Empire? Surely someone at Imagine Entertainment—that’s Ron Howard and Brian Glazer’s company—or Fox knows that they’ve spent millions on a TV series starring a guy with six different on-the-records allegations of attacking women, right?
There’s a simple solution: Reporters can do their jobs, let their readers know about credible charges on the public record, and ask Howard about them if they get the chance. (They could also ask his co-stars and the producers who hired him about the allegations, too.) Reporters fell down on that job for years with Bill Cosby. They shouldn’t make the same mistake with Terrence Howard.