New York leaves Charlamagne Tha God unchecked on Cosby humor

Photo by Mike Windle (Getty)

When 35 women appeared on the cover of New York magazine last summer, it symbolized a breakthrough in documenting the litany of rape allegations against Bill Cosby over four decades. The issue featured a photo essay and compilation of testimonies on “trauma and survival,” giving voice to women who had been shunned and shamed for years. They told of “the culture that wouldn’t listen,” and the magazine was hailed for its powerful examination of that injustice.

A commitment to that subject would be expected going forward. But this week, New York printed a glowing 4,300-word profile of Charlamagne Tha God, calling him “Tha God of Hip-Hop Radio.” Charlamagne, born Lenard McKelvey, hosts a talk show on MTV2, and the cable channel Revolt televises his syndicated, New York-based morning radio show, The Breakfast Club. He’s an irreverent provocateur, “hip-hop’s puckish Howard Stern,” the magazine said, echoing a comparison made by Rolling Stone in 2014, before Charlamagne had 1.4 million followers on Twitter. New York Contributing Editor Mark Jacobson wrote of Charlamagne’s shock-jock talent as an interviewer and the high-profile controversies that indiscretion ignites, but missing from the piece was virtually any description of the inappropriate things Charlamagne has said on his way to becoming so popular.

The Cosby date rape revelation was among the biggest stories of last year, and too often, Charlamagne more or less made a joke of it.

 

It’s one thing to be sad at the sight of fallen heroes, or to allow eccentric guests to voice their views, but interview hosts are expected to shut down tastelessness past a point.

 

“The culture that wouldn’t listen” describes a collective failure. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic owned up to a “reckless” misjudgment of the Cosby allegations. But Charlamagne’s running commentary on The Breakfast Club—where he interviews mostly musicians, actors, and comedians—went many steps beyond what was perhaps an understandable impulse for Cosby fans to resist such a dark truth. Charlamagne calls himself a journalist and “cultural critic,” thus he accepts a higher standard for tact and truth-telling beyond that of an entertainer. An in-depth profile should confront him on the most troubling instances when he appeared to fall short of that. In his own interviews, Charlamagne Tha God would never allow a guest to pass as infallible.         

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Last July, Charlamagne told Marc Lamont Hill of The Huffington Post that he decided to stop defending Cosby after the 2005 deposition was released in which Cosby admitted to drugging women. “We don’t want to believe that about our heroes,” Charlamagne said of his prior hesitation. Less than two months later on The Breakfast Club, the comedian Damon Wayans riffed about the rape accusers and said, “Some of them, really, is unrapeable. I look at them and go, no, he don’t want that.” Charlamagne had to stand up from his chair because he was laughing so hard, then said, “But mind you, 50 years later, they might have been hot in their younger days.” “Nah, you can tell, dude,” Wayans replied as Charlamagne gripped his stomach, cracking up.

 

 

Before and after Charlamagne and his co-hosts accepted Cosby’s guilt, that sort of crude humor was routine on The Breakfast Club. It’s one thing to be sad at the sight of fallen heroes, or to allow eccentric guests to voice their views, but interview hosts are expected to shut down tastelessness past a point. On the rival program Sway in the Morning on SiriusXM, the comedian Lavell Crawford once began a joke about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian naming their daughter North. Immediately, Sway shook his head and said, “No, no, no. Don’t do that. Don’t go at the kid,” and they moved on. The same off-limits instinct should apply to survivors of serial date rape, one would think.

 

 

Charlamagne invoked criticism of how the rape allegations finally got national attention—when the stand-up comic Hannibal Buress called Cosby out for long-existing reports of rape during a set in late 2014. Chris Rock came on The Breakfast Club soon after, and Charlamagne asked, “With Hannibal as a comedian, do you feel like he crossed that line with the [legends] like Bill Cosby? He just got on stage and said Cosby raped somebody. Where’s the punchline?” As this warped argument goes, even if the allegations were true, Buress broke code by calling out his peer. Rock, of course, defended the younger comic.   

Maybe Charlamagne has an evolved view of how he handled the Cosby story, or a justification of how he can be a journalist and cultural critic while also being so flippant on serious subjects. That would’ve been interesting to broach in the New York profile. But the piece marvelled at Charlamagne’s ability to provoke without explaining what he says to be provocative. New York of all places would be expected not to brush past crassness related to the Cosby rapes. 

“The piece makes it very clear that Charlamagne is a provocateur,” Lauren Starke, director of public relations at New York, wrote in an email, “and to list every single occasion in which he’s said something controversial would be impossible. On the question of Cosby specifically, Charlamagne issued a mea culpa nearly a year ago.” Starke’s email links to the Huffington Post story, which was not linked to or mentioned in the New York article.

In a piece about Kanye West a few months ago, New York Writer at Large Rembert Browne notes that when the rapper was deluded enough to tweet, “BILL COSBY INNOCENT,” “you feel let down.” Those same expectations explain why the incomplete profile of an important voice like Charlamagne’s leaves one feeling let down, too.  

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt