Calling Out Bill Cosby’s Media Enablers, Including Myself
By David Carr
Amid the public revulsion at the news that Bill Cosby, a trailblazing black entertainer, allegedly victimized women in serial fashion throughout his career, the response from those in the know has been: What took so long?
What took so long is that those in the know kept it mostly to themselves. No one wanted to disturb the Natural Order of Things, which was that Mr. Cosby was beloved; he was as generous and paternal as his public image; and that his approach to life and work represented a bracing corrective to the coarse, self-defeating urban black ethos.
Only the first of those things was actually true.
Those in the know included Mark Whitaker, who did not find room in his almost 500-page biography, “Cosby: His Life and Times,” to address the accusations that Mr. Cosby had assaulted numerous women, at least four of whom had spoken on the record and by name in the past about what Mr. Cosby is accused of having done to them.
Those in the know also included Ta-Nehisi Coates, who elided over the charges in a long and seemingly comprehensive story about Mr. Cosby in The Atlantic in 2008.
Those in the know included Kelefa T. Sanneh, who wrote a major piece in The New Yorker and who treated the allegations as an afterthought, referring to them quickly near the end of a profile of Mr. Cosby this past September.
And those in the know also included me. In 2011, I did a Q. and A. with Mr. Cosby for Hemispheres magazine, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, and never found the space or the time to ask him why so many women accused him of drugging and then assaulting them.
We all have our excuses, but in doing so, we let down the women who were brave enough to speak out publicly against a very powerful entertainer.
Mr. Whitaker has said he didn’t want to put anything in the book, which he wrote with Mr. Cosby’s cooperation, that wasn’t confirmed — which of course raises the question of why he wouldn’t have done the work to knock the allegations down or make them stand up.
And given that the allegations had already been carefully and thoroughly reported in Philadelphia magazine and elsewhere, any book of the size and scope of Mr. Whitaker’s book should have gone there.
Mr. Coates recently expressed regret on The Atlantic website that he did not press harder on Mr. Cosby’s conflicted past. In the course of his reporting, he said he came to the conclusion that “Bill Cosby was a rapist.”
He added: “I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough.”
I was one of those who looked away. Having read the Philadelphia magazine story when it came out, I knew when the editors of the airline magazine called that they would have no interest in pursuing those allegations in a short interview in a magazine meant to occupy fliers.
My job as a journalist was to turn that assignment down. If I was not going to do the work to tell the truth about the guy, I should not have let him prattle on about his new book at the time.
But I did not turn it down. I did the interview and took the money.
I paid for that in other ways. The interview was deeply unpleasant, with a windy, obstreperous subject who answered almost every question in 15-minute soliloquies, many of which were not particularly useful.
After an hour of this, I mentioned that the interview was turning out to be all A. and no Q. He paused, finally.
“Young man, are you interested in hearing what I have to say or not?” he said. “If not, we can end this interview right now.”
Mr. Cosby was not interested in being questioned, in being challenged in any way. By this point in his career, he was surrounded by ferocious lawyers and stalwart enablers and he felt it was beneath him to submit to the queries of mere mortals.
He was certain of his own certainty and had very little time for the opinions of others. Mr. Cosby, as all of those who did profiles on him have pointed out, was never just an entertainer, but a signal tower of moral rectitude.
From the beginning, part of his franchise was built on family values, first dramatized in “The Cosby Show” and then in his calling out the profane approach of younger comics and indicting the dress and manner of young black Americans.
Beyond selling Jell-O, Mr. Cosby was selling a version of America where all people are responsible for their own lot in life.
He seldom addressed bigotry and racism. Instead, he exhorted individuals to install their own bootstraps and pull themselves into success. And while they were at it, they should pull their pants up and quit sagging, a fashion trope Mr. Cosby found inexcusable.
It proved to be a popular theme with white audiences and less so with black ones. A generation of black comics who revered other pioneers like Richard Pryor found Mr. Cosby’s lectures tired and misplaced.
But that moralism, which put legs under his career as an author and a public figure, made Mr. Cosby a target. In 2005, ABC News reported on accusations of a former Temple University employee, who said that the entertainer drugged and fondled her.
That was followed by a report on “The Today Show” that he did the same thing to Tamara Green, a California lawyer.
The Philadelphia magazine story with a more comprehensive list of victims came out in 2006 and was followed by a story in People magazine about Barbara Bowman, who said that she was drugged and assaulted. And then the story just died.
Mr. Cosby was (mostly) out of view, his lawyers pushed back and tried to knock down every story and victim, and no one in the media seemed interested any longer. Mr. Cosby was old news, he had been investigated but never criminally charged, and there seemed to be little upside to going after a now-ancient story.
But as Mr. Cosby’s profile rose again when it became clear that he would get another ride on television with shows on NBC and Netflix, so did the scrutiny.
In February of this year, Newsweek published accounts from two of his victims, including Ms. Green, who called Mr. Cosby a “rapist” and “liar.”
In the end, it fell to a comic, not an investigative reporter or biographer, to speak truth to entertainment power, to take on The Natural Order of Things.
On Oct. 16, comedian Hannibal Buress took the stage in Philadelphia, Mr. Cosby’s hometown, and railed against the incongruity of his public moralizing and private behavior. He told the audience, “I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch ‘Cosby Show’ reruns.” (TV Land has since canceled those reruns, and both Netflix and NBC have shelved projects with Mr. Cosby.)
He said Mr. Cosby has the “smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.”
And then he dropped the bomb. “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.”
Social media, a nonfactor when the allegations first surfaced, feasted on a clip of the set posted on Philadelphia magazine’s website.
On the heels of Mr. Buress’s routine, Mr. Cosby’s public relations people asked his Twitter followers to make funny memes of the entertainer, and that promptly backfired in a massive way.
With NBC and his other former partners having jettisoned him, Mr. Cosby’s lawyers were left alone in the bunker, playing Whac-a-Mole against charges from women that are popping up everywhere. And on Sunday, The Washington Post did a comprehensive recap of the charges.
For decades, entertainers have been able to maintain custody of their image, regardless of how they conducted themselves. Many had entire crews of dust busters who came behind them and cleaned up their messes.
Those days are history. It doesn’t really matter now what the courts or the press do or decide. When enough evidence and pushback rears into view, a new apparatus takes over, one that is viral, relentless and not going to forgive or forget.