‘He’s not Cliff Huxtable’: Nicki Weisensee Egan on Chasing Cosby

Nicki Weisensee Egan. Photo by Steven Goldblatt.

Investigative journalist Nicki Weisensee Egan’s history with Bill Cosby dates back to the early ’80s, when she turned to The Cosby Show to cope with her older brother’s death. She never imagined that, more than two decades later, she would be assigned to cover the sexual assault case against him.  

For many, Cosby’s public image was once nearly indistinguishable from that of his lovable TV dad persona, Cliff Huxtable. That image began to crack in 2005, when Andrea Constand accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her. It would take another decade, 60-plus accusations, and two trials to finally shatter the image of Cosby as harmless. In her new book, Chasing Cosby, Egan details her experience covering the infamous comedian, and threads her account with those of many of Cosby’s victims.

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Egan was an editor for her high school newspaper, as well as its yearbook and literary magazine. She attended journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she later joined The Daily Tar Heel. After graduation, she attended the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, which led to a Boston Globe internship. Egan reported on the sexual assault allegations against Cosby from the very beginning, first for the Philadelphia Daily News and then for People magazine.

Egan recently spoke with CJR about covering the Cosby cases, interviewing accusers, and how she finally learned to separate the man from the fictional character. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

I think it still doesn’t take much for the media to stop believing accusers.

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Why did you decide to write Chasing Cosby?

I had a different perspective than most people, and I wanted to take a look at why this scandal did not explode in 2005, but did in 2014. I don’t think a book ever would have been published back then because Cosby had so much power. He had published many best selling books of his own and he was known to be very litigious.

There were so many women coming forward so quickly that it was hard for me to keep track of it, let alone the public. I just thought there should be a way to have it all in one place for people who were just getting bits and pieces. There’s been a lot of misinformation out there on the case, and I just felt like here’s a chance to set the record straight.

 

Can you talk about the logistics of putting the book together?

When I got the book deal, I had two months to write the book. Luckily, I had organized all of my notes. I still had a lot of printouts of news articles and I still had a lot of the court documents. I spent the first week making sure I printed out everything I had, making sure all my files were organized. I also used LexisNexis, and I had saved all of the Cosby Google alerts that I had gotten since I started covering it. So I had hundreds of emails I went through to look for specifics. To fill in a lot of details about Cosby’s life I also read Mark Whitaker’s book, which is a biography of Cosby that Cosby cooperated with. Even though it left out the sexual assault accusations, I felt like it was probably the most reliable source of information out there about Cosby’s past because he had cooperated. Knowing [Cosby], I’m sure he had a lot of opportunity to fact check it.

 

Was it difficult to intertwine your personal story and your feelings about the case into this book?

That was the hardest part for me. I’m trained to be objective. Just the facts, keep the emotions out of it. So my editor really had to help pull some of that out of me. It is so ingrained in me after all these years in journalism that I wasn’t comfortable doing it. I wouldn’t cover this story now since I’ve written the book, because I feel like I had to put so much of my own feelings into the book, I don’t think I would feel comfortable covering it as a news story. I am glad I wrote the book from a more personal place.

I wrote that op-ed piece for the Philly Inquirer [about her first meeting with Constand, years after Egan began reporting her allegations]. The only time I kind of got emotional was when I started talking about that moment in court when my eyes met with Andrea’s. My editors were like, “You’d never met her?” And I was like, “No.” We’re not friends. We became Facebook friends after the scandal broke, but I didn’t think the criminal case was going to get reopened. I was blown away when that happened.

I’ve always been motivated by trying to — it sounds so sanctimonious — but it’s trying to right wrongs, Andrea had no skeletons in her closet, so they made up stuff about her and they gave it to the media and the media ran with it. I just felt that was so unfair.

 

In the beginning of the book you write about the comfort you found in The Cosby Show as a teen. Was it hard to reconcile those feelings when you started reporting on the case?

My first thought when I got assigned the story was, “Not the Cos! But I set that aside. We know who he is, so we need to know who Andrea Constand is.

When I was writing the book proposal I could still watch the show and separate it from the case. Now I don’t think I could. I didn’t realize how many of the accusers had roles as extras in his show. After a point, I would be watching, looking in the background at all the extras, any females, and thinking, Was she one? Was she one?

At the sentencing, I felt this sadness when I looked over at him and he began to take his coat off and roll up his sleeves and I could not figure out why. It hit me later, seeing those red suspenders, they were remnants of his bygone era, something that Cliff Huxtable would wear. It was just finally a realization that he’s not Cliff Huxtable. He’s not a hero, he’s a television character.

 

In the book you share some details about harassment you experienced during your reporting on the 2005 allegations, including from Cosby’s legal team.

It was hard. It was really hard. I’ve been screamed at, called names. A police commissioner once was held back from lunging at me during a press conference. There were stories done on me. My credibility was attacked. So it was hard. It didn’t dissuade me from what I was doing. I knew what I was reporting was the truth, but it was really hard. I was lucky that I had a newspaper that backed me. They could have caved to the pressure like so many other news organizations did, but they didn’t.

 

What advice would you offer to reporters covering sexual assault allegations?

Go into every story with an open mind. Do your own investigating, do your own reporting. Find out who the accused person is. If the person being accused is high profile, don’t just discount the allegations because of that. We know from experience that often times someone can get away with doing this for many years on end before finally being caught. I think it still doesn’t take much for the media to stop believing accusers.

Really talk to the accuser and try to find out what you can about them. See if they have told anyone else along the way, because that is important. Find out who they are. Talk to them. Also talk to some sexual assault experts and the defense attorney. Sexual assault is a tough thing to cover, because so many assaults are inherently a he-said, she-said. Normally, there’s only two people in the room.

 

Are you still in contact with any of the women that you spoke to for this case?

Yes, I’ve stayed in touch. Getting people to open up to you about this type of crime is so personal. It took me months to get some of the Jane Does that had never spoke to speak to me.

It’s not an easy thing. Everybody says, “Oh, they’re trying to be famous.” Who wants to be famous for being raped? Who wants that? To sit up on the stand and talk about the most intimate act you can have and how it was forced—that is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy to go in front of the cameras and say it happened. The Cosby survivors have gotten laws on sexual assault statutes of limitation changed in Nevada, Colorado, and California. So many of them have tried to use the platform they got for good.

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Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.