Why won’t journalists ask Bill Cosby the tough questions?

Sexual assault charges are hardly ever mentioned to the TV star
November 12, 2014

Photo credit: Associated Press

You’d think that, in this TMZ-fueled age, movie and pop stars could do little that isn’t salaciously spread across the internet. But if the celebrity press goes overboard, the establishment press does worse: It often lets stars with dubious pasts off the hook completely.

Remember Anthony Weiner, the married Democratic congressman who sent an intimate picture of himself to young women over Twitter? The scandal vaporized his career and will no doubt land in the first paragraph of his obituary. As a long-time arts and culture writer, I’m struck by how different that was from the way another celebrity scandal was handled recently. Bill Cosby is back in the public eye. As we hit the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show, his ’80s-era sitcom, with its groundbreaking portrayal of a comfortable black American family, Cosby made the rounds of the talk shows, from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to The Colbert Report. The author of a new biography, Mark Whitaker, made the rounds as well, and his book won a coveted review in the Sunday New York Times.

And yet one could scan the review, catch an interview with Cosby, even read the full 500-plus-page biography — and never hear about a slate of sexual assault allegations that have been leveled against the star. Whitaker doesn’t mention the charges. The New York Times Book Review didn’t either. TV hosts like Fallon and Colbert took a pass as well.

Here’s what you didn’t hear: In 2004, a young female friend of Cosby’s filed a police report in Pennsylvania, alleging that the star had sexually assaulted her. The police declined to file charges, citing insufficient evidence; the woman eventually went after Cosby in civil court.

Eventually three more women came forward publicly to support the first. Their stories were similar: Each said they’d found their mobility impaired after the comedian had given them pills or a drink and were subsequently assaulted. As the case neared trial, the woman’s lawyer released a witness list that included nine more “Jane Does” — women the attorney said would come forward to testify that they, too, had undergone similar behavior at the hands of Bill Cosby.

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The charges were striking, given Cosby’s family-friendly material and avuncular persona. The star, through representatives, vociferously denied them. (As of publication, his publicist had not returned our request for comment.) As the civil case neared trial, with at least one supporting witness flying in to testify — the case was settled, under undisclosed terms. The other “Jane Does” have never come forward.

But until a strange turn of events this fall (more on that later) most people didn’t know about this odd turn in Cosby’s career. (Hardly anyone I’ve asked knows about it.) A few general-interest news outlets took the story on at the time of the charges: The Today Show, for example, ran a piece in 2005, with the accuser interviewed on camera; People magazine weighed in with a heavily reported story in 2006. As recently as this February, Newsweek reporter Katie Baker interviewed two of Cosby’s accusers. Otherwise, with the exception of a few pugnacious websites, the charges are hardly ever brought up. If the star himself has ever had to address them personally, I haven’t seen it. When Cosby has been the guest on TV shows, his hosts have graciously not asked the uncomfortable questions. Oprah Winfrey, the late Tim Russert, and CNN’s Don Lemon have all interviewed Cosby at length without bringing up the sexual assault charges. (Ironically, all of the appearances were to promote Cosby’s campaign for better behavior in the black community.) On the local level journalists take a pass as well: Here, for example, is a recent Arizona Republic chat with the star, helpfully promoting an appearance in a Phoenix suburb and not mentioning anything about the assault allegations.

The omissions should rankle journalistic nerve endings. The charges were made on the record; their sheer number makes them newsworthy. (People magazine said its story was based on interviews with five women.) Why has Cosby never been queried about the matter, even as he continues to present himself in media appearances as a family man pointing fingers at others in the African-American community? A few high-toned outlets did due diligence. The Wall Street Journal discussed the allegations in its review of the book. A daily review in the NYT duly cited them, as did a lengthy essay on Cosby for The New Yorker. Otherwise, it fell to online outlets to follow the story. Over the course of a recent phone interview, I asked Whitaker why he didn’t include the episode in his book.

“I never intended to write a book that dwelled at length on his sex life,” Whitaker replied. “It wasn’t what I was interested in. I was focusing on his professional career and accomplishments, his legacy, and his impact on society. … I basically decided that I was going to report when it came to his personal life what I could independently confirm and say actually happened. Things that I couldn’t independently confirm weren’t going to be included in the book.”

Whitaker noted, for example, that he had gone into detail in one convoluted aspect of Cosby’s personal life. The comedian gave money for years to one former mistress and her daughter, whom the woman claimed was Cosby’s. Cosby never acknowledged paternity. Once grown, the daughter, Autumn Jackson, eventually threatened to go public unless the star paid her $40 million. Cosby brought in authorities, and Jackson was eventually sentenced to prison for extortion.

Whitaker said he had “thoroughly researched” all of the allegations. “But I felt two things,” he went on. “In order to do any justice to what was known, it was going to take up a lot of space in the book. Given the focus of the book, that gave me pause. I also felt that at the end of day I wasn’t going to be able to establish what had happened. I was going to spend a lot of time on allegations, denials, these were the legal circumstances, etc. and at end of the day would not be able to advance the ball.”

I asked Whitaker whether if nothing else he could have asked the comedian for his official response to the charges and gauged his reaction. That alone would have been “fresh reporting.” He said the comedian’s representatives made it clear Cosby wouldn’t talk about his personal life.

There is a reflexive disinclination on the part of most journalists to talk about their subjects’ sex lives, for a multitude of obvious reasons. Whitaker pointed out that, just by rehashing the allegations, he would be giving license for them to be repeated in other outlets. That’s bending over backward to be fair to the entertainer, by not publicizing charges that may have come his way only because he was rich and famous. But wasn’t being rich and famous what allowed Cosby to fly young women around the country as he lectured African Americans on the importance of family? Let’s also remember that another downside of robust extramarital activity is the eventual public humiliation of one’s wife, which he deserved to be questioned about as well.

In our conversation, incidentally, Whitaker and I disagreed on how widely known the allegations were; I felt that they were as a rule omitted, skewing public knowledge about Cosby. The biographer argued that they’d been duly noted in various websites, and were to be found by anyone who was curious. He pointed out, too, that none of them had advanced the story, but rather just rehashed the allegations from 10 years ago. As this story was being written, ironically enough, his omission of the story had brought more attention to it, perhaps catching the entertainer in a variant of what’s called the “Streisand Effect“: In early November, both The New York Times and the Washington Post eventually published stories about the low-level rumbling about the accusations. During the same time, interest in the allegations seemed to grow on the internet almost day to day. A video of the comedian Hannibal Buress ridiculing Cosby’s moralizing at the African-American community went viral. “You rape women!” the comedian says in mock response to Cosby. Then the team overseeing Cosby’s personal website came up with what was quickly seen to be an ill-advised idea: They set up a “meme generator” to publicize the comic — and tweeted an invite to fans. In other words, the site provided pictures of Cosby and a small app that allowed fans to add lines of dialog to them. Some who felt the assault allegations had not received the attention they deserved quickly put the program to a use that would have traumatized the star’s PR team. The feature was quickly removed from Cosby’s site.

Cosby isn’t the only big star who, for whatever reason, has potentially unsavory parts of his life kept out of his press coverage, and it’s not always about sex. Terrence Howard is not an A-list movie star, but the devilishly handsome actor did get an Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow, in 2005; he was also in the Best Picture-winner Crash and the first Iron Man movie and, most recently, as a supporting actor playing opposite Oprah Winfrey in The Butler. This year he was in St. Vincent, the acclaimed movie starring Bill Murray. He’s currently filming two upcoming TV shows, Empire and Wayward Pines.

Howard has also starred in a surprising number of incidents in which women have ended up getting punched, as often as not in the face. In one, an ex-wife claimed he came to her house, broke down her door and hit her twice. (The actor eventually pled guilty to disorderly conduct.) In another, unearthed by Philadelphia magazine eight years after the fact, Howard got into a 2005 altercation with a couple over seating at a diner. The magazine, citing the police report, said that the actor knocked down the man, a US Marine, and punched the woman. Here, too, the star eventually plead guilty to disorderly conduct. There are four other incidents as well, stretching back to 2000 (when he assaulted a stewardess on a plane and was arrested when the plane landed), first collected by the website Defamer. In some of the cases Howard has said he acted in self-defense.

It’s hard to find coverage of Howard or his movies that mentions his legal history. Here’s a gushing notice in the sophisticated Hollywood news site The Wrap that doesn’t mention the star’s off-set activities. Howard appeared in 2013 on the Today Show to promote his movie Prisoners. Hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb gushed over the star (“You moved us deeply!”) but didn’t ask about his violent offset behavior. I couldn’t find an instance where Howard’s directors and costars — people like Winfrey and Murray, or Lee Daniels, who cast and directed Howard in The Butler — have been asked about their associations with a guy who, at the very least, seemed to find himself in a lot of situations where he has to defend himself against women with his fists.

Here, Howard seems to benefit from the superficial nature of most arts coverage. If the purpose of the piece is to promote a movie or a performance, it’s counterproductive to bring up the star’s numerous assault incidents. On the other hand, it’s possible as well that some outlets have chosen not to write about him, and that his PR appearances are fewer than they would otherwise be. Howard’s profile is about to get a lot bigger — he has two high-profile TV series coming. One will be an expensive new Fox musical drama series about a rap impresario. It was created by Daniels, and is produced by the tony Hollywood company run by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. In the other, another upcoming Fox series called Wayward Pines, executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Terrence Howard will be a regular. It will be interesting to see if Howard’s history of legal problems come up in media coverage of the shows.

In some examples, it’s not a complete blackout of the charges, as with Cosby and Howard. Sometimes the passage of time and antiseptic early coverage can serve to make our collective memory of an incident imprecise. The case of the Polish-born director Roman Polanski, which has of course gotten an extraordinary amount of media attention over the decades, is an interesting case study because its unsettled status inevitably brings it back into the news from time to time. Almost everyone knows that the director of the acclaimed Chinatown pled guilty to having sex with an underage girl in 1977. Polanski, out on bail, hopped a plane to France the eve of his sentencing and hasn’t returned to America since. An HBO documentary brought his case back to public attention in 2008. The next year, Polanski was rearrested by Swiss police during a visit there, but after a 10-month standoff was not extradited back to the US. As recently as October the US asked Polish authorities to extradite him as the director prepared to film a movie there. (They declined.) Over the years he’s developed a large group of supporters — many of them big-name filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen — who say he’s been railroaded.

Generally, an admitted child rapist doesn’t have too many friends. In Polanski’s case, the support isn’t controversial, because the impression lingers that at the heart of the case was differing American and European mores. Whoopi Goldberg, speaking on The View in 2012, said, “I know it wasn’t rape-rape… We’re a different kind of society. We see things differently. … Not everybody agrees with the way that we see things.” The view is echoed in the HBO documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, by Marina Zenovich; the film features one of Polanski’s friends exclaiming, “This is somebody who could not be a rapist!”

Fair enough — everyone’s entitled to their opinion based on their understanding of the facts in the case at hand. Variety, reporting on the Polish incident, wrote, “Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in the US in 1977, but left the country in 1978 before sentencing.” The Los Angeles Times said something similar, that he “fled the United States in 1978 to escape a possible prison sentence for having unlawful sex with a minor.” Here’s a test: The Polanski case has gotten reams of coverage over the past nearly 40 years. Do you know the actual circumstances of the case?

The director, 43 at the time, was doing a series of small-scale photo shoots of the girl, who was 13. He eventually took her to the home of his friend Jack Nicholson. He gave the girl Champagne and then part of a Quaalude, got her to take off her clothes, and then, over her objections, engaged her in a variety of sexual acts. In her grand jury testimony, the girl also repeatedly described telling the director no repeatedly, and asking to be taken home during the ordeal, but that she was afraid to do anything more. Here’s how the drugged girl — not yet in high school — described the end of her evening with the sophisticated European director, under questioning in front of the grand jury:

Q. What happened then?
A. … Then he lifted up my legs and went in through my anus.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. He put his penis in my butt.

The testimony goes on, and the girl gets degraded further. (I’ll spare you the details, but you can find her grand jury testimony published by the Smoking Gun.) Whoopi Goldberg said that Americans “see things differently,” but it’s hard to see exactly where in the world she thinks such a story, from the obvious premeditation to the drugging to the creativity of the sex acts, would qualify for mention in an eighth-grade yearbook. This scenario is a lot different than the one promoted by Polanski and his supporters, which is that it was a consenting liaison between a haunted artiste and an older-than-her-years young woman.

These acts were represented in the original charges against Polanski, which included perversion and sodomy. But media niceties of the time meant that the terms were rarely fully explained. Over the ensuing years — which has included among other things breathless coverage about how the exiled director might handle winning an Oscar (he eventually did, for The Pianist) — a full account of the evening’s events has been hard to find, even in the most lurid coverage. Wanted and Desired, which this writer criticized in Salon for its one-sided portrait of the case, carefully avoids conjuring up the image of a 43-year-old man anally raping a drugged child; the word “sodomy” is mentioned only in passing. In the Washington Post, for example, Polanski’s legal problems have been portrayed as unthinkable on both sides of the Atlantic. “In France, Polanski is revered … as a martyr to American injustice and Puritanism,” one story reported, in a typical passage, without sharing with readers anything that might disturb that perception. (The one exception I’ve noticed: A heavily Polanski-centric story in The New York Times included, almost as an afterthought, a quick accounting of the girl’s grand jury testimony in its last paragraphs. Note that even so the story gives Polanski’s attorneys the last word.) With high-profile platforms like the Post, CNN, and HBO glossing over the director’s acts and with papers of record too squeamish to lay them out, it’s no wonder that people like Goldberg could go on national television and declare it wasn’t “rape-rape.”

I can’t think of any case of celebrity wrongdoing that has been treated more superficially than that of Chicago R&B star R. Kelly. Since many people know that the singer was filmed in 2002 having sex with a girl later identified as being 14 years old, that’s saying something. Today, seven years after the star was acquitted of more than a dozen counts of child pornography, again–ask yourself what your understanding of the charges were, and then read on.

The accusations again Kelly began to come to light before the now-infamous tape. In 2003, a pair of Chicago Sun-Times reporters published a lengthy story detailing the star’s involvement with under-age girls. A year later one of the pair, pop critic Jim DeRogatis, found a VHS tape left in his mailbox. The tape showed Kelly having sex with a girl who was the niece of one of his backup singers; she was 14 at the time. Among other things, the film shows the star urinating into the girl’s mouth. The reporter turned the tape over to the police; that was the catalyst of a case that climaxed six years later when Kelly was acquitted of 21 counts of child pornography.

Kelly deserved to have his day in court, and deserves to have it noted that he was not convicted. The fact remains that, besides the visual evidence of the tape there are nearly a dozen allegations in the press and in court papers about Kelly and under-aged girls; many of them are named. Kelly married a 15-year-old in 1994, but she was later reclaimed by her parents, who had the marriage annulled. A camera with explicit photos of him and another underage girl was found in a search of his house in Florida in 2003, and he was indicted on 12 counts of child pornography. A judge eventually ruled the search invalid and he was not prosecuted.

While Kelly’s videotape got some circulation‚ and was the subject of a scathing Dave Chapelle skit, during the time between the surfacing of the tape and his trial most of the coverage was extremely superficial. It is almost impossible to find new stories that included frank descriptions of the acts seen on the tape or that put it into context with the large number of other allegations, much less attempted to prove or disprove them with further reporting.

In a 2008 LA Times story noting the start of the trial, for example, the star is merely said to have “engaged in various sex acts,” with the girl. In the meantime Kelly has continued to record and tour, often with other stars, who are not quizzed about their associations with someone who would seem to be something of a threat to their fans and their children. Reference to Kelly’s legal problems is made sometimes in jocular fashion, along with the risqué content of his songs, as if they are all a part of Kelly’s irrepressibility. DeRogatis has taken issue with this: “It’s not fun and games. This girl has the disembodied look of a rape victim and he’s urinating in her mouth. It’s a sickening spectacle.”

Kelly’s past is now seemingly behind him. Last year he was invited to perform at one of the hippest rock festivals in the country – Chicago’s Pitchfork Fest, hosted by the popular online music magazine Pitchfork. The singer performed on a stage in Union Park on the city’s West Side, just a short distance from the high school where, the Sun-Times reported, the singer picked up new victims. The online magazine — one of the Web’s most respected music sites — didn’t mention Kelly’s past, or the objections some were raising about his appearance there.

Not every celebrity gets a pass. The allegations against Michael Jackson generated a lot of lurid articles, possibly because the media had learned that just about everything having to do with the star sold papers or drove traffic. It seems as well that most of the facts about Woody Allen are well known, particularly as Maureen Orth’s in-depth 1992 Vanity Fair article on the case is passed around. But these two cases seem more the exception. As a journalist, it doesn’t bother me that the notable arts figures mentioned above should probably be in jail. The legal system works the way it works. But it does rankle that the media can’t seem to reconcile its charter to inform the public with the feel-good attitude when it comes to writing about pop stars and movie stars.

The imaging power of the modern celebrity is immense. That there is a double standard seems indubitable. If a neighbor, say, had been charged six times with hitting women, of if multiple women had come forward to say they’d been sexually assaulted by him, that bit of news wouldn’t be something that might or might not come up in a conversation with someone else on your block. But with celebrities, an imagistic force field seems somehow to repel news that isn’t in keeping with that star’s image. The narrative of the star is so powerful that digressions that clash with it are discarded.

Tom Scocca, the writer who brought together the charges against Cosby for Gawker, puts it this way: “It’s difficult to keep connecting the gap between that public figure and the person behind it,” he wrote me in an email exchange, “partly because that’s not a connection people are in the habit of making for any reason. To talk about aspects of famous people other than their publicly constructed aspects, you have to drop the familiar shorthands and schemas.”

That’s a nice way of saying that a lot of arts writing is PR driven, and talk of arrests and assaults is off-message. That certainly goes a long way toward explaining why Terrence Howard’s unlikely string of physical altercations with women doesn’t get mentioned in many film reviews. But that doesn’t excuse the straight news sections’ inability to relate the basic facts of these cases. Squeamishness might play a part — who wants to repeatedly use the phrases “anal rape” or “urinated into the mouth of a 13-year-old girl”? As for Cosby, I think the issue should have gone into the book, or at least had the omission forthrightly acknowledged in the introduction. In the end, to the extent folks like Bill Cosby get the benefit of the doubt, it’s just another of the many comforts our society gives celebrities like him.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Follow him @hitsville.