You could argue that this timeline should begin with the news of Jan. 22, 2014, that NBC had made a deal to develop a comedy with Bill Cosby in which he would play the wise patriarch grandfather of a large family. The announcement was mostly treated as a business story, but one with interest beyond the Hollywood trades because of Cosby’s broad, transformative popularity — and because he had revived NBC with The Cosby Show 30 years earlier. NBC, in an improved state overall, but still a woeful one with its comedies, had turned to Cosby once again.
“Few performers in history have meant more to a network than Bill Cosby has to NBC, so it is hardly surprising that NBC has reached out again to the famous comic in what appears to be another hour of comedy need,” wrote the New York Times’ Bill Carter at the time.
As was typical of the coverage of the nascent new Cosby show, Carter’s story bore no mention of the sexual assault allegations against the comedian in 2004-2006 that would begin to dog Cosby in the following weeks and months. And it all led up to this week when NBC announced it was scrapping the project, now tainted by disgrace, if not criminality.
All of the information regarding the rape allegations was in the public record, and in searchable coverage. But for ineffable reasons — a combination of denial, cultural forgetfulness, fast-moving media, and lingering affection for Cosby — the accusations that he had drugged and molested Andrea Constand, and that 13 other women agreed to testify in her 2005 lawsuit, had been lost to memory. There was also the fact that Cosby had paid Constand an unknown sum in 2006 to settle the suit, effectively buying the information’s burial. Additionally, Cosby has never been charged with a crime.
The story wouldn’t stay buried, though. Its unearthing began in February 2014.
Part of the power of what Farrow accomplished in the letter lay in her rhetorical strategy. She could have written about her experiences in myriad ways, but instead chose direct address: “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?” she asked us all at the start. After describing her memories of what she alleges Allen did to her in plain, devastating language, she wrote of how nightmarish Allen’s continuous popularity has been for her. She issued a challenge to actors who have worked with him, and to audiences who continue to see his movies.
The debate that followed — in many quarters, anyway — was a catharsis. It combined mainstream film and celebrity with serpentine legal arguments, excavations into Allen’s past work to look for “evidence” of his character, and, frankly, the sordid thrill of true crimes of the rich and famous. Allen had plenty of defenders, and still does. But Farrow effectively nuked the idea of pushing her accusations to the back of your mind. “So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen,” she wrote. “Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.”
It’s possible no one will ever forget again what Allen has been lashed with by his child; it’s also possible that some people have already started putting it out of their minds once more. But even for those who considered Farrow’s words to be seismic, Allen’s career is not in jeopardy. He can quietly continue writing and directing a movie a year. And if we never hear about actors who heed Farrow’s plea and choose not to work with him — surely there will be a few — Allen will probably go on as he always has.
But Farrow did create a ripple effect. After reading her letter, it was impossible not to wonder: What other icons have sordid histories we’ve somehow forgotten? Cosby — about to step back into the public eye, capitalizing on his avuncular, cuddly persona — presented himself as a rich example.
Here’s Tom Scocca of Gawker’s lede: “The thing about Dylan Farrow’s open letter accusing her father, Woody Allen, of sexual abuse is: There was not much really new about it. It was new that Dylan Farrow herself was signing her name to the accusations, but Vanity Fair had covered the case, in grim detail, more than two decades ago.” Further down, he wrote: “Not thinking about it is a popular and powerful choice. Which brings up another beloved American funnyman, Bill Cosby. Who doesn’t love Bill Cosby?”
Scocca then dove into the accusations against Cosby, including a portion of a Philadelphia Magazine account from 2006 that quoted an anonymous accuser, who later revealed herself to be Barbara Bowman. (She figures prominently in this story.)
Scocca concluded: “Basically nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator. It was too much to handle.”
Yet maybe that postulation — which certainly had been true — was about to change. At the very least, people seemed to want to read about it. Gawker’s traffic figures are public, and Scocca’s Cosby post has gotten more than 587,000 views at the time of the publication of this one.
In the days after the Gawker post, Baker, then at Newsweek (now at BuzzFeed), interviewed two of Cosby’s past accusers. She wrote: “Dylan Farrow’s accusations that Woody Allen molested her when she was seven have been all over the Internet this week, even though the allegations have been public knowledge for over two decades.”
In the interview with Green, she said that she had called the police investigating Cosby when the Constand case was in its criminal stage to “back her up.” But no one ever called her back, she said. (This week, the former DA from Philadelphia spoke out, saying, “I didn’t say that he didn’t commit the crime.” And: “What I said was there was insufficient, admissible, and reliable evidence upon which to base a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s ‘prosecutors speak’ for ‘I think he did it but there’s just not enough here to prosecute.’”)
Green came forward in the civil lawsuit. “I saw that nobody was going to take him on, so I felt like it was my duty to risk my neck and stand [up] for all the other women who’ve been assaulted by him.” It ended her career as a lawyer. She also said she had been contacted by other women alleging Cosby had assaulted them who were not involved in the lawsuit.
Five days later, Baker published her interview with Bowman, who met Cosby when she was 17, and alleged that he drugged and assaulted her multiple times in the late ’80s. Complicating matters, she would travel with him. Bowman told Baker: “Cosby would warn me before out-of-town trips, ‘You aren’t going to fight me this time, are you?’”
Baker and I are now colleagues at BuzzFeed News. I emailed her to ask how these two interviews came about, and she wrote: “I didn’t know about the Cosby controversy until I read Tom Scocca’s Gawker post. I was shocked that at least THIRTEEN women said the star had drugged and assaulted them, yet their allegations had practically vanished into thin air. Before our frenetic social media news cycle, even! I wanted to think of a way to make their stories stick this time around. So I tracked two women down — Barbara and Tamara — and they were more than happy to talk to me. I kept their interviews completely in their own words, barely edited Q&A style, because I wanted them to be able to tell their stories themselves.”
In a BuzzFeed News story about whether the rape allegations might come back to haunt Cosby and, as a result, NBC, a source at the network seemingly didn’t think much about potential scandal. Dozens of scripts go into development each year, and while the Cosby project was obviously important, it was, the NBC source said, “embryonic.”
The source close to Cosby also did not connect the resurfacing of the rape accusations with any trouble ahead for this potential show.
“I can’t see that that has anything to do with him going back to television,” the person said, attributing the interest to the Farrow/Allen conflagration. “You had the Gawker thing. And now there’s a gal at Newsweek that’s frisky, looking at some of these things.”
When I was writing this story, I contacted David Brokaw, Cosby’s publicist, whom I’d never met. I found him through IMDbPro, which had several emails listed for him; I reached out to all of them. Brokaw would not comment. But after we’d had an exchange, I received a response directed only to me from one of the other email addresses. It read, “Just curious. What accusations is she talking about? Is this a real problem for Cosby?”
I told David Brokaw I had gotten that email. He said it was from his identical twin brother, Sandy, and that his computer had been hacked.
Months passed. On June 1, I got another email from Brokaw — unsolicited — that said, “Sandy is NOT involved in the Cosby account and has no idea what is going on. He is a curious sort.”
If part of this spiral of Cosby events is crisis public relations ineptitude, this example is one offering.
That description came from Jennifer Salke, the entertainment president of NBC, at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. She described how the multi-camera sitcom in development would have Cosby “dispensing his classic wisdom.”
The project’s prospects had been hazy in February, but in July, NBC’s commitment was clear. At the time, the network’s entertainment chairman, Robert Greenblatt, spoke about the show as if it were a done deal. “It’s not going to be on before this coming season is over, I don’t believe, unless everything accelerated and moved quickly, but it could be next summer,” he said.
In a press gaggle after the presentation, Ellen Gray from the Philadelphia Daily News, Cosby’s hometown paper, mentioned to Greenblatt that the comedian had become more controversial in recent years because of his stances about black politics and culture: Was that a worry? And I asked Greenblatt about settling the sexual assault lawsuit.
Addressing both questions, Greenblatt said: “All I do is try to put on shows that I think are good, with extraordinary talent. I think he’s extraordinary. And I think the show will be good. All the other things will sort of sort themselves out.”
Whitaker would not speak with BuzzFeed News about the omission, but did send a statement through his publisher. It read in part: “In the case of the other allegations, however, there were no independent witnesses and no definitive court findings, which did not meet my journalistic or legal standard for including in the biography.”
Reporting on sexual assault accusations certainly can be difficult; and yes, there are rarely witnesses. Whitaker told Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business that part of his thinking in glossing over this period in Cosby’s life was that there had never been criminal charges against Cosby. (Clearly he didn’t get in touch with that prosecutor from the time of the Constand suit.) He did not want to get into a “he said/she said,” which, yes, is hard to avoid when potentially writing about sexual assault.
But given how many women had publicly spoken out about Cosby, Masters pressed, did Whitaker try to talk to any of them to see whether he found them credible? “I’m specifically asking,” she said, “did you reach out to those women?” Whitaker: “I did not.”
(If you want to read how Whitaker feels now, read the Daily Beast’s “The Agony of Cosby’s Biographer: Why Mark Whitaker Ignored Rape Allegations.” TL;DR: He is still using the unfortunate “he said/she said” phrasing, but seems at least conflicted about his book’s oversight.)
After he made headlines, Buress told Howard Stern that he had been doing the routine for months. Buress’ ripping of Cosby specifically spoke to the hypocrisy of telling young black people how to live: “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.”
“I thank Hannibal Burress for speaking out over and over again,” she said. And: “It sickens me to think he’ll be on TV again, playing a father, no less.”
Later that day, the meme generator disappeared from the site, and the tweet from Cosby’s account inviting fans to meme him was deleted.
She wrote: “While I am grateful for the new attention to Cosby’s crimes, I must ask my own questions: Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it? Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged by victim blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?”
The topic was meant to be African art. But NPR’s Scott Simon took the opportunity to ask Cosby the obvious question. Since Cosby did not speak to the question, this quotation is all Simon: “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days. You’re shaking your head no. I’m in the news business. I have to ask the question — do you have any response to those charges? Shaking your head no — there are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance.”
Cosby’s head shake was the only time he had ever publicly addressed the topic as far as we knew. (It turned out the AP had also asked Cosby about the allegations in a Nov. 6 interview.)
Though the statement has since been taken off the site, here is what it said: “Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.”
Tarshis told Jeffrey Wells, a film blogger and old friend, that the recent Cosby news compelled her to tell her story. She alleged that in 1969, when she was 19, Cosby drugged and raped her twice. In an email to Wells, she wrote: “I was sickened by what was happening to me and shocked that this man I had idolized was now raping me. Of course I told no one.”
She concluded: “In any event now, as more and more of his rape victims have come forward, all telling similar stories, the time is right to join them.”
What is now on billcosby.com instead of the blanket denial posted only a day before is a joint statement from Schmitt and the attorney of Constand. If their agreement dictated that she can no longer talk about Cosby, then it seems that Cosby can no longer talk about her either.
Telling a similar story to the other Cosby accusers, the former supermodel alleged that Cosby drugged and raped her. When asked what she would say to him now, she said: “Go fuck yourself. How dare you take advantage of me. And I hope you rot.”
It was scheduled to start streaming on Nov. 28.
Distancing itself from Cosby, a source at the network told BuzzFeed News, “We never went as far as a delivered script and it had never even been greenlit to production.”
Bill Cosby will always be a significant cultural figure. He’s produced art that people connected to and love. He’s been credited, rightly, for paving the way for a black president. He’s also been controversial, and anecdotally cruel. And now many, many women allege that he sexually assaulted them.
In recent years, Cosby has continued working steadily by doing his stand-up act around the country. Though his tour dates are now being canceled, on Friday night he performed in Melbourne, Florida, and received a standing ovation. Considering the fact that one audience member apparently shouted, “We love you, Bill Cosby” during the show, the stage is an outlet that may continue to be available to him.
But it’s safe to assume that every other part of his career is over. Even The Cosby Show is no longer sacrosanct, with TV Land pulling the beloved classic comedy from its schedule. Cosby was once able to deflect the accusations that had been leveled at him. Not anymore. Whatever causes celebrities to join Mel Gibson in pariah land, that is where Cosby will be for the rest of his life, barring a collective memory wipe.
It makes you wonder why Cosby is choosing to go out like he is, with one of his attorneys, Martin Singer, castigating every new accuser as she appears. There have been five since Dickinson, including Louisa Moritz in the image above. Singer’s attacks on these women’s credibility seem particularly off-key when the attorney dishes out details of their sad lives as if that proves something (other than that sometimes women who may have been sexually assaulted can go on to have sad lives).
After I wrote my first Cosby story in February, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, who edited the piece, called me to talk about it. He said he thought that rich, powerful people, often men, used to be able to use their resources to destroy people and make their problems go away. But that the world had changed, and that wasn’t true anymore.
In the latest missive from Singer, the attorney bemoans the new claims, calling them “fantastical,” “ridiculous,” and “illogical,” among other things. He also asks, “When will it end?”
At this point, only Singer and Cosby don’t see that it already has.
If you have information about Bill Cosby you would like to share with BuzzFeed News, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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