This may be the first time in a long while that Bill Cosby can’t control the public conversation about Bill Cosby.
Read the recent biography Cosby: His Life and Times, and you see a portrait of a talented performer who took control of his business and career interests early on, forever suspicious of journalists and industry executives who might try to interfere.
But in the recent explosion of attention to allegations that the comedy superstar drugged and sexually assaulted several women years ago, in incidents reaching back to the late 1960s, Cosby has remained uncharacteristically silent — epitomized by his interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, who found the comic would only shake his head and utter no sound when asked about the allegations.
His attorney did provide a statement posted on Cosby’s website that said, in part, “decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby doesn’t not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment.”
Later, a joint statement from Cosby’s attorney and a lawyer for Andrea Constand, a woman who settled a lawsuit with Cosby over such allegations in 2006, was posted on the site that read, in part: “The statement released by Mr. Cosby’s attorney over the weekend was not intended to refer in any way to Andrea Constand. As previously reported, differences between Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand were resolved to the mutual satisfaction of Mr. Cosby and Ms. Constand years ago.”
News of Cosby’s silence rocketed across media; the moment was covered everywhere from NBC’s Today show to CNN, USA Today and The Washington Post, which called it “perhaps the most significant dead air in the history of National Public Radio.”
When NPR most recently spoke to Cosby, four women had come forward publicly with rape allegations: Constand, Beth Ferrier, Tamara Green and Barbara Bowman. (See this story for a more detailed account of their allegations.) Over the weekend, another woman, 66-year-old publicist Joan Tarshis, also told media outlets she was drugged and raped by Cosby when she was 19 years old. Constand filed a lawsuit in 2005 that included 13 women willing to tell similar stories, Greene and Bowman among them; the suit was settled, no terms were disclosed and Cosby was never charged with a crime.
But several recent events, including the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show and the publication of the biography, have pushed media to reconsider Cosby’s legacy.
At heart of this controversy, a generational divide looms. It may have been articulated best by comic Hannibal Buress, who lashed out at Cosby’s moralizing about the failures of poor black people and the cursing of standup comics onstage by pronouncing the man once known as America’s dad a rapist.
“He gets on TV, [says] ‘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,’ ” Buress said during the routine, captured on a cellphone and posted online to become a massive viral hit. “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches. … ‘I don’t curse onstage.’ Yeah, well, you’re a rapist, so …”
Buress’ routine and the reaction to it online were a jarring reminder of the new media reality. The 31-year-old comic was just a year old when Cosby’s biggest TV hit, The Cosby Show, debuted. He was only 9 years old when it left the air, and his words seemed to articulate the skepticism of a generation that may see Cosby more as a moral scold than a showbiz titan.
It’s also the voice of a generation active on social media, focused on ensuring sexual abuse allegations are fully examined and that potential victims are fully heard. When Cosby’s Twitter account posted a message asking fans to use pictures and create memes centered on the comic, the flood of material that focused on the assault allegations showed how many users felt the issue remained unresolved.
With messages traded on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere, these voices can gain a visibility that was previously unheard of, especially 10 years ago, when Constand alleges her assault took place.
Mark Whitaker, author of Cosby: His Life and Times, told NPR in September that he examined the public records and wasn’t comfortable printing allegations he couldn’t confirm.
“Either I was going to have to report everything that was on the record, which would have taken a lot of time in the book … or I wasn’t going to go down that road, and I made the choice to not go down that road,” said Whitaker, who admitted he didn’t talk to the women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault or the comic himself about the allegations. “These stories did not meet my standard for what I could responsibly report.”
It’s also possible that Cosby, who gave his tacit approval to the biography and eventually spoke to Whitaker for it, might have reacted differently if he knew the book was delving deeply into the allegations. But there is also a sense of opportunity missed here for Cosby; a chance to lay out his explanation in a forum where that was ample space for his account to a journalist who was knowledgeable about his life history.
Two of Cosby’s accusers, Bowman and Tarshis, have noted that NBC is developing a new show starring the comic, intended as a family-oriented comedy, suggesting it shouldn’t move forward. Quickly as media attention can move on these days, there is still a sense that Cosby will have trouble appearing on a major media outlet until he comments further; already, there have been planned interviews canceled on the Queen Latifah Show, Late Show with David Letterman and with The Associated Press.
Selling the public on a new TV show or movie requires lots of public appearances and conversations with media figures and journalists. Can Cosby run that gantlet without saying more than he already has? And will TV viewers feel strange watching Cosby play a grandfatherly figure with such ugly allegations still in the public sphere?
These are questions that ultimately could determine how we view the legacy of one of the most successful comedians in show business history.
In other words: At a time when so much of the public conversation is controlled by the public, can Cosby move forward without breaking his silence?