The facts are these: In January of 2005, a woman accused Bill Cosby of inviting her to his Pennsylvania home a year earlier, drugging her, and molesting her. In the months that followed, 12 more women accused Cosby of similar assaults, both anonymously and in television and magazine interviews, dating from 2005 to as recently as this year. The initial accuser hit the comedian and actor with a civil lawsuit; it was settled out of court in 2006 for an undisclosed sum. Those are the facts, in a single paragraph. And that’s one paragraph more than you’ll find on the matter in the entire 468-page text of Cosby, a new biography by Mark Whitaker that comes billed as “the first major biography of an American icon.” “Major,” perhaps; exhaustive, certainly, based on the hours of interviews detailed in its 29 pages of endnotes. And yet, thanks to that exclusion, Cosby certainly isn’t complete.
Author Whitaker is no flack; his resumé includes gigs as managing editor of CNN, Washington bureau chief for NBC News, and reporter and editor at Newsweek. And in many ways, Cosby is a remarkable achievement: a well-researched and well-written chronicle of one of the most important and influential performers of our time, offering a portrait of childhood poverty heretofore only hinted at, a heartbreaking snapshot of the tragedy of his son’s murder and his continuing grief, and a thoughtful consideration and contextualization of his recent comments, stances, and actions within the black community. It’s a book that takes great pains to understand Bill Cosby: who he is, how he became that man, and what he’s meant to several generations of television viewers, comedy aficionados, and African Americans.
Which is why Whitaker’s steadfast refusal to even mention — much less engage — the most troubling element of the Cosby story is so disappointing. He covers, at length, the scandal surrounding an affair in the 1970s that may have begotten one Autumn Jackson, whose attempts to extort Cosby shared headlines with the investigation of his son Ennis’ murder back in 1997. But the difference between that story and the rape accusations is that Cosby admitted to the affair, clear back in ’97, whereas he and his representatives have made no comment on the accusations, beyond confirming the settlement in 2006.
And in fairness to the comedian, he has been proven guilty of nothing. The district attorney presented with the original accusations cited “insufficient credible and admissible evidence” in his decision not to press criminal charges, and settlement of a civil suit is not an admission of guilt. The women whose accusations followed hers are, as People put it, “imperfect witnesses” recalling events “two or three decades old,” who never contacted police.
Pressed for comment by BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur, Whitaker offered up this explanation for the omission:
I was aware of the allegations, but ultimately decided not to include them in my book. I didn’t want to print allegations that I couldn’t confirm independently. In the case of the Shawn Berkes/Autumn Jackson scandal, I managed to do that, based on court records and previously unaired interviews, and as a result I not only write about that case at length but advance the ball with fresh reporting. 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.
And that, friends, is some grade-A, first-class bullshit. No one expects a biographer to use “independent witnesses” or “definitive court findings” to prove Mr. Cosby’s guilt or innocence, nor is it Whitaker’s job to “confirm independently” the merit of such allegations. They were made, on paper, on television, and (most importantly) in court records. The lawsuit was settled. Whether he was guilty or innocent, these things happened to Bill Cosby; they became, and remain, a part of the subject’s life and image. And as such, they merit at least a mention, somewhere in the book’s 500-plus pages. (We reached out to Mr. Whitaker’s publisher with follow-up questions to his statement, and were told that “he’ll tell you the same thing he told BuzzFeed.” Thanks!)
There’s no question, from the tone and tenor of Whitaker’s book, that he admires Dr. Cosby, and you can’t blame him. Cosby broke color lines on television, brought feminism to the family sitcom, made one of the finest children’s programs in history, gave one of the all-time great stand-up performances, has donated millions to cultural and educational interests, and continues, at 77 years old, to maintain a performance schedule that would give comedians half his age pause. And he also might have raped some women. Acknowledging and contemplating that the people we admire may have done horrible things is no easy task. But those who chronicle their lives do their subjects no favors by pretending that such questions aren’t out there. And in fact, a willingness to engage with such issues can result in a more complex but more rewarding portrait (as Kelefa Sanneh’s recent Cosby consideration for the New Yorker proves).
His publisher told Flavorwire that, though Cosby is not “authorized” biography, “Bill Cosby cooperated with Mark Whitaker, who interviewed him several times for a total of 15 hours. Whitaker also interviewed more than sixty of Cosby’s closest friends and associates while researching the book.” We cannot know — and Whitaker will not say — if steering clear of the assault accusations was part of the deal for that access. But acting as though the accusations and lawsuit never happened makes a supposedly comprehensive tome look like a puff piece. Whitaker, like most of us, would like to believe that those accusations aren’t true, and maybe they’re not. But wish fulfillment and public relations aren’t biography, and they sure as hell aren’t journalism.