Mark Whitaker Still Doesn’t Get How He Screwed Up His Cosby Biography

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When the powers-that-be at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of City University of New York put together last night’s discussion of “The Biography of African-American Comedy,” it seemed a relatively uncontroversial event. With two biographies of noted African-American comedians slated for fall release, they’d put together a panel of authors and experts, share some insights, and have a few laughs. “Oh joy, what fun this will be,” Levy Center director Gary Giddins recalled thinking in his intro to the event, which prompted knowing chuckles in the audience, as one of those biographies became quite controversial indeed: Mark Whitaker’s Cosby, which came under harsh criticism for failing to even mention the rape accusations that have dominated headlines over the past few weeks (and reemerged partially due to their exclusion from Whitaker’s book). To his credit, Whitaker kept the commitment and appeared on the panel, seemed legitimately contrite and regretful, and still clearly has no idea what he actually did wrong.

Speaking in a quiet voice that was occasionally difficult to hear in the large lecture hall, Whitaker said he found the recent turn of events “shocking,” granted that if they’re true, “Bill Cosby has a real problem,” and noted that “Cosby’s silence, I think, has been disturbing.” At the same time, Whittaker expressed his distaste for “the phenomenon of trial and conviction by public opinion,” and eventually worked his way into the spin mode that has characterized his attempts to explain the book’s egregious omissions.

“It’s been said that I’ve made the claim that this is the definitive biography, and I never made that claim,” he insisted. “It’s nowhere in any of the things I’ve ever said or that the publisher’s ever said. We do say it’s the first major biography, because it is.” So, yeah, seizing on the semantics: that’s always a can’t-lose. It wasn’t definitive, you see, so he could pick and choose what to include, as you can in a major biography. (What?)

L-R: Mel Watkins, Gary Giddins, Mark Whitaker, Scott Saul.

Further, said Whitaker, “I never intend to write a tell-all book… I was interested in Bill Cosby, really, as an entertainer and a social figure. And although I did get to ultimately interview him, it was clear that he didn’t want to talk about his private life. Everything I wrote in the book was something that had to be independently reported… I felt that I wanted to be able to stand by it, by anything I wrote, and it had to be independently verified. And I knew about the allegations against him at the time. I had researched them. I knew about one case that had actually been investigated, no criminal charges were brought. And y’know, I was leery about printing allegations I couldn’t independently confirm.”

Whitaker’s been trotting out this line of bullshit for a while now, and it’s gotta stop. Aside from the fact that the book is filled with stories provided by single sources (Cosby, frequently), it’s an argument presupposing an obligation that was never imposed. He wasn’t writing an investigative exposé of the Cosby rape accusations; no one expects a biographer to “independently verify” the validity of these accusations. A biographer is expected to document their subject’s life, and even if Whitaker couldn’t “report” that the rapes happened, the allegations incontrovertibly did. They are a real thing that occurred in the life of Bill Cosby. Need to “verify” them? Cite the case “that had actually been investigated.” Read the 2005 lawsuit, which Cosby settled out of court. Watch the February 10, 2005 Today show. Read the June 23, 2005 issue of The Philadelphia Daily News. Read the June 2006 and November 2006 issues of Philadelphia magazine. Read the December 18, 2006 issue of People magazine.

L-R: Mel Watkins, Gary Giddins, Mark Whitaker, Scott Saul.

Based on the volume of material that was available, and the depth of his research elsewhere, I have no doubt that Whitaker read all of those things. And he chose to ignore them, and that was his failing. The question that he still hasn’t answered (last night’s panel was not opened up to the audience for questions) is how he actually arrived at that decision, once you disregard the “independently reported” line. If you’ve seen the raw footage of Cosby’s AP interview, you’ve seen the intimidation and bullying that results from Cosby being asked a question he doesn’t like. Was the access Whitaker was granted — to Cosby and his circle of friends and confidantes — the result of an agreement not to ask that question, and not to include that portion of his story? Or, more damningly, did Whitaker not even have to be told?

“Writing about these things is very, very fraught, and maybe I was cautious to a fault,” Whitaker admitted last night, before leaping to the same wobbly analogy as Camille Cosby’s statement just a couple of hours earlier. “I will say that watching what happened with Rolling Stone and this UVA story makes me say, well, at least I don’t have to take anything back, and say, ‘I got it wrong.’”

And that’s what Whitaker still doesn’t understand — he did get it wrong. By leaving out a major element of Cosby’s later life, by refusing to open a can of worms that would disrupt his admiring hagiography, Whitaker failed at the most basic job of the biographer: reporting the events of his subject’s life. When the conversation turned to the initial subject of the evening, Whitaker proved himself knowledgeable, thoughtful, and insightful. He could’ve written a great Bill Cosby biography. Instead, he wrote this one.