Bill Cosby’s Silent Treatment

He won't answer hard questions? Fine. But don't let him publicize his pet projects, either.


My fellow journalists: It’s time to stop enabling Bill Cosby.

At least three times in the last week, Cosby has been directly given the chance to respond to resurfaced allegations of sexual assault that have haunted him publicly since Hannibal Buress’s Philadelphia appearance last month. Each time he’s ducked the question.

• The first was in an interview with the Daily News’ Jenice Armstrong. The occasion: An interview ostensibly about Cosby’s Veterans Day appearance at the All Wars Memorial. Given the timing, though, Armstrong could hardly avoid the topic du jour:

So, on Friday, I knew that I couldn’t let Cosby off the phone without his at least addressing it. America’s Dad would never have done some of the ugly things that have been alleged, would he? As our conversation about the memorial wound down, I brought up Buress’ routine and, as I expected, Cosby put on the brakes.

“Noooo, no, no, no. Look at the beauty of what we had here,” Cosby said.

• The second was at his appearance at the All Wars Memorial. Philly Mag’s Victor Fiorillo approached Cosby and asked him directly about the allegations:

At first, he grimaced, and his bodyguards tried to move him away from me.

“No, wait, wait wait,” he told them.

“Come here,” he said to me. And then he leaned over in my ear and whispered “no.” And as he moved away from me, he treated me to that beautiful Bill Cosby smile.

The third time was an interview that aired Saturday morning on NPR. Weekend Edition host Scott Simon addressed the issue at the end of an interview about the loan by Cosby and his wife to the Smithsonian Institution’s African art collection. Simon, like Armstrong, seemed sheepish to even have to raise the question:

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.

On Sunday, Cosby’s lawyer tried to put an end to all the questions:

“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced,” Mr. Schmitt’s statement said. “The fact that 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.”

Mr. Schmitt did not detail how the accusations had been discredited. In the past, Mr. Cosby and his lawyers have occasionally denied the charges, but a settlement was reached with one woman, Andrea Constand, in 2005 in a civil suit that had promised to include testimony from 13 other women making similar allegations.

My fellow journalists: I propose we take Bill Cosby at his word — or, at least, his lawyer’s. He won’t talk to us about the sexual assault allegations? Fine. He doesn’t owe us that. But neither is he owed publicity for his pet projects.

Two of those three opportunities to address the issue, you’ll note, came when Cosby was being interviewed about something else entirely — about the veterans memorial in one case, about his art collection in the other. It’s clear at this point he won’t consent to a direct interview on the matter.

Thing is: The sexual assault allegations are now the most newsworthy thing about him. Period. And unless the issue is resolved somehow, that will remain the case for a long, long time. There’s no way a reputable journalist can talk to Cosby about art or veterans or his supposedly forthcoming sitcom without also asking about those allegations.

If Cosby wants to do publicity for any of those projects, journalists should make clear: The first order of business will be to discuss the accusations against him. Everything else is of secondary importance. To do an interview without bringing up the allegations would — for now at least — be a toadying form of dishonesty. Why bother? If he can’t do an interview under those conditions, might as well not do it. 

Cosby has not ever been criminally charged on the allegations. But we don’t have to pretend they don’t exist. (Entertainment shows like Queen Latifah and David Letterman, rather than try to split the difference, have canceled Cosby’s appearances outright.) If Cosby chooses not talk about them, that’s his choice. But he shouldn’t get to avoid the hard questions and still use his celebrity to shine a light on his good deeds and favorite issues, either. And journalists shouldn’t let him. 

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.