Bill Cosby has not said much to the press since the multiple rape and sexual abuse allegations against him made their way to the top of the news cycle again, and more women, including model and actress Beverly Johnson and artist Barbara Bowman went public with their accusations against him. But the New York Post’s Stacy Brown did get Cosby to talk to her. And while he didn’t say much other than praising his wife’s fortitude, Cosby did tell Brown what he expects of “the black media”:
“Let me say this. I only expect the black media to uphold the standards of excellence in journalism and when you do that you have to go in with a neutral mind,” Cosby said.
The comedian, who is being represented by attorneys Martin Singer and John B. Schmitt, said he has been advised not to talk to reporters about the ongoing allegations. More than two dozen women have publicly claimed that the “Fat Albert” creator drugged and raped them.
On the face of it, this is a reasonable request. If we needed a reminder at all, Rolling Stone’s badly botched story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia is the perfect argument for why coverage of sexual assault requires compassion, rigor and a passion for the facts. The first-person accounts from women who say Cosby attacked them, but who did not file police reports, cannot be bolstered by interviews with law enforcement officials, university deans or emergency room doctors. But at least outlets like Vanity Fair and The Washington Post did what Sabrina Rubin Erdely did not and have given Cosby and his representatives a chance to respond to the charges in the pieces. In both cases, Cosby declined the opportunity.
But what is Cosby really asking for here? Should reporters display “a neutral mind” by covering each allegation as if they are independent from one another, rather than indicative of an alleged pattern of behavior? That’s a suggestion that casts objectivity as a kind of repetitive amnesia. If Cosby’s understanding of “the standards of excellence in journalism” requires reporters to get comment from all parties to a story, should Cosby’s repeated refusal to respond to the allegations against him mean that outlets can’t report on those allegations at all?
Or does neutrality mean weighing Cosby’s value against that of Beverly Johnson, who is also black? Against that of Cosby’s white accusers? Or against Hannibal Buress, a young black comedian who reminded audiences of the allegations against Cosby in a stand-up routine that went viral?
By appealing to “the black media” to uphold high standards, Cosby is implying that “white” outlets have violated these norms.
It’s absolutely true that mainstream publications have given Cosby’s accusers plenty of space to air their stories and published detailed analysis of how those allegations grate against the image that has made Cosby so wealthy and influential. But for some of those outlets, that coverage seems to be a correction for ignoring the allegations in the past. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of his own decision not to ask Cosby about the accusations lodged against him when he was reporting a profile of Cosby for the Atlantic, “I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby’s moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person’s word over another—it requires you take one person’s word over 15 others.”
Maybe our “standards of excellence in journalism” could be higher. But dispatching teams of reporters to investigate the allegations against Cosby rather than publishing first-person narratives — this paper has done both — doesn’t mean Cosby will get the outcome he wants. That’s the thing about neutrality: If a subject gets to dictate what it means, then it isn’t really neutrality at all.