In NPR And AP Cosby Interviews, A 'No Comment' That Said Everything
When Bill Cosby sat down on Nov. 6 to do interviews with several journalists inside the galleries of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, he may have felt he was in a safe space — there to talk only about an exhibit based on his own collection of art.
Safe from lingering allegations of sexual assault, from the barbs of standup comic Hannibal Buress. Safe from anything undesired.
Instead, the interviews offer a lesson in how the definition of "news" can shift in an instant — not just for people in the news, but for journalists themselves.
Cosby's efforts to deny any airtime to the story came undone amid the excruciating silence he maintained in the face of gentle but persistent questioning by NPR's Scott Simon, broadcast on Nov. 15.
Simon's approach has drawn accolades, but The Associated Press has come under fire in the past 48 hours for the handling of its interview with Cosby, at the same spot, even though it incorporated his similar refusal to respond in the initial coverage it sent around the world days earlier.
Both interviews were conducted on the same day, three weeks after the Buress riff that became a viral sensation; the younger comedian challenged Cosby's moral stature to criticize the behavior of others given the longstanding allegations against him.
AP entertainment reporter Brett Zongker asked Cosby about the allegations, but Cosby shut him down: "No, no, we don't answer that."
Zongker asked again, winning just this from Cosby: "There's no response."
After a third effort, Cosby spoke softly but firmly, suggesting that there had been an understanding not to address the allegations. His longtime publicist, David Brokaw, standing largely off camera, piped up to suggest that AP television reporter Lynn Elber had promised the topic would be "shut off" from the interview.
Cosby warned the reporter that "if you want to consider yourself to be serious ... it will not appear anywhere." Indeed, as NPR's Simon and his colleagues Sarah Oliver and Gemma Watters entered the room, Cosby instructed one of his aides to go over the AP reporter's head: "I think you need to get on the phone with his person immediately."
"His person" meaning Zongker's editor.
Cosby clearly thought he could manage not only what news emerged from the conversation, but also how the wire service would handle the way in which he chose not to address questions.
He may have been convinced he succeeded, to a degree. On Nov. 8, the AP published a largely affirming story about the exhibition of the art collected by Cosby and his wife Camille, who sat by his side during the interviews. The article concluded with this jarring passage:
"Cosby has been in the news lately as he prepares for a new sitcom on network television 30 years after his groundbreaking role as Cliff Huxtable on 'The Cosby Show,' and because reviewers have criticized his otherwise comprehensive authorized biography published last month for making no mention of past accusations of sexual assault. Cosby declined to comment when asked for his response during the interview. The allegation stems from an investigation and lawsuit settled in 2006. Cosby has never been charged with sexual assault."
The AP sent that story to the hundreds of news organizations around the world that subscribe to its news service, and made the story available publicly online as well. The AP hid nothing in terms of content — and yet the full context wasn't present. The exchange about what would be incorporated in the coverage was not included in the the more focused, original video version of the AP story. Neither was the no comment, as the allegations were not mentioned at all.
The silence in the exchange with Simon, by contrast, took up a significant part of the interview in the version that was broadcast, and it fueled intense media coverage. More women came forward, by name, with accounts of incidents in which they say Cosby sexually assaulted or coerced them.
Cosby's representatives have denied and dismissed allegations this fall even as more have emerged.
On Wednesday, major corporate partners acted to protect their commercial interests: Netflix, NBC (owned by Comcast) and TVLand (owned by Viacom) all shelved deals with Cosby.
That day, the AP changed gears, posting the full video of Zongker's exchange with Cosby, showing a master comedian in a most serious mood. The people speaking off camera were part of Cosby's retinue — not part of the AP team there.
In addition, AP's managing editor for entertainment news, Lou Ferrara, told me the wire service accepted no conditions on the interview, despite Cosby's protests.
"There were no promises made," Ferrara said. "That's not what we do. That's not in our DNA."
Ferrara explicitly denied that AP entertainment reporter Elber had made any promise to the Cosby camp to shut off any line of questioning, much less the assaults.
Ferrara said the AP wanted to get Cosby to talk about the exhibit, about his standup, about the deals with Netflix and the new NBC show — and about the allegations. But he acknowledged the AP had not covered the allegations extensively of late.
"We went back and looked at it when the story evolved. We tried to be prudent and fair about these things," Ferrara said. "Part of the reason we decided to put things out — warts and all — was that we wanted people to see it for themselves."
On Friday, Cosby publicist Brokaw declined to comment to NPR about any element of the interview with the AP.
The marvel of broadcasting is that it can carry more than the written word. Listeners and viewers can derive additional texture and meaning from facial expressions, pauses, the freight carried in a voice. In this case, the shake of a head, a plea and a rebuke convey much more than a simple "no comment," even when the words are substantially the same.
Some tough questions, followed by the sounds of silence, led the public to conclude that what largely had been considered old news was new again. Bill Cosby learned he couldn't control the agenda. And the AP scrambled to cover a story it thought had already reported.