On Nov. 10, the Associated Press released a video featuring Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, chatting about the collection of African-American art the couple had recently loaned to the Smithsonian. More than a week later, the AP published additional footage from the Cosby sit-down that hadn’t made the original cut.
In the clip, a reporter mentions numerous allegations of sexual assault that have been made against Cosby over the past decade. “I didn’t want to—I have to ask about your name coming up in the news recently,” the reporter told Cosby. “No, no, we don’t answer that,” Cosby replied. The reporter tried twice more to get a comment out of Cosby, and Cosby denied him each time. The clip released by the AP also includes an exchange recorded after the formal interview concluded, but before Cosby had removed his mic. “Now, can I get something from you? That none of that will be shown?” Cosby asked the reporter, adding that he thought the AP had the “integrity” not to ask. “If you want to consider yourself to be serious,” Cosby told him, “I would appreciate it, if [the footage] was scuttled.”
The clip is troubling, because Cosby appears studied in the art of soft intimidation. But I’m also troubled by the ease with which the AP buckles to his demands. Until Wednesday night, the AP had opted to suppress the sexual assault portion of the interview, accommodating Cosby at the expense of reporting the news. Why would it do that?
Entertainment journalists require access to rich, famous people, and rich, famous people require favorable press. How news organizations and celebrities negotiate that exchange depends on their relative status in the marketplace. When Cosby granted the AP interview at the beginning of the month, he believed that he was powerful enough to demand positive coverage, and ultimately, it appears the AP agreed. But just 10 days after the piece aired, Cosby’s stock had dropped considerably: In that time, Netflix, NBC, and TV Land had all cut ties, meaning that he had fewer friends, less influence, and very little leverage. As the power differential shifted, the AP’s complicity with Cosby in producing the art-related video and scuttling the rest began to pose a reputational risk to the news organization. (The AP notes in the new video that it decided to publish the additional footage in the new context of the “backdrop” of his shuttered business deals.) So: The AP rolled the tape of its interview touching on the rape allegations and also included the tense off-the-cuff conversation that followed. The postscript contained the interview’s juiciest bits, but it also served as a sly explanation for why the AP failed to release the video earlier: The implication is that Cosby and his people intimidated the AP into silence.
But the video shows that the AP reporter was not eager to approach the topic in the first place and unwilling to justify his line of questioning when Cosby challenged him. “I have to ask,” the reporter said before he asked the question. “My bosses wanted me to ask,” he said after he asked. And when Cosby suggested that he “scuttle” the video, the reporter replied, “I will tell that to my editors, and I think that they will understand.” Maybe that was just a polite hedge—“they may understand, but they’ll publish it anyway”—or simply a way for the reporter to deflect responsibility in the moment, to get the heck out of there. But given the AP’s initial decision to publish the video without the sexual assault segment, it sounds more like a capitulation.
The AP made the wrong initial call, but there’s something human about its skittishness in confronting Cosby: When a man is sitting a few feet away from you, side-by-side with his wife, on the occasion of having generously donated art to a museum and graciously granted you an interview, most people want to be polite, diffuse tension, and save face. Resisting those impulses is hard, even when it’s your job. So if you ever wonder why a victim is reluctant to go public with an accusation, consider the case of the AP reporter, who could barely manage to ask a question.