Bill Cosby's damage control unravels: New AP interview's explosive revelation

Disturbing new footage shows the comedian pressuring an AP reporter to "scuttle" questions about sex abuse

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 20, 2014 6:15PM (EST)

Bill Cosby                  (AP/Todd Williamson)
Bill Cosby (AP/Todd Williamson)

It must be strange, after so many decades of being both so beloved and so influential, to have so much slip away, and so suddenly. It must be, for Bill Cosby, all but inconceivable. But damned if he isn't going to keep trying to control a story that is no longer exclusively his to tell, as his bold recent media missteps amply demonstrate.

This fall was supposed to be the 77-year-old comic's big return to the spotlight. He had a potential new NBC series in the works, a Netflix special in the offing and a new biography that was far more festschrift than exposé. But as any comedian knows, timing is everything, and this time, it didn't work in his favor. In retrospect, the glaring omission of Cosby's 2006 sexual assault settlement --  and the more than one dozen women who have made similar claims against him -- in Mark Whitaker's hefty biography may have done more to call attention to the allegations than a cursory mention of the allegations ever could have. And then came the allegations against Canadian radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, and the media's long-standing cone of silence around public figures became even more conspicuous.

Yet even as he's being dropped from television appearances and finding his sad attempts at jocular social media stunts backfiring spectacularly,  Bill Cosby would still very much like to behave like a man in charge. As evidence, watch the recently unveiled Associated Press interview with the comic and his wife, Camille, taped on Nov. 6. In it, reporter Brett Zongker begins to ask Cosby about Hannibal Buress' recent routine in which he stated, "You rape women, Bill Cosby." "No, no, we don't answer that," Cosby said. "There's no response. There is no comment about that. I think you were told. I don't want to compromise your integrity, but I don't talk about it." But where it gets really interesting is after the interview is ostensibly over, but the cameras are still rolling and Cosby and his wife are still wearing microphones. "Now, can I get something from you, that none of that will be shown?" he asks. The reporter, obviously flummoxed, says, "I … I can't promise that myself but you didn't say anything." Cosby continues, "I would appreciate it if it was scuttled," and Zongker says, "I hear you, and I will tell that to my editors and I think that they will understand." Cosby adds, "I think that if you want to consider yourself serious, that it will not appear anywhere."

This, by the way, is coming at the same time Cosby's attorney Martin Singer sent a letter to BuzzFeed News after it attempted to contact the comic regarding former model Janice Dickinson's allegations that he sexually assaulted her. In it, Singer calls Dickinson's "story" an "outrageous and defamatory lie" and warned, "If you recklessly publish the Story instead of checking readily available information demonstrating its falsity, all those involved will be exposed to substantial liability. You proceed at your peril." 

Man, it's a great week for bullying journalists. But as many writers who have ever been granted an audience with a prominent person can attest, it's always a pretty great week for bullying journalists. That AP reporter's placating assertion to Cosby that "We haven't written about this at all in the past two months" is not an unfamiliar exchange for celebrity journalists. You want access? In return, you have to play by the subject's rules. That's the way the dance generally goes.

Just two weeks ago, when that AP interview was conducted, Bill Cosby could still command a degree of deference. Now, as more women are coming forward with accusations, that is rapidly changing. The AP release of the footage clearly indicates an editorial decision that Cosby no longer has the power in this scenario -- that even its staff's own kid gloves-wielding behavior in the clip is trumped by Cosby's arrogance. In that regard, it's similar to BuzzFeed's recent decision to publish Uber executive Emil Michael's brazen talk of doxxing journalists critical of the company. It's a declaration that maybe the press is not as easily pushed around as rich and powerful celebrities and business leaders would like. God knows plenty of journalists are more than capable of throwing ethics out the door. But take a look at what their subjects, when feeling cornered and confronted with questions and criticism, are capable of. It can involve threats and intimidation and flat out playing dirty, on the part of very powerful people. This is the sausage-making process in action, folks. It's not pretty, is it? And that's exactly why you need to see it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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