Politics & Policy

Mark Whitaker Is Bill Cosby’s Last Enabler

There is no excuse for self-censorship in the CNN and Newsweek journalist's brand-new Cosography.

To the many women who claim to have been victimized by popular and enduring entertainer Bill Cosby, we can add a male victim: Mark Whitaker, whose fawning biography Bill Cosby: His Life and Times hit bookshelves this season.

At least, that seems to be the way Whitaker views things. “Whitaker also seems to have paid a price,” Lloyd Grove writes in a thorough but soft Daily Beast article on why the veteran journalist’s new, and seemingly unauthorized, biography of Cosby (472 pages of text; 60 pages of notes) never mentions that 16 women — at least four of whom have been speaking publicly by name about the matter since the middle of last decade — claim the I Spy and Cosby Show star committed sex crimes up to and including rape.

Whitaker, former CNN Worldwide executive vice president and managing editor, Newsweek editor, and Harvard Crimson editorial board member, did not respond to requests for comment from National Review Online, nor did publisher Simon & Schuster, which brought out Cosby: His Life and Times in September. In his interview with Grove, Whitaker makes a series of misleading and evasive statements, starting with his very first: “Well, look, obviously the story has changed.”

In fact, the story has remained exactly as it was in June 2006, when four women — Barbara Bowman, Andrea Constand, Tamara Green, and Beth Ferrier – were named in, among other places, this Philadelphia Magazine article by Robert Huber. The Montgomery County district attorney investigated Constand’s claim that Cosby drugged her, forced her to give him a hand job, and digitally penetrated her. After D.A. Bruce Castor declined to prosecute, Constand put together 13 women as witnesses in a civil suit against Cosby that was settled out of court. At that time, Constand and other witnesses made multiple media appearances, including network TV news interviews.

No new facts have been introduced to this narrative in 2014.

The only thing that changed was that Cosby was toppled by a younger comic. “I want to just at least make it weird for everybody to watch Cosby Show reruns,” Hannibal Buress told an audience during a mid-October monologue about the allegations. “If you didn’t know about it, trust me. When you leave here, google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That s*** has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”

The 31-year-old comedian’s act subsequently took off as a viral video clip — and his last claim is accurate: As of this writing, Google returns 30.4 million results for the search term “Bill Cosby rape” and only 672,000 for “Hannibal Buress.” After Buress’s routine went wide, and for no other reason, mainstream media took a new interest. Some of the original Jane Doe witnesses have revealed their identities, and more women have come forward, but their claims do not differ in content or credibility from the previous charges. The Washington Post published an op-ed by Bowman last week. The only change is in the amount of attention the story is getting. The narrative itself has not been added to or revised.

Whitaker’s confusion of virality with news is not his most preposterous dodge.

“I wasn’t going to reprint the allegations. I had a couple of reasons for that,” Whitaker says. “You can do that and say here’s an allegation, and here’s a denial, but given the nature of the allegations, the allegations would stick. As a biographer, you’re really trying to say ‘I’m painting a scene for you. Here you are in the room. This is what happened.’ And if you do enough reporting, you can actually do that. And if you can’t do that, you don’t do that. When you’re writing a book, you want to make sure it’s really accurate, that you can stand behind it, because once it’s out it’s not like a piece in a newspaper or even a news magazine that you can correct quickly. That was just the standard I used.”

This is an inexcusable abdication of reporting duty. Cosby: His Life and Times is filled with tales derived from a single source or media reports. A funny anecdote about an amateur league basketball game is sourced entirely from a foreword Bill Cosby wrote for somebody else’s book. A story in which young Cosby and a high school varsity football teammate beat up a heckling fan comes entirely from an interview with an old Cosby friend. A scuffle between Cosby and Tommy Smothers at the Playboy Mansion is based on an Army Archerd writeup in Variety, and so on.

Whitaker has the audacity to claim he rejected a “he said, she said” story because it was not up to his standards. In fact, by remaining silent — a tactic that Cosby has favored since the accusations surfaced in 2005 and continues to use as recently as his stonewalling of NPR’s Scott Simon — Whitaker has produced only a “he said” narrative, because nothing is what Cosby prefers to say. A person who plunks down $29.99 on Whitaker’s book will effectively get Cosby’s version of the story — silence — and will hear nothing from the women because Whitaker didn’t bother to interview them. Not one of the above names appears in the book. Neither Whitaker nor the publisher has explained whether he talked to them at all prior to deciding the whole business was not fit to print. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Whitaker avoided this clearly relevant part of his story not because he thought the charges were groundless but because he feared they might be true.

Like Cosby, Whitaker has had many abettors. His book is festooned with blurbs from Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, and other luminaries — ranging from the self-promotional (“If I was ‘America’s sweetheart’ — turning the world on with a smile — then Bill Cosby was and still is our ‘best man,’” writes Mary Tyler Moore) to the gaseously pompous (“a modern American troubadour, a griot, and a comic genius,” gushes Wynton Marsalis) to the heartbreakingly hypocritical (“Bill Cosby has contributed more to comedy, television, education, and humanitarian causes than any person I know,” swears David Letterman, who nevertheless canceled a Cosby appearance scheduled for this week when the controversy got too hot). In a September review, the closest Washington Post entertainment reporter Ann Hornaday came to acknowledging that Whitaker omitted anything was to praise the book’s “forthrightness and tact.” Even the suffering of Whitaker that Grove alludes to — sales of the book have, in Whitaker’s phrase “fallen off a bit” since the long-public scandal rekindled — seems like a corporal work of mercy: At this point, not talking about Whitaker’s book is the kindest thing you can do for the author. 

Which is a shame, because the biography, had it included even a few pages of treatment of the multiple rape allegations, would have gone a long way toward contextualizing the accusations, or at least establishing what a huge percentage of Bill Cosby’s existence on Earth has been spent in ways the rest of us would find impressive and admirable. It is worth remembering that Cosby has not been convicted of or even charged with any crime, and that an out-of-court settlement proves nothing. Though it is not possible to love a person you don’t know, America’s relationship with Bill Cosby has at times come close to a truly emotional connection with a celebrity — a phenomenon that explains why not just Whitaker but so many others were eager to send the rape allegations down the memory hole with Leonard Part 6. His prose frequently reads like imperial Roman court biography (“For all the attention TV success won him, however, Cosby has always known that it is fleeting”), but Whitaker does a decent job of rendering the career that made that national love affair possible. All that effort is lost, however, because of his conscious decision to censor the rape allegations. This may have been what Cosby wanted — and how much control by his subject Whitaker agreed to in exchange for access is another open question — but the omission is actually a disservice to Cosby, who is as entitled to a full and fair journalistic treatment as he is to due process under the law.

Why would a biographer leave such stuff out? Whitaker isn’t talking, but several possibilities suggest themselves. Reporters generally behave as if journalistic standards are not as important when covering culture and entertainment as they are when covering “hard” news subjects. There is also a persistent belief in the establishment media that preventing the dissemination of information, rather than relentlessly pursuing the truth, is the real job of responsible reporting professionals — and Whitaker has spent much of his career at the highest echelons of the establishment media, where such perverse notions are most strongly held.

But the real reason seems to be Whitaker’s determination to put Cosby’s phenomenal success into a broader context, which in practice means showing how The Cosby Show’s vision of family paved the way for Barack Obama’s apotheosis. He massively expands the “Cosby Effect” posited in 2008 by the interesting but batty Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, and revisits much election-year pontification that now feels poignantly long ago. (The comparison, by the way, is something Whitaker shares with the late Andrew Breitbart, who used to parody the media’s obsession with the First Family’s charm with the phrase, “You can’t kick the Huxtables out of the White House!”)

At the time of the election Cosby was deep into his “call-outs” of black America, a series of ornery-scold appearances and statements Buress lampoons as “Pull your pants up! I was on TV in the eighties!” Whitaker’s fixation on Cosby as a racial healer can be gratuitous: At one point, we learn that dancing the Bop with local girls was a vehicle for young Cos’s creativity because the dance “had yet to acquire formulaic moves (as it would when it became another white teenage dance craze).” But the association isn’t totally baseless. Candidate Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech during the Jeremiah Wright controversy has been forgotten, but at the time it received a stunning amount of praise from across the political spectrum (yes, that was Charles Murray calling it “flat out brilliant — rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America“) as a harbinger of a more realistic, harmonious era in race relations, in which yammering race hustlers might finally yield the stage to individuals focused on personal responsibility. You can see how well that worked out.

Unlike Cosby, Obama has only let America down publicly. The First Family is as lovely, charming, and seemingly scandal-free as ever. It’s Obama’s leadership that stinks. After all these years, the Cosby who in 1971 told a crowd at a Congressional Black Caucus fundraiser “You have to stop blaming white people; you can’t blame the Jews who own the stores” has lost. Al Sharpton has won. That Whitaker is still peddling the deteriorated Cosbama connection shows that he is as careless with concepts as he is with facts.

Bill Cosby on Friday began in a very gingerly manner to address what he calls “innuendos,” and what the rest of us would call “highly specific and detailed allegations.” He deserves the benefit of the doubt, but he doesn’t deserve the kind of historical editing his biographer has done. Whitaker still has a photo of himself with Cos as the hero image on his Twitter page, which, given how many former Cosby supporters have been abandoning him under pressure, may be an honorable gesture. Unfortunately, journalistic honor — to the extent that that phrase is not an oxymoron — consists in only one thing: never avoiding the truth. Whitaker had a chance to let some of the steam out of the current scandal by placing it within a full and fair biographical treatment, but he chose instead to let the air out of his own career.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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