On November 6, the Associated Press interviewed Bill Cosby and his wife Camille. The occasion was a show at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, which (currently) features an exhibition displaying Cosby's collection of African American art.
The on-camera interview took place after the multiple sexual assault allegations against the comedian (re-)gained attention; the interviewer, much like NPR's Scott Simon did in his own talk with Cosby, mentioned them, giving Cosby a chance to respond. "I didn't want to—I have to ask about your name coming up in the news recently," the reporter said.
To which Cosby gave the non-answer answer that is becoming his standard: "No, no, we don't answer that," he replied.
Later: "There's no response."
Cosby kept responding, though. "There is no comment about that," Cosby reiterated, "and I'll tell you why. I think you were told. I—I don't want to compromise your integrity. But we don't—I don't—talk about it."
I don't want to compromise your integrity. This is a strange sentiment, considering that one of a reporter's primary jobs is to adjudicate the truth. Cosby is a public figure; he is, whether he likes it or not, currently being tried in one of the oldest legal systems there is: the court of public opinion. And in that court, whether they like it or not, journalists can serve as lawyers and judges and juries, often all at the same time.
Which is also to say: The only way for the reporter to have compromised his integrity, in this case, would have been to shy away from asking the question in the first place.
Bill Cosby did not realize that. Or, perhaps, he chose to ignore it, instead making use of the rhetorical power of indignation. Toward the end of the interview—still on camera, still on the record—he asked the reporter, "Now can I get something from you?"
"What's that?" the reporter replied.
"That none of that will be shown," Cosby said.
The reporter pointed out that there wasn't much "that" to show: Cosby had not actually answered his question.
"I know I didn't say anything," Cosby said, "but I'm asking your integrity that since I didn't want to say anything, but I did answer you, in terms of I don't want to say anything, of what value will it have?"
He continued: "And I would appreciate it if it was scuttled."
Later: "I think if you want to consider yourself to be serious that it will not appear anywhere."
In conclusion: "And we thought, by the way, because it was AP, that it wouldn't be necessary to go over that question with you."
And: "If you will just tell your boss the reason why we didn't say that up-front was because we thought that AP had the integrity to not ask."
AP, however, did have the integrity to ask. The reporter did what my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates admonished all journalists to do: to "go there," awkwardness and everything else aside. And the results of the asked question were—even and especially in the absence of an actual answer—revealing.
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