Cosby Biographer’s Omission Sparks Controversy
Old allegations that comedian Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women have filled the news in recent weeks—and brought unflattering attention to Cosby biographer Mark Whitaker.
In Cosby: His Life and Times, Whitaker, a seasoned journalist, wrote about Cosby’s extramarital affairs and other dark moments in his life, but he left out the rape allegations and the out-of-court settlement Cosby made in 2006 with Andrea Constand, one of the alleged victims who had sued Cosby the year before. Before the settlement, twelve other women were also prepared to testify that Cosby had either molested or raped them.
Several reporters had examined the allegations years before Whitaker’s book appeared, a fact that received increasing attention as journalists and reviewers wondered why Whitaker left them out of the book. In mid-November, defending himself to CNN. Whitaker said, “Basically, I knew that I was going to have to be very careful in what I said about his private life. I felt that way as a journalist and also for legal reasons.
“In the case of these other allegations, basically because there were no definitive court findings, no independent witnesses, it didn’t meet my standard for what I was going to put in the book.”
In September, just days before Cosby was published, Whitaker wrote an article for the Washington Post explaining how he came to get Cosby’s cooperation for the book. The comedian first rebuffed him, but about a year into Whitaker’s research Cosby had a change of heart and approached him, willing to cooperate. His representatives had already made clear that Cosby would not talk about the paternity suit he had faced or the murder of his son Ennis. But as Whitaker wrote, “Cosby himself imposed no other conditions, on me or on the dozens of people he encouraged to talk to me.”
With access to the comedian and his close friends, Whitaker wrote what he called “a book that put readers there, showing them how Cosby’s life and career unfolded in real time and letting them draw their own conclusions, rather than telling them what to think.” He added, “I was under no obligation, but when the book was in galleys, I sent copies to Cosby’s publicist and lawyer so they would know what was coming. Although there were things in it they weren’t entirely happy about, they didn’t ask for any changes, because they knew I had solid sourcing for everything I had written.”
Having a subject’s lawyer and publicist review galleys might have raised the eyebrows of other journalists and biographers, as Whitaker’s leaving out the rape allegations and Cosby’s settlement with Constand later did. USA Today’s Michael Wolff, writing shortly after the book’s publication, said, “Whitaker not only seems out to protect Cosby, but, further complicating the tale, to be threatened by him. Cosby is said to have made it clear to Whitaker and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, that he would sue on the slightest provocation.”
A BIO Member Responds
Biographer, journalism professor, and BIO member Steve Weinberg addressed Whitaker’s shortcomings in handling the issue in an article for Time. Weinberg wrote, in part, “It’s hard to consider Whitaker a reliable reporter considering what he has left out; his standards are not only unrealistic, but also unwise and irresponsible for a biographer who wants to present a complete picture of his subject.
“Biographers know that circumstantial evidence is as valid—and perhaps as necessary—for inclusion as direct evidence, as long as the circumstantial evidence accumulates at a certain level. Rarely do rapists assault their victims in front of witnesses. Is Whitaker suggesting that all biographers ignore detailed rape charges issued by women—ones who identify themselves, no less—against iconic, influential, wealthy men because nobody else was in the room?
“…. At minimum, Whitaker should have decided that the multiple allegations of sexual assault affected Cosby’s own life so deeply that they needed to be included in the book. Based on his evaluation of the evidence, Whitaker could have told readers that he doubted the allegations. Or he could have told readers that the allegations existed—an objective fact. Whatever Whitaker concluded about the evidence, he needed to tell readers how Cosby reacted, and why he might have reacted as he did. Instead, Whitaker participated in a biographical cover-up—a classic lie of omission. That is never an acceptable decision for the chronicler of somebody else’s life.”
As criticism of Whitaker mounted, he made this admission via Twitter on November 24: “I was wrong to not deal with the sexual assault charges against Cosby and pursue them more aggressively. I am following new developments and will address them at the appropriate time. If true the stories are shocking and horrible.”
Members React to Whitaker’s Book
After Steve Weinberg published his piece in Time, he shared it on the BIO Facebook page. Here are some member responses to the article and issues it raised.
Jeffrey Marks: I had to write about an abuse issue in my biography of Craig Rice. It’s not pretty or fun, but in order to have a full picture of the subject, you have to include the good with the bad….The fact that Cosby settled with one of the women could be presented as a fact by both a biographer and a journalist. That fact could have opened the door to a mention that other women have made similar complaints
Oline Eaton: How can you write the life without at least acknowledging that these allegations were a part of it?! Shocking…. I wondered about the difference between biographical ethics and journalistic ethics as well, but figured that the allegations would have an effect on the life so they’d need to be at least mentioned, even if Whitaker only listed them and said he couldn’t verify them…. There’s also a question of access to the subject here, no? Whitaker got 11 hours with Cosby. The video footage of Cosby’s strong-arming of the AP seems illuminating.
Carl Rollyson: I think he left it out because he wanted access to Cosby. I would not make such a deal.
Barbara Lehman Smith: Watching how Cosby tried to intimidate that AP reporter (which temporarily worked by the way) gives me an idea of how Cosby influenced Whitaker. But facts are facts (minimum: allegations made, suits settled) and Whitaker was a coward.
(TBC contacted Mark Whitaker’s publicist, who passed on our request to Whitaker for a comment, but never heard back before press time.)