Everyone's Talking About Bill Cosby's AP Interview, But Was Airing It Ethical?

The Bill Cosby rape allegations firestorm has already resulted in some questionable journalism, but the AP's recent scoop is almost a humblebrag of yellow reporting.

The Bill Cosby rape allegations firestorm has already resulted in questionable journalism like Don Lemon's unsolicited dick-biting advice, at least one hoax, and endless dissections of Cosby's past work (although the lyric "Nah, nah, nah, gonna have a good time!" is now, admittedly, super-creepy), but a recent Associated Press "scoop" seems to place the news service in the unenviable position of bragging about what crummy journalists they are.

This has nothing to do with whether you believe Cosby, or think that his trial by media is deserved. Journalism is about providing information to the public that is of value, and which allows them to make fair and informed judgments about matters of public interest. Some of the coverage does this, and some does not. The standard, however, is not that of a courtroom. Given the public accusations by named individuals, there is no doubt that the public has a right to expect journalists to investigate the allegations, and to ask Cosby about them. The public also has the right to form judgments about those accusations, and even about Cosby's refusal to address them. That's not what any of this is about.

In case you missed it, the long-standing stories about rape allegations against Bill Cosby got a sky-high lift from this Hannibal Buress stand-up clip that went viral:

In the immediate wake of that development, Cosby and wife Camille gave an interview to the Associated Press that took place on November 6, which was focused on an exhibition of his art collection. Weirdly, the video that was published at the time contained about 35 seconds of dead air at the end.

Not long after that, Cosby's social media team invited more attention when their "Meme Me" campaign was hijacked and used to spread the allegations. Since then, the total number of women accusing Cosby of sexual assault has risen from 14 to 17, and include women who are making those accusations publicly, without anonymity. Earlier this week, NPR's Scott Simon made huge news with an interview in which Cosby literally said nothing in response to the allegations, simply shaking his head "no" in response.

It is against that backdrop, then, that the Associated Press decided to release a portion of that Nov. 6 interview that they had previously withheld, and in which Cosby delivers a slightly more vocal refusal to comment. That's the part that's getting all the attention, but listen to what he says about the reporter's question:

"And I'll tell you why, I think you were told--I don't want to compromise your integrity, but we don't--I don't, talk about it."

That's the clip that's getting all the air, and I think the idea is to strengthen the impression of a premeditated strategy, and along with their other reporting on this unaired portion of the interview, the notion that Cosby is actively trying to quash the story. To the viewer, those are fair things to consider. As a journalist, my ears perked up when Cosby said, "I think you were told," because that makes it sound like there was some sort of pre-interview negotiation over subject matter, although Cosby later seems to say he didn't insist that the subject not come up.

What happened next, though, exposes serious lapses in the AP's editorial practices, as Cosby tries to secure a promise that the footage will be "scuttled," a proposition to which the reporters don't explicitly agree, but for which they all make the same case. There's also some additional, very revealing talk about the pre-interview process:

Cosby: What value will it have?

Reporter: I don't think it will have any...

Producer: I don't think it will have any value, either.

Reporter: We haven't written about this at all in the past two months, but my bosses wanted me to ask.

Other Producer: One of the TV writers for the AP in Los Angeles called me up and asked me, Lynn Elber, and I said we're not addressing it, so she said, "fine," and just closed it off.

Cosby's intimations about "integrity" are, apparently, a crtique of news organizations that have reported on the allegations, despite the absence of any actual fresh news on them. The reporter seems to agree with that premise, and is kind of bragging about how his organization has ignored it. That's a judgment call, of course, but asking for a reaction to Buress' act seems entirely legitimate to me.

Also a judgment call is news value, which is what Cosby, the reporter, and the producers all seem to agree on. Since they didn't publish that portion of the interview, the AP's editors apparently agreed. There are cases to be made in either direction, but since he didn't comment, and there wasn't any other newsworthy context for the clip, you could make the argument that airing a flat "no comment" can even be a little bit prejudicial.

Having judged the clip to be without news value two weeks ago, however, there's not much of a case for it suddenly having news value today. In their explanation, the AP points out that several more accusers have come forward publicly, the implication being that now, the accusations are somehow more reportable, but by that logic, they had no business asking him about it in the first place. They were as reportable then as they are today.

Their other apparent justification, that public pressure on Cosby has increased in the intervening weeks, is actually an argument against the news value of the clip, since it took place in an entirely different public context. Airing it now is either an admission that it was newsworthy when they quashed it, or that it's not newsworthy now, either, and simply an attempt to exploit the clip now that the story has heated up.

None of this is to say that people aren't correct in forming opinions about Cosby based on this, but rather, that they should also use it to make judgments about how the news gets reported. Depending on your own judgments on this matter, the AP was either covering up for Bill Cosby 2 weeks ago, or unfairly prejudicing the public against him now. Neither is particularly pretty.