‘Forget It, Jake, It’s Cosbytown’
Here’s a commendable reflection by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who did a piece for The Atlantic on Bill Cosby seven years ago. TNC says in the course of his reporting, he had to confront the rape allegations against Cosby — they aren’t new — but because they weren’t part of his focus on this piece, and because it would have required a lot of reporting he hadn’t planned to do, he didn’t pursue them. Excerpt:
The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else’s salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby’s moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written.
It was not enough.
I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.
I don’t have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.
Read the whole thing. It’s admirable.
I can’t say that I’ve had anything in my professional background that put me to the test quite like this, but I am certain I would have performed no better than TNC did under the same circumstances.
The only thing sort of like this from my career is my moral certainty that a number of accusations made privately against a certain prominent Roman Catholic bishop were and are true. I began learning about these allegations in the spring of 2002. This bishop’s behavior — sexual harassment of seminarians and priests, including in at least one case I know about, a rape — is known relatively widely within elite church circles, both clerical and lay. I could not get a single person to go on the record telling what they knew, nor could I get any legal documents. The story went unreported. It makes me sick that this bishop got away with it. With all these alleged Cosby victims coming out and putting their name to allegations against him, I found myself hoping just the other day that some of this bishop’s victims will do the same.
The problem is that as far as I know, the victims are all priests, and they have a reasonable fear of retribution if they come forward. Still do, I imagine. I know of at least three prominent Catholic laymen who have personal knowledge of these crimes, but who would not talk about it in 2002. They cannot be hurt professionally by telling the truth about this bishop. I hope their consciences are troubling them today, and they will speak out.
I regret that I did not push harder back in the day to find someone willing to talk, or to unearth documents. I was living in New York City, and would have had to travel to get the information. I had no car, and no budget for travel. There were a thousand other things on my plate at the time, stories that were much easier to report. I let this one slip.
The story is still out there. Why don’t I go after it now? Because the bishop is retired, and because I wrecked myself spiritually and emotionally with the clerical sexual abuse story a decade ago, and don’t want to revisit it. To be clear: I never saw a document proving this bishop’s guilt, or spoke to a victim. I only heard story after story, from priests and laymen with first-hand knowledge of the bishop’s dark deeds. To believe this man was innocent would have required believing that a number of people, most of them unknown to each other, were lying.
No small number of journalists on this beat know who I’m talking about; this is one of the worst-kept secrets in church-beat journalism. I hope a journalist who is in a position to do the reporting will think about the Cosby story, and what those victims have gone through, and will find it within himself or herself to do the digging necessary to bring this story to light. And I hope he or she is working for a news organization that will broadcast or publish the results of the investigation. Because even though this bishop is not in power any longer, the real story now is how so many people in his dioceses and beyond — even in the Vatican — knew exactly what kind of predator he was, and did nothing about it.
I don’t feel regret like TNC does, exactly. But I do feel some self-reproach, because a powerful man who abused his authority to force sex on vulnerable men — men who knew he could have had them thrown out of the priesthood, or denied ordination, had they refused him — sleeps untroubled in his bed, and I did not do everything I could have done to expose his wrongdoing when it might have mattered.
Then again, it might not have mattered. A couple of years ago, I helped a journalist working with a major news organization (not one I have ever worked for) on this story. He dug up court documents and got on the record interviews with victims. He had the bishop nailed — and an editor killed the story before publication. Why? The reporter himself has no idea why it happened. I hope that that editor’s conscience is bothering him these days. He protected a predator. Is protecting a predator.
Somebody in this blog’s comments said the other day that people like Bill Cosby get away with it because nobody wants to live in a world in which Bill Cosby is a rapist. This is an important principle that explains a lot of looking the other way, and why victims of certain figures never come forward. There are too many complicated entanglements preventing justice from being known. All of us have interests and illusions that we would rather sacrifice others for than see challenged. And as TNC indicates, we often don’t even know when we’re doing it. Forget it, Jake, it’s Cosbytown.
UPDATE: I can hear readers now, “So why don’t you name the guy, if he’s done all these horrible things?” The same reason I never wrote the story: I don’t have solid proof in my hand, proof that I can cite in a story. It is possible, however unlikely, that he is innocent. If someone makes a public allegation, or files a lawsuit, with publicly accessible documents, I’ll be very pleased to write about it. But so far, to my knowledge, none of that has happened. Cosby’s story only got traction recently when one of his alleged victims came forward and used her name. That brought others forward. Most journalists, whatever their beat, know awful things about people they cover that are incontrovertibly true, or that they believe are true, but that they cannot broadcast or publish because the standard is — rightly — quite high. I bring up this particular case to illustrate how the powerful can get away with things like this, even if the media have solid reason to believe the accusations they’re hearing about behind the scenes are true.