Bob talks with The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates about a 2008 magazine piece he wrote about Bill Cosby that only mentioned the sexual assault accusations against Cosby at that time in passing. Earlier this week, Coates wrote a self-critical postabout that 2008 piece.
BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week, I’m Bob Garfield. This is Bill Cosby from a 1969 comedy album It's True! It's True! talking about a legendary aphrodisiac.
COSBY: ...and it never starts with one of the guys on the corner, its always some strange 13-year-old who says you know what, you know anything about spanish fly - theres this girl, Crazy Mary, you put something in her drink, yeah, spanish fly is really groovy man, really groovy..
BOB: Slipping drugs into women’s drinks. There’s some creepy foreshadowing. This week, more women came forward accusing comedian Cosby of that very technique for rape. Allegations such as have been accumulating for years. The charges were certainly in circulation back in 2008, when writer Ta-Nehisi Coates covered Cosby in a freelance piece for The Atlantic. But Coates’ subject back then was a different matter, concerning Cosby’s so-called “Call-Out” Tour in which the iconic performer scolded black audiences for self-destructiveness and moral laxity in their communities. The story, which challenged Cosby’s assumptions, changed the trajectory of Coates career. He was unemployed and flat broke at the time; now, he is national correspondent for The Atlantic. But this week he wrote an essay of introspection verging on self-flagellation, because as the picture emerges of Cosby as serial predator, Coates realizes he deliberately downplayed the predations back in 2008. Ta-Nehisi, welcome back to the show.
COATES: Thanks for having me back.
BOB: Well let me begin at least, by offering you some exculpatory material. The piece you wrote in 2008 was about Cosby's call-out tour. It was not meant to be a general profile, right?
COATES: That's exactly right. It wasn't a profile. And that, that's very interesting you should say, because that was the argument made to me at the time by people around me. Very, very close to me. Outside the editorial at The Atlantic about whether to go forward and how it should be written. An internal argument that I had had with myself. Yep.
BOB: So you plan a hunting trip to go hunting to go hunting for deer. You come across a dead body, you don't say, 'Well, I'm really here to deer-hunt. So I'm going to ignore this corpse sitting here in the leaves.' Did you ignore the corpse in the leaves?
COATES: More what I did was I nodded at the corpse in the leaves. I pointed out, that hey - somebody should really do something about that corpse. And kept hunting. That's more like what I did. But it's in the piece, right? The problem is not that it it's ignored, the problem is that it's sort of, you know, said in a very limp and weak way. 'Hey - there's a dead body here. Somebody should really look into that.' In my world, in my mind - I was writing one Bill Cosby story. And I wasn't, as you say, writing a profile of Bill Cosby. Surely other reporters were going to follow up. Surely there would be other reporting about BIll Cosby. He would not, you know, just -- be me. I don't know. I don't know. I was in the world of my story. That was the story I was writing. That was the story I was doing.
BOB: Well if you have any culpability as a journalist probably we all have culpability as an audience too, because I don't think anybody was dying to see Dr. Huxtable, trotted out as...
COATES: But see, but see that's the problem though right there. That is exactly the problem. I had none of those illusions. Like I think other people had to do psychological work to imagine Bill Cosby. I had none of that. That's not what got in my way. Like, I pride myself. Even in that piece. I thought, hey man, here's a skeptical, counter-intuitive take. This is not what people are saying about Bill Cosby right now. I'm doing something different than whatever else you're going see. It wasn't different enough, though. If anything, the lesson for me is you have these instictins, because I did have the instincts at the time. Go harder, always go harder. Always go harder.
BOB: Yes, it would have taken you off the story you had pitched and were assigned. And yes...it would have required a whole lot more legwork if you go back and do your due diligence on accusations.
COATES: No, no Bob. It would have required me for instance to figure out how I was going to pay the next month's rent. I'm being real with you. Again, that doesn't excuse. That's the work you signed-up for. Um, but it's also the work. It also is the work.
BOB: Now you're black - and you are more than well acquainted with the narrative of black sexual predators that have ended in countless lynching. And probably goes to the core of the worst pathologies of racism. The idea that black men would defile white women. And a lot of these victims are white. And even as Bill Cosby was going on the stump, wagging his scolding finger at black Americans, he was feeding the core of so much racism in this country. Emmett Till is hanging from a tree limb for looking sideways at the wrong woman. And...Bill Cosby is allegedly slipping mickey's in woman's drinks. Ugh.
COATES: That's not even a connection I had made, but I think you're exactly right. He became every white racists you know, fever dream. If anything that called for more so - for it to be investigated. That's a connection I hadn't even made.
BOB: Even now, this is still allegations, and there's not physical evidence, there are no rape kits. THere are not eye witness. I suppose there's always the possibility of some sort of hysteria going on. But that's a quite a leap, is it not.
COATES: It's a big leap, if you think about all of the possibilities. Things that people throw-out. He's rich, he's famous. People make allegations and he's a target, oh yeah..why aren't there 18 women accusing Barack Obama. Why aren't there 18 women accusing Denzel Washington. Lotta rich, famous black people out there.
BOB: You've done this kinda stunning mea culpa. Are you gonna stay on this story? You're certainly not on the Bill Cosby beat. But...is there anything you're going to do on the Cosby story to go hard now?
COATES: I don't know. I don't know. I wrote that post. But it's not a conclusion. This is happening in real time. The accusations are coming fast and furious right now. I think we're up to 18 women. The thing I think about is for every woman who comes out publicly, how many women are there who for very, very understandable reasons are not coming out publicly. For every woman who's not coming out publicly - how many women are there who did not end up back at the hotel. Did not end-up drugged. Who thought Cosby was creeping to begin with. So many stories that must be out there. So, um, possibly so.
BOB: Ta-Nehisi, thank you so much.
COATES: Thank you for having me.
BOB: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.