One of the most interesting sidelines to the outbreak of rape allegations that have been brought against Bill Cosby has been the spotlight thrown on Mark Whitaker, the author of a hefty (544-page) biography of “the Cos” that was published just a couple of months ago. In his attempt at a definitive biography, for which he was given “by far the most access [Cosby] has given any prospective biographer,” Whitaker makes no reference to any of the allegations of sexual abuse and rape that had been made against Cosby, or the civil suit that was settled out of court.
In an essay appearing on the Salon website Erin Keane calls the bio a “false narrative”:
Certainly, journalists should be commended for confirming what they are told in interviews, especially in a myth-making enterprise like biography, as the author prepares work that could become a major historical record of a public figure’s life. That assumed rigor is one thing that distinguishes a comprehensive biography from the whims of memoir. But at some point, it becomes irresponsible not to mention multiple accusations of violence and sexual abuse, especially when they contrast so starkly with the image the bulk of the biography presents.
Whitaker’s immediate reaction was to say that he would probably need to amend or update his book, perhaps sooner rather than later. After being called out on Twitter he announced he was wrong not to deal with the sexual charges and pursue them more aggressively.
So was his book a lie? Not quite. As V. S. Naipaul once remarked of imperial powers, “they don’t lie, they elide.” Leaving information out can be quite as effective as telling a deliberate untruth. In 2005, for example, Cosby testified under oath that he made a deal with the National Enquirer giving them an exclusive interview in exchange for their spiking a story of another woman coming forward with an accusation of sexual assault. Access = Silence.
There is nothing conspiratorial about any of this. It’s how the system works, how it’s supposed to work. Mary Elizabeth Williams, also writing in Salon, spoke to this point:
Man, it’s a great week for bullying journalists. But as many writers who have ever been granted an audience with a prominent person can attest, it’s always a pretty great week for bullying journalists. That AP reporter’s placating assertion to Cosby that “We haven’t written about this at all in the past two months” is not an unfamiliar exchange for celebrity journalists. You want access? In return, you have to play by the subject’s rules. That’s the way the dance generally goes.
Just two weeks ago, when that AP interview was conducted, Bill Cosby could still command a degree of deference. Now, as more women are coming forward with accusations, that is rapidly changing. The AP release of the footage clearly indicates an editorial decision that Cosby no longer has the power in this scenario — that even its staff’s own kid gloves-wielding behavior in the clip is trumped by Cosby’s arrogance. . . . God knows plenty of journalists are more than capable of throwing ethics out the door. But take a look at what their subjects, when feeling cornered and confronted with questions and criticism, are capable of. It can involve threats and intimidation and flat out playing dirty, on the part of very powerful people. This is the sausage-making process in action, folks. It’s not pretty, is it? And that’s exactly why you need to see it.
It’s an important lesson. Access always comes with strings attached (playing “by the subject’s rules”). It’s something the U.S. military learned in Vietnam, when reporters were allowed to run around talking to anyone and taking pictures of everything. The lesson was: Never again. By the time of the Gulf Wars reporters would be officially “embedded” with the military, their news broadcasts and sound bites all provided for them.
One can’t emphasize enough that this is something everybody does. Any “official” biography or history is compromised. It doesn’t have to involve any explicit quid pro quo, just a recognition and acceptance between the parties that these are the rules of the game. Then, when it’s done, you thank your subject for his or her generous assistance and have done.
Several years ago a Canadian academic wrote an essay on Alice Munro while working toward a book on the author. Her conclusions were far from controversial, and certainly not scandalous or personal, but Munro apparently disagreed with them. Munro and a pair of her editors then revoked the permission they had extended to the academic to quote from any of their correspondence.
Alice Munro! We’re not talking about the military-industrial complex here, or a celebrity powerhouse who has been accused, fairly or not, of being a serial rapist. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever or whoever the subject, the same rules of the dance apply and the “sausage-making process” does its job. There’s nothing sinister or even wrong with that, but you have to always keep it in mind any time you’re getting access to a source that has a clear interest in spinning a story a particular way. Which is to say, any source. The story you’re hearing is the one they want you to hear. It may be true, but that’s beside the point.
Update, December 20 2014:
As the Jian Ghomeshi saga continues, the Toronto Star has reported on a story with some similarities to Cosby’s. From a piece by Kevin Donovan headlined “How Ghomeshi’s publicist worked to shut down Toronto Life story.”
Former Q star Jian Ghomeshi was “incredibly disappointed” with attempts by a Toronto magazine to contact former girlfriends of his in the summer of 2013 for a future article. So disappointed that his publicity team asked the magazine to stop its attempts and offered the publication access to Ghomeshi for a full profile.
“We feel this is a really unfair and absurd piece,” said Ghomeshi’s then-publicist Debra Goldblatt-Sadowski in an August 2013 email to a Toronto Life writer.
Behind the scenes, according to one of now 15 women who have made allegations against Ghomeshi, the radio host was very “nervous” that someone would be digging into his personal life.
In the publicist’s email, she writes:
“Surely we could work with Toronto Life on a more interesting story in the future (with our co-operation) vs. going behind an incredibly established and well-respected public broadcaster’s back looking for anonymous sources for women he has taken out.”
According to emails to both Kohls [assigned author of the original piece] and Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford, Ghomeshi and his publicity team were not pleased.
In an interview by email (she would not talk to the Star on the telephone or in person because the case is a “criminal matter” and she wants a record of her communications), Goldblatt-Sadowski told the Star she was just doing “my job” as a public relations specialist.
She first complained to Toronto Life on Aug. 22, 2013, in an email to [Toronto Life editor] Fulford: “It has come to my attention that Toronto Life is planning a piece focusing on Jian Ghomeshi and his personal life, highlighting women he has dated over the past few years.”
The publicist said “Jian is upset by the idea of this type of a story. Not only would it not be an (sic) inappropriate representation of his personal life, but would also be unfair to those included in the story.” She asked Fulford to provide more information.
Four days later, on Aug. 26, the publicist again wrote Fulford and Kohls, the reporter: “A few people have already alerted me regarding this piece and I spoke to Sarah about it last week,” Goldblatt-Sadowski began. “I’d like to see these emails stopped.”
In the body of her email, the publicist said Ghomeshi is “extremely disappointed” in how the story is being approached. She suggested that Ghomeshi and his publicity team would co-operate with Toronto Life on a “more interesting story in the future.”
The Star asked Goldblatt-Sadowski if her intention was to get the piece about ex-girlfriends killed in exchange for offering access for a profile piece. Goldblatt-Sadowski replied by email:
“Yes — and what’s your point? I did my job. As I’ve now said numerous times, I worked with them on a much larger piece.
“My former client didn’t like them doing a piece by going to women they thought he may have dated — the women didn’t appreciate it — that’s why I asked them to stop. But we were more than happy to co-operate with them.”
Update, March 25 2021:
The publication of Blake Bailey’s monumental, and authorized, biography of Philip Roth has raised some of these same issues again. A review of Bailey’s book by Laura Marsh in the The New Republic talks about how Roth spent years trying to find a suitably pliant biographer who would settle some scores, albeit posthumously. Control of one’s legacy being something such people take seriously, however quixotic an enterprise it may be. (Who can control their legacy? Such efforts strike me as on the level with wealthy medieval merchants leaving bequests to have chapels built in their honour and masses said for their souls.) One candidate for the job, Ross Miller, was canned when Roth “didn’t like the way Miller was conducting interviews, and found his interpretations intrusive.” For his part, Miller thought that Roth was “surrounded by sycophants.” The falling-out gives us another glimpse at the sausage-making process:
The parts of Bailey’s book that trace the unraveling of Ross Miller’s Roth biography are among its most revealing. Not long after signing the book deal, Miller came to suspect Roth of interference: Roth was actively involved in setting up interviews with friends, family, and collaborators, and was even drafting the questions that Miller was to ask them. In one case, he was directing Miller to ask a dying friend to yield up old gossip. Miller was also editing the Library of America edition of Roth’s works, and Roth had inserted himself there, too. As the editor, Miller was meant to provide a 10,000-word chronology of Roth’s life, but Roth wrote it himself and signed Miller’s name to it; he also wrote all the jacket copy himself, claiming he could do a better job.
And Miller was not the only would-be chronicler who got on Roth’s bad side. In 2011, Roth took exception to an essay by Ira Nadel in The Critical Companion to Philip Roth that drew on Claire Bloom’s book [Bloom had been Roth’s wife]. He spent over $60,000 in legal fees to get the offending passage changed. When Roth found out that the same writer was contracted to write a biography of him with Oxford University Press, he had his agent tell Nadel that he would not have permission to quote from his works in the book.
It’s been a while since I’ve updated this post, so I skipped over the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. The relevant issue there was why Peter Biskind, who had written a book on Weinstein and his company Miramax, had failed to address any of the rumours about Weinstein’s predatory behaviour. While admitting he knew about these rumours Biskind never raised them with Weinstein, saying “I never asked him about it because . . . I didn’t feel it was relevant to what I was doing.” Despite this, Weinstein had caught wind that Biskind might be digging up some dirt and apparently tried to buy him off with a more lucrative book deal. This Biskind turned down, but he didn’t look any deeper into the reports. Nevertheless, Weinstein was still upset at his portrayal in the book and used surrogates to attack Biskind for writing a hatchet job. Zero tolerance for bad press works for some people, until it doesn’t.
As I said in my initial post, access always comes with strings attached. Why would anyone read an authorized biography of a celebrity who had given the author special access and think that they were getting anything close to the truth? I know people find me cynical for asking questions like this, but . . . come on.