When Bill Cosby was released from prison following the astonishing Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruling earlier this week, media descended on his home in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania.
Later that day, he participated in a cameo appearance there, flanked by his lawyers. But the 83-year-old comedian remained silent as his lawyers addressed the press.
A former booker for a national morning news show said Cosby was almost certainly wanted for an interview by multiple networks. Although he is persona non grata in Hollywood, and much of his previous work has been taken from television and streaming platforms (The Cosby Show still airs on Amazon Prime Video, however), its return to the news cycle could be irresistible to a TV news organization looking to give one of its presenters something unsavory to toast.
But two recent examples show the limits of these efforts.
In July 2020, at the height of the pandemic, CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan met filmmaker Woody Allen in what was his first one-on-one TV interview in nearly 30 years. Allen, of course, faced allegations that he abused his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow.
“To be honest, due to the swirling controversy, the storm of opinion, both for and against, we have carefully considered whether to do this interview,” Cowan said at the top of the interview with Allen.
Although apparently linked to the publication of his memoir, Cowan nonetheless asked questions about Farrow’s claims. And then the interview was never broadcast. In fact, it sat on the CBS metaphorical shelf for about 8 months, until after the HBO surprise docuseries. Allen vs. Farrow made the headlines.
The network then repurposed the interview for Paramount +, pairing it with a 2018 interview with Dylan Farrow in which she details the allegations, and a new segment from correspondent Erin Moriarty in which she “explores the challenges facing the public is confronted when respected artists are suspected – or discovered – to have acted in a morally questionable manner.
It was a segment that could apply to Cosby just as well. If he just repeats his denials and shows no remorse or regret, is it worth it? Or is the news agency just whitewashing its layoffs?
Or consider another recent interview, one where media merit was not in question: NBC correspondent Keir Simmons’ interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin, a former intelligence agent, deflected difficult questions about the poisoning and arrest of dissident Alexei Navalny and political dissent in general by turning them into critics of the United States.
“We have a saying, ‘Don’t be mad at the mirror if you’re ugly,’” he told Simmons. “It has nothing to do with you personally. But if somebody is blaming us for something, what I’m saying is, why don’t you look at yourself? You will see yourself in the mirror, not us.
Of course, Putin is the leader of a country of some 140 million people, and the interview preceded a bilateral meeting with President Joe Biden, which makes the news undeniable.
NBC News followed Cosby’s release by interviewing some of his accusers, and other news outlets have taken a similar approach.
Cosby’s only real “interview” so far has taken place during a brief conversation with Detroit radio host Frankie Darcell. CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan briefly spoke to Cosby off camera at his home and described what happened on air. But with Cosby fresh out of jail, there may be a short window where an on-camera interview matches the newsworthy bill. The question for news agencies is whether it’s worth reacting inevitably, and whether it may need to be squeezed into another context, the same way CBS handled Allen’s interview.
“If someone is interviewed, they get some sort of legitimacy just by being interviewed on a major newscast,” art critic Aruna D’Souza said of Woody Allen’s interview. in the segment aired on CBS.
As Cosby contemplates a public comeback, it’s a concern the media cannot take lightly.