In the summer of 2017, journalists Jia Tolentino, Diana Moskovitz and I were all in Norristown, PA (for The New Yorker, Jezebel and Death and Taxes, respectively), along with dozens of our colleagues from all over the world who were likewise covering the first trial of Bill Cosby on charges of sexual assault against Andrea Constand.
You may recall that he got off, that first time. But they nailed that garbagio in a retrial just a few months later! Cosby is currently in Pennsylvania’s SCI Phoenix state prison, where he is allegedly dispensing medical advice to fellow inmates in the guise of Dr. Cliff Huxtable.
The three of us got together on the phone recently to reminisce, to talk about the aftermath of the Cosby case, and to seek perspective on #MeToo and the role of media in these critical times, when the Fourth Estate is under open attack by the First.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Maria Bustillos: A lot has happened since we were last all together.
Diana Moskovitz: Yeah.
Aside from the advances that have been made in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which we’ll talk about, how do you guys feel about the political climate now? Because it is just completely opaque to me. When we were all together in Pennsylvania during the first Cosby trial, things seemed a little more stable. Terrible still, but more stable. Now, there’s this hideous instability: on the one hand a welcome awakening of the left, concurrent with this sort of lurch into literal fascism.
I find all of this zooming in both directions at once really confusing, especially being a woman.
JT: It is. What I did start to get an understanding of in Norristown was that with regard to the consequences of events, and the stakes that I’d thought I understood very clearly, in many cases I didn’t know… anything. That I’d been misreading things, all the time.
Yeah! it’s like What counts?? and what doesn’t… I, too, felt like I was suddenly in quicksand. It seemed so clear that we had lost everything. I mean, we were together the moment when Cosby was set free [after the first trial]. We went to the press conference and heard them say okay, there’s going to be an immediate appeal, and it’s gonna happen in a matter of months, and I kind of thought… So?? Like… what good is that going to do? Isn’t this just going to happen all over again?
DM: Well… I had such a different experience because I have a different background, and I’d covered trials before. This is something I think about a lot, and it’s not just about the criminal justice system; you could expand it out to how there are these various systems that so few Americans interact with in their daily lives.
So because I was familiar with this work, you could forget how incredibly strange and bizarre and cruel it could seem to someone who’s watching it for the first time. Of course you forget, this happens every day, if you’re not familiar with it.
I think it’s necessary for us to tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world; and in doing that we need to come to terms with what is random and unexpected, and we learn how little control we have in this life, and in general. This also is what [happens in a courtroom]; that it just depends who you get, in a jury, and if it’s a hung jury, you may get another jury, and a guilty verdict comes in because there were changes in the case, changes in the strategy, changes in the jury…
JT: This is sort of the photo negative, the flip of my reaction to it: I was there almost by accident, and I was coming in with no experience covering trials. I wasn’t filing with the regularity most people were.
My strongest consistent memory is reminding myself not to be childish, the way that I could foresee myself being naive, overwhelmed by my emotions, the way that I had been wrong about what would happen in the election.
I found the trial extremely humbling, in that I had to be like: “You have to remember that you don’t understand this.” You can can try to write your way toward some sort of loose understanding, but you have to remember that there are so many forces that you can’t see. That I found was instructive in a way that stuck with me.
DM: It’s such an un-American way of thinking… It starts with the American Dream, right? If you work hard, you will get it. And so, to then see that there can actually just be complete randomness, [where a decision has to be made, for example], that this case was brought here, because it is the only one where something happened within the statute of limitations. And now we’re having this conversation again with respect to R. Kelly. It’s the luck of the draw, that something could happen to you in a state that has an extended statute of limitations. And we don’t talk about that…
You see things like this as a kid and reflect on them later as and adult and think, oh my god, they left this part out of my education, for sure. It’s really scary to think about.
JT: The basic question, will justice be done? I remember when I would talk to people and they would ask me, “How is it? Is the right thing gonna happen?” And I was just like… my brain would just explode and I would not be able to talk, you know what I mean?
DM: As a reporter… obviously, I think reporters should be criticized when they become very cold and appear to treat it like just a job, as if they don’t care about people’s lives. But you can almost see where that comes from. Because imagine working in that [atmosphere], for multiple years. It says more about the system, when you see these really cruel things that are done, and it seems so hard to understand. This isn’t to excuse cruelty. But I sometimes wish we talked more about how people end up at that point, where they could see the possibility of doing it, [and what the job requires of people].
My main experience of courtroom reporting before that was the Gawker trial. So my impression was primarily the theater of this thing, where what you are looking at has absolutely nothing the fuck to do with what is actually going on, and everybody might as well be speaking Esperanto, and it’s all going in the paper, and none of it has anything to do with the truth of what is happening.
And I felt that way at the Cosby trial as well, because it was so self-evidently plain that these women were telling the truth—so much of what they said went uncontested by the defense—and the histrionics, in place of actual arguments, coming from the defense were so patently meaningless to me, it was just such a pantomime. And then the result was so ridiculous and yet so sort of expected, so that when justice was finally served the following year, I couldn’t believe that either.
DM: There’s something I have learned from watching journalists that does apply more broadly to politics: Everyone has to estimate the power of how we filter the accuracy of what we perceive as facts not just through our own experience, but our own biases, and our own racism… People vastly discount how important that is.
JT: I remember thinking when I heard Andrea Constand’s story—the fact that she went to his house, right? You know… to me that signified something about their relationship, the close entanglement of her situation with his happiness, the trust that was betrayed; but during the trial it was presented as evidence of her moral inadequacy… and suddenly I was like, oh, right, of course. This, to me, says one thing in context, and to them it says the opposite; and there’s no way around that. That was the dizzying part, that what was being litigated was the tip of the iceberg, and we all knew the iceberg, all these other cases, all these other times this has happened, not just with Cosby, but with so many people… but it was… we’re trying to let that iceberg be inadmissible.
This basic, irreducible, you know—nothing is harder to adjudicate than sexual assault; nothing is harder to know, nothing is harder to prove. There’s no crime like it. There’s no other crime that comes with a built-in excuse for the perpetrator. And seeing that play out, I was so nauseated thinking about how, if anyone famous ever had raped me, I probably would never have had the courage, and I just kept thinking that all the time. The fact that almost nothing scares me, and I still had that certainty.
At the same time, I was like, wow, I’m glad that the defense is vigorous, because that’s what it should be.
DM: Yeah, you want people to have a vigorous defense. Because if they don’t, that’s grounds for appeal!
DM: It’s true! “You see, I had such a bad lawyer that this case needs to be overturned!”
You weren’t there for the second time around… In the first one, [the defense portrayed Andrea Constand] as a scorned lover; in the second trial, the story was that she was a gold-digger. They repeated that phrase so many times… there was so much more aggression in the way they grilled people.
JT: I’m curious about what the biggest differences were for you, in the second trial.
DM: Some of this is my bias because I’m a reporter; it felt like we were congregating, the second time around, we all knew each other, it’s like a jacket, you know? We all knew each other’s names. It felt very much like: High-profile local trial.
At one point I was sitting on a bench with maybe three or four other people on it.
JT: Not like before…
[The first trial had been a classic “media circus.” Every bench was packed out.]
JT: I remember reading that piece. Do you think it’s because people didn’t expect…? One thing that I feel guilty about, is that I thought for sure that he’d get off.
JT: I was writing about sexual assault a lot around then; there was a period of six months after the Weinstein story that I wrote about nothing else. This was a particular period. You know when you write about it, your inbox just floods with stories of sexual assault, and you want to be writing about it, and you should, because it’s the news; but it’s a lot, so I was in a weird place psychologically. But I also, part of me, I just assumed… Maria, what was your sense of people’s larger expectations around the second trial?
I thought Cosby sort of owned Philadelphia, when I left there. He would … his sort of machine would find a way to reproduce the circumstances of the first trial, somehow. Because what I had seen seemed so completely irrational, and also I felt certain that there would be a really furious, sort of patriarchal backlash put in motion against everything that happened after, to make sure he’d get off.
Which would definitely have suited this movement, you know, the anti-#metoo movement, which I think is a lot more powerful than people give it credit for. And I fear we’re going to see more and more that there’s been an underestimation, because every time there’s one step forward, there’s been 10 steps back in this thing, since the 19th century.
So I just assumed that Cosby and that whole machine would gather their forces from a backlash against Weinstein, and he’d be exonerated. But the opposite happened instead, I wound up thinking wow, this is like watching an avalanche, or a big wave forming and it’s slowly, slowly and then all at once.
When Tom Scocca first wrote about the Cosby allegations it seemed almost by chance really, because of the Woody Allen case. If it hadn’t been for that, Scocca wouldn’t have written about Dylan Farrow, and he wouldn’t have had a reason to mention Cosby’s legal troubles from years before; this whole thing would not have happened. It would likely all still be buried and so, I thought, this whole thing was a crapshoot in the first place and now it’s going to get completely derailed, because there’s so many powerful forces arrayed against it and then suddenly, I was wrong!
The irony was that the first trial both exonerated Cosby, and called down a wave so massive that it brought him down in the end.
DM: I have one set of feelings as an editor, a reporter, a professional job-haver, and then there’s me as a person.
JT: Yeah, yeah, of course.
DM: Especially having come from newspapers, by training. Right? It’s… you can’t think about outcomes. And I do believe in that.
But so, for me: Is my view a factor? Especially as someone writing for Jezebel, that felt very important to me, that there is a space there for women’s media, or that you get to have this perspective of whether it’s right or wrong, that you’re not going to have in a lot of other jobs—I knew how important that was, to be able to be there, and to write in that tone.
Even if I’m not observing anything different, but just to show people that perspective, that even if the outcome was what it was there was value in having a feminist perspective there, and pointing things out—things that if you’re there for the newspaper, that’s not your job. But it was my job.
JT: Increasingly this is becoming something that’s seen as an editorial value. I was really grateful that the New Yorker let me write the way I wrote, which was very much from the place I wrote when I was at Jezebel. Where I could say I’m going to write this, and I’m not going to try to hide how I feel. I’m not going to pretend to be objective because I did not feel capable of being an objective observer. The fairest way I could see to write about all this was to be transparent about my beliefs, even my emotions, in the pieces that I’m writing.
Within the last few years we’re increasingly seeing that that perspective is filtering out to places where it wouldn’t have been before. And I’m so glad for places like Jezebel, that have really wedged that perspective into the collective consciousness over the last ten years.
DM: When I was a little cub reporter—if the work you were doing, Jia, and the work you were doing, Maria—when I think, if that had existed for me to read, when I was a teenage girl just learning about the world? I don’t know! There is so much value in that, for learning about journalism—for them to feel that they’re not alone.
All of the women working on this story in Pennsylvania, I think, made a substantial contribution. I mean, I learned a huge amount from watching how Diana did her thing and how Jia did her thing and it’s like—I’m not formally trained, but you informed my approach to the facts, and to the politics of it, in a thousand subtle ways.
In my generation young women were really ill-served in how we were informed by media, and I think the value of this Voltron that we all provided, I think, for readers … It’s really important for young women to look at every single perspective that we gave and all the other ones too, and to see also that there were a lot of male writers there who were pretending to “the view from nowhere,” but they were not providing that.
There’s ways to conceal a lot of bias and even ill intentions in what outwardly looks like straight reportage, when sometimes it’s not. And so, I think coverage like this helps to map out a territory, I think, in a way that gradually becomes more valuable.
JT: Yeah. The first story I ever reported was two months after I started at Jezebel, and then the Rolling Stone story about UVA came out… and so I was like, “Well… okay. Well, I guess I went there, and I was in the Greek system, so I guess I should go back.” I’d worked at The Hairpin but I’d never edited a reported story. I read them all the time, of course, and I was a close reader of what the writer was doing, as any writer is, but I remember I went there and I was so scared. I was like, “What if I don’t understand? What if I am trying to report something, and I don’t understand it?”
And I was getting a beer with one of my friends, the first night I was back in Charlottesville, and she’s not a reporter, but she just saw this as self-evident: she was like, “If you just go, and you write down what you see, and you ask a lot of questions, and you keep asking questions, you’ll get it.” You just have to show up and like you said, just bear witness. You just have to be a good eye and ear. I’m still new enough to this, or maybe not a particularly conscious thinker about what I do, that I have to remind myself of that a lot. Watching you, Diana, report at the trial, and you, Maria, it was a reminder that just being fully present, fully invested with all of yourself and your honesty and your internal rigor, that’s in some way all you have to do.
And you—you’re there for the reader.
JT: That is something that women in the last year have been like, Oh yeah … This perspective, that the eye and ear that women have had this whole time with regard to sexual harassment, that was not given an institutional foregrounding for a long time, but it was always just as important as any other perspective, probably more.
DM: But I think that … especially coming from a newspaper background, and then coming to work at, it was then Gawker Media and now Gizmodo Media. In New York-based, or, in very traditional newsrooms, you’ll hear a lot about news judgment, news judgment. And there is value in this.
And of course separately, there’s all the discussion of the travesty that is the lack of “newsroom diversity.”
But “news judgment”—we talk about this as if it’s a very clear thing, and it’s not, because I know, I’ve had this experience at multiple places, where you obviously have a huge story, but it just takes one person who doesn’t see it as “news,” because of bias or just because of their perspective. It may not even be their intention, but they just don’t see it because they haven’t lived it. Every reporter has killed a story because they just could not get the green light.
How many of these stories, before Weinstein, just were never greenlit?
And we call it “news judgment”! But I think there’s starting to be a conversation about how subjective news judgement can be, and I think that’s a huge part of it.
I am so much older than you guys. This is in every profession, and I am ashamed of how little I understood this. The perspective in every profession I grew up in. The idea of professionalism was deeply fucking gendered from minute one, and it still is. And I’m a guy that grew up in the 70s, who thought, “Well a lot of these problems have been obviated by all these gains that we have made,” and blah blah blah.
No. That was completely fucked up. I was so wrong.
DM: This isn’t just about changing the behavior of men. It’s not the most fun thing to talk about, but we know that men listen to other men. That a separate part of the battle, is getting them to talk to other men, because the lunacy is that at some point we are all Charlie Brown’s teacher, wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah. Whether you want to think about it that way or not, you are, and so it has to come to them… It’s in some ways still depressing to think about: How often have I sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher?
JT: One of the things that will influence men taking this up as their own cause, which the second Cosby trial reiterated: It’s really easy to forget that … this sounds ridiculous, but it’s easy to forget, even for me, that assault is illegal.
You know? People are just like, “Oh, it’s a bad thing to do.” And there’s a conversation to be had about the carceral system, and what it is to be rooting for someone, even someone who absolutely deserves it by the letter of the law, to be imprisoned. But at the same time the verdict was like, “Oh yeah, here’s a big fucking reminder, this is actually a crime. It’s illegal. It comes with sentencing guidelines. It’s not just a thing that’s reprehensible, and maybe not so much a few decades ago. It’s just really against the law. And it seems so stupid, but it can be easy to forget that, you know? Because for all the talk of overcorrection, there is still so much sympathy for men who have done these things.
DM: Yeah, and I know how you feel Maria, because you’re a bit older than me, but I have felt that in recent years. I was a teenager in the 90s, and so I always say for me the tabula rasa was watching Anita Hill, and seeing what happened to her. And then we saw Monica Lewinsky. And this is what told all the women of my generation: Just shut up and deal with it. If you cross people in power… good luck.
Yes. We grew up thinking, as I say, paradoxically: see, it’s all fixed now! Because there were all these gains to point to, and they were real. It’s emblematic of the generalized incrementalism of the Democratic party, especially in the Obama era, though I fell for this like, all my life. The Democrats will get there, bit by bit!
That was, what a load of bullshit. I mean, you watch them bail out only the banks. You watch them with the drone program. You watch them not roll back the Patriot Act. You watch them not prosecute anybody for Abu Ghraib. You watch all this shit. There’s window dressing, very much like what we saw in court that summer.
Something else is underneath, the iceberg Jia talked about, and I kind of think that this is where we need to focus as journalists… The water we’re swimming in is so invisible to each of us, to everyone, and among other things the water we’re swimming in is absolutely gendered. It’s completely stacked against women who have been fucking harmed. Like Andrea Constand… but now I really feel, for the first time, honestly in my life, that people are questioning this in a different way.
DM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I just feel like I connected with some of the things that I’m writing about where, because especially someone like Bill Cosby—he had a conviction, and it’s clear, and the minute they got that conviction, all of a sudden, the language completely changed, right?
DM: All of a sudden the questions reporters asked changed, and the way he was written about changed, and I understand some of that; it was just because legally, his status has changed. But I don’t think that was all of it. It gave people a finality and a comfort. And I think especially when you’re looking at cases like with Louis CK, where there isn’t that very clear resolution from the state. It leaves the people wanting a clear answer, a fresh #MeToo, and then it gets complicated because we’ve been in these gendered waters for how many hundreds of years now, you can’t have an answer yet.
We didn’t have a firm enough answer off the top of our head. And you see that frustration, because people want something clear and definitive, and when you can’t give it to them, they just wanna throw their hands up… and that is what worries me right now, is that we have this moment, we have people’s attention, but I know we can’t give them super clear answers because how could we?
I think there’s one clear answer, and that is that fame is a gift from the culture. Nothing entitles you to fame or power. The culture entrusts you with the right to decide people’s fates, and their salaries, and all this, right? Because they think that you have some skill or ability or judgment or whatever.
But when you are Louis CK, and you have shat on that gift, and betrayed a lot of people, and used your power to hurt people, you should never get to be famous again. Get another job! Do something else with your life. But you cannot step back onto that platform. You have been told no. Your job is gone. You have been exposed, or you lost this lawsuit, there’s a cost to having been a complete fucking dickhead.
With the possible exception that you make amends, like in a 12-step program or more than that, even. That you go clear out of your way to show that you’re someone else now. I guess. Though it strikes me that if you did, you’d want a different life.
JT: To me the first principle of returning to public life is that they’d have to first acknowledge it, really honestly, and we’ve seen very, very little of that…
Since the election I’ve been trying to think of what the difference is between: how can I expect everything of the world, of people, but need nothing? I want to demand as much change as can be possible without needing to rest my faith on anyone’s particular virtues, without hinging the viability of the project on specific successes. You know what I mean?
I’m sure you guys have been caught in situations where people are talking to you about #MeToo with some impatience, some sort of show-me-the-money thing, like, where’s all this change we’re talking about? I’m like, yeah, we’re catching up from centuries and centuries. It’s gonna be so long. It’s a hard thing to learn when you were taught that you were equal from childhood, as I basically was, and as women younger than me certainly were.
I’ve talked to a lot of women who are in college right now, many of whom have been assaulted, and of course the Kavanaugh hearings were hideous for them, and they’re saying things like, I need to transfer out. I always tell them to remember that they’re still going to be living in the world that produced this, no matter what.
I think I’ve been trying to rest on that weird liminal space between expecting everything and needing none of it as a basis for trusting that what we’re doing is right. You know?
DM: Especially since the election, I’ve taken to the idea of non-attachment to the outcome, that because the work needs doing, because it’s important, because maybe one person will read it, and that’s the difference.
Even with Cosby: Look at what happened with Andrea Constand’s first judgment! Right? And yet, we needed that step to get to where we got. That flagship. If she hadn’t gone to the police then, we couldn’t have had that. All these events take on lives of their own. You just don’t know.
If we make a distinction between progress and outcome. I sort of am wedded to the idea of progress, insofar as I’m like, maybe I don’t see it, but it’s a motivator for me. In the back of my mind I have to think someday things will not be like this, or I would just hide under the bed. And I believe in it. I think there is a good shot that my kids’ generation, when they get to be my age? I’m still hopeful despite how shitty things are.
The other thing is, the three of us are in this really weirdly privileged spot where we can do this at all. So many women, so many people, don’t have this sort of gift of being able to raise their voices. It’s a sacred trust, honestly, because while things are the way they are, people from marginalized groups of any kind should be really fucking mindful that the chance to raise your voice is a huge gift.
JT: The R. Kelly doc is a reminder of that, right? It’s like, holy fucking shit. This has been a completely open secret since he married Aaliyah. And there’s literally no other explanation other than just the complete dehumanization and marginalization of the black female experience. I felt shame thinking how I’ve danced to “Ignition” within the last five years, probably…
[With respect to the gift of speaking] I remember feeling very conscious of that, almost fragile with how keenly I could feel it when we were at the trial, and what a rare thing it was. And to think that maybe even five years ago I wouldn’t have been sent by a mainstream outlet to cover it, there’s no way.
I remember feeling so overwhelmed in many directions by it, and one of them was a lot of gratitude that things have changed enough for a mainstream outlet, to trust that I could—that basically an opinion writer can be trusted to report something like this.
One that we wanted to hear from. And then, when we were so freaked out and demoralized and debilitated we went to see “Wonder Woman.” And never in a thousand years will I forget you laughing at the dumb jokes in that movie. It was the most heartening, wonderful moment.
JT: Yeah Maria! I liked that movie so much more because of exactly when we watched it. I actually remember driving home, and I was so overwhelmed by the totally Disney-fied… you know, I’m not really susceptible to empowerment messaging? I hate it, actually. But because of that week, I was like crying all the way home. I was weirdly high, clutching my empowerment feelings, I missed my exit, I just was on fire.
Rolling down the windows and shouting.
JT: Basically, yes. I wouldn’t have felt like that if it wasn’t for the contrast.
Yes! The commodification of the thing that we so desperately fucking needed. It was wild.
JT: Yeah, exactly. But I was glad that it was commodified enough that we could just pay to sit in the theater and have them fling it at us.
DM: [musing] When I have a really bad day, I have queued up Wonder Woman.
JT: I actually avoided reading anything on it, because Wonder Woman is one of those things where the writing about it I found insufferable, where the thing itself I found really cute.
One of the most fantastic things about that movie was how she was so innocent, and yet so capable of navigating power. That image, the fantasy of female innocence, it felt… Normally that would not be something that I liked, but the way she performed it suggested that there could be a way that being a woman could be unmarked by this continual awareness of trauma. That was a really good fantasy for me.
Oh yes. We were watching that innocence be fucking traduced for eight hours every day. And so the movie felt like water in the desert to me, too. I’m like, This is not real, but I want to think about it as if it were for a second, because I just feel so fucking sullied by this day.
JT: For us, for women sitting and watching the trial… It’s like, we’ve been through all this shit, so I’ve developed these commitments that are gonna make me sit through some fucking more shit. And it was like: This is not a natural condition, this is a socially produced condition! It’s not an eternal truth; it’s just what happened because power was structured this way in this world.
I never want to be going further towards gender essentialism. I’ve been trying to think about how to be better about this in my writing, which has been inadequate to me so often in the last two years in the way I’ve used the word “women.” I’m trying to figure out the language that acknowledges that certain things are maybe close to a universal female experience, but only because of a way that we’ve conceived of sex and gender that’s now changing, only because it was produced to be that way.
It’s not always easy to write about. I found myself in the courtroom wishing I could give myself little jolts of the as-yet-unrealized, maybe from like, a Wonder Woman app.
(Below, some headlines from Cosby stories by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker, Maria Bustillos in Death and Taxes, and Diana Moskovitz in Jezebel.)