Team Cosby’s Mission Impossible
The negative headlines and accusations of sexual assault continue. Who’s advising him, and why are they getting it so wrong?
Despite virtually unlimited resources, Team Cosby has been losing the PR war. They’re frustrated and disillusioned, although munificently paid. The media playing field is hardly level, the zeitgeist is unfavorable, and victory (whatever that means at this point) is highly doubtful.
The terms “Bill Cosby” and “sexual assault” will forever be linked indelibly on the Internet; a Google search Wednesday morning produced 11,500,000 results.
Yet team leaders Martin D. Singer and John P. Schmitt—Bill Cosby’s longtime attorneys in Century City, Calif., and midtown Manhattan, respectively—and David Brokaw, his loyal personal publicist in Beverly Hills, soldier on.
Brokaw, who has handled PR for celebrities ranging from Tony Orlando to Roseanne Barr to troubled televangelist Jim Bakker, has represented Cosby—his most important client—since 1974, “through sometimes tragic and trying times,” says his official bio on the Brokaw Company’s website.
Schmitt, a publicity-shy partner in the white-shoe law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, is a corporate and mergers and acquisitions attorney who also practices entertainment law, and has represented Cosby in contract negotiations since the 1980s.
Singer, who ordinarily revels in press attention, is the famously combative and expensive Hollywood litigator who protects his celebrity clients with bulldog aggression and sends vitriolic demand letters to media outlets, threatening terrible consequences if scurrilous reports are published.
“He’s ferocious and fearless, he really is,” Singer client Sylvester Stallone was quoted as saying in an adoring May 2011 profile in The New York Times. “If you rattle his cage, you’re in a fight.” (Years ago, when I was writing a gossip column for the New York Daily News, Singer rang me up on behalf of Lindsay Lohan, a client of his entertainment law firm Lavely & Singer, and I got the clear sense that the starlet would end up owning the newspaper if I went with an item suggesting that she’d been spotted partaking of a controlled substance.)
Nobody from Team Cosby agreed to be quoted in this article, and Brokaw didn’t respond to email and phone messages.
Facing accumulating allegations that the comedy icon and pop-cultural paterfamilias drugged and sexually assaulted more than 20 women over a period of four decades, they strategize in conference calls with a rotating cast of kibitzers, haggle off the record with disobliging journalists (pleading with reporters, with limited success, to investigate the checkered pasts of some of Cosby’s accusers), and try to keep a lid on their embattled, willful, fabulously wealthy, 77-year-old client.
Team Cosby has vehemently denied the allegations, dating back at least to a 2004 lawsuit that the comedian settled out of court. Cosby has never been charged with a crime.
But in recent weeks, Cosby—apparently determined to celebrate his generosity for lending his collection of African-American art to the Smithsonian Institution—has stoked the controversy (and created YouTube moments) by shaking his head in silence at an NPR host who asked about the allegations; and, during a second interview about the loan, tried to bully a similarly motivated Associated Press reporter while barking orders at Brokaw to call the reporter’s boss “immediately” to “scuttle” an exchange about the accusations.
Last month as the negative publicity snowballed, Team Cosby’s ill-fated invitation daring the Twitterverse to meme the star promptly backfired—“I DON’T ALWAYS EAT JELL-O BUT WHEN I DO IT’S NOT CONSENSUAL, AND BY JELL-O I MEAN HAVE SEX,” one detractor tweeted over a photo of smirking Cosby.
The meme disaster suggested a certain detachment from reality, as did Cosby’s apparent conviction that he could get through the interviews about his art collection without addressing the exploding scandal.
In short order, Netflix canceled a planned Cosby special, NBC quashed the development of a Cosby sitcom, and TV Land canceled reruns of The Cosby Show, the hit NBC series of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Cosby was forced off the board of trustees of his alma mater, Temple University, and historically black Spelman College suspended an academic chair endowed by Cosby to the tune of $20 million.
This past Saturday, Cosby picked up his home phone in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, to lecture a black freelance writer on the duty of the “black media” to “go in with a neutral mind.”
“My suggestion,” said a prominent celebrity publicist who is glad not to represent Cosby and spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, “is that someone needs to duct-tape his mouth. Where there was risk, he chose to take the riskier path, because he believed, I’m sure, that he’s gotten away with it for so many years, it’s just going to continue. But we live in a different time and place. The ’80s are long gone. You cannot control the media anymore.”
It wasn’t until a couple of days ago that Team Cosby managed to put some points on the board. They scored on Monday, at long last, by feeding the ravenous media maw with a supportive statement from Cosby’s wife, Camille, who professed love and respect for her husband of 50 years, and cleverly compared his accusers’ claims to Rolling Stone magazine’s bogus account of a fraternity rape at the University of Virginia.
“Many in the media were quick to link that story to stories about my husband—until that story unwound,” she said. “None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim. But the question should be asked—who is the victim?”
Camille Cosby’s declaration of victimhood, echoed by an ardent statement of support from their 38-year-old daughter Evin (“He is the FATHER you thought you knew. The Cosby Show was my today’s TV reality show”), took its rightful place on the cable-television video loop for at least a few hours until other pressing news—a hostage situation in Sydney, a mass murder in Pennsylvania, the slaughter of schoolchildren in Pakistan—pushed it aside.
“I’ve been in contact with Cosby’s team for about three and a half weeks and I got the feeling that there was a lot of internal turmoil,” said Stacy Brown, the freelancer who got the brief exclusive interview with the comedian, simply by dialing his home number in Massachusetts, and wrote it for the New York Post.
“When you talk to them, you get the distinct impression that there are some who really wanted him to talk and other people who were adamantly opposed to him talking to the media. It just seems like there’s this huge war going on inside the Cosby camp about what he should and should not do.”
Although it’s impossible to know precisely what’s happening inside beleaguered Team Cosby, which is attempting to present a united front despite internal differences of opinion, it’s revealing that New York-based entertainment publicist Matthew Hiltzik, who was recruited by Singer to advise the Cosby family, dropped out recently after just a few weeks, apparently convinced, according to a source, that there were so many competing voices offering conflicting tactical advice that he couldn’t be effective. Hiltzik declined to comment.
Team Cosby’s persistent attempts to persuade journalists to look closely at the backgrounds—and occasional criminal records—of the comedian’s alleged victims is a strategy fraught with risk.
According to a highly placed source at CNN, an email from Singer’s law firm urged the cable outlet to investigate the criminal record of Cosby accuser Linda Joy Traitz.
The same day, Nov. 20, TMZ published a story about Traitz’s “long criminal history.” The TMZ story quoted Singer as calling Traitz “the latest example of people coming out of the woodwork with unsubstantiated or fabricated stories about my client.”
“How sad it is to blame the victim,” said the unnamed celebrity publicist, “and what an obvious tactic to shine a spotlight on these women, trying to besmirch victims. It’s not going to work. The problem is that there are just too many. It’s not three or four. You’re talking dozens, more than 20, that are all unconnected and have nothing to gain—nothing.”
That’s not quite correct. In recent days, at least two women claiming to have been Cosby’s victims many years ago have filed lawsuits against him, apparently hoping for a big payday—not on allegations of sexual assault (because the statute of limitations long ago expired) but for more recent claims of defamation and emotional distress.
One of the litigants, former “aspiring model and singer” Tamara Green, is represented by Washington, D.C., attorney Joseph Cammarata, who handled Paula Jones’s lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton.
Meanwhile, Team Cosby is being swamped by hundreds of press calls every day—while regularly issuing statements denouncing the latest allegations—but if Brokaw, Schmitt, and Singer have a strategy to restore their client to public favor, they have yet to share it with the world at large.
“Maybe this sounds bizarre,” said Cosby interviewer Stacy Brown, “but I do believe that at some point, sooner rather than later, they will hold some sort of news conference and that Bill and Camille will sit down with Barbara Walters.”
Even seven months after the ABC diva supposedly retired, it’s not ridiculous to imagine that a celebrity facing an existential crisis would end up weeping on her sofa.