Before Bill Cosby was an inmate at a Pennsylvania state prison, he held a pristine reputation as one of Hollywood's most beloved entertainers.
So when Andrea Constand's sexual assault allegations against Cosby broke in 2005, Nicole Weisensee Egan, an investigative reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News at the time, was skeptical. She had grown up watching The Cosby Show, revering the show's family-friendly main character, Cliff Huxtable.
"I was like, 'Who is this woman?' Because they weren't releasing her name," Egan says.
Like Egan, few people wanted to believe that "America's Dad" could be guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting women.
But as Egan began to dig, she grew disillusioned. Constand emerged as a credible accuser.
"I could not figure out a motive for making up allegations against a powerful and beloved man like Bill Cosby," she says.
In her new book, Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America's Dad, Egan presents a critical look at Constand's allegations against Cosby and then-Montgomery County district attorney Bruce Castor Jr.'s decision not to prosecute him in 2005, owing to "insufficient credible and admissible evidence."
After that decision, Constand would sue Cosby in civil court. The case was settled, with both sides signing a non-disclosure agreement.
Cosby denied the allegations against him, but they didn't go away. By 2014, with rumors swirling around Cosby, a video of comedian Hannibal Buress calling Cosby a "rapist" went viral, fueling a new round of allegations. In all, more than 60 women would come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct.
The allegations would prompt news organizations to give the claims renewed attention. Prosecutors took notice too, and in 2018, a Pennsylvania jury found Cosby guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Constand.
While covering the story, Egan says she saw how news organizations were pressed to keep from covering the allegations against Cosby.
"I was getting on all these national talk shows at night, and the bookers were telling me that Cosby's people were pressuring them not to have me on," she says.
She says larger forces were also at work to keep the allegations quiet. Specifically, a culture that for generations has implicitly discouraged victims of sexual assault from speaking out.
"It's also about the inherent distrust we as a society have of sexual assault victims when they come forward," Egan says.
(These interview excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.)
On what led to the reopening of the criminal investigation against Cosby in 2015
[Philly Mag reporter] Dan McQuade put [the story about Hannibal Buress referring to Cosby as a rapist] on Philly Mag's Web site. And that Monday, BuzzFeed picked it up and then Gawker and then The Daily Mail, and it just went crazy on Twitter.
... More and more women began coming forward, and then The Associated Press decided to get some documents from Andrea's court case unsealed. There were motions that had excerpts from his deposition in the case, and a federal judge in July of the next year allowed those to be unsealed because he said Cosby had given up his right to privacy by all the public scolding he had done to people through the years. So that narrowed his right to privacy. In those papers, where Cosby admitting to giving drugs to women he wanted to have sex with, specifically Quaaludes. And that's what prompted the reopening of the case.
On what changed between the 2017 trial against Cosby that ended with a deadlocked jury, and the 2018 trial that ended with his conviction
I think the prosecution had run a much better case the second time around. They put a sexual assault expert up first to testify about rape myths and debunking rape myths, and, you know, all of the victim behavior that might seem odd to you — like waiting to report it to authorities, or reporting it at all — is the norm for sexual assault.
So she kind of set the stage for the jury to say, 'You're going to hear some strange things, but this is the normal thing for sexual assault victims. And then, this time, five other women were allowed to testify as opposed to one from the first trial.
On what kept other women from speaking up about Cosby
As far as race goes, you know, many of the African American women who came forward about what Cosby did to them struggled with that too. And in the end, they concluded, as I conclude, that he's not your typical African American defendant. He had seven attorneys at his second trial. How many do you know that could not have the income level to afford that? It's about power and privilege and wealth, and that's what allowed him to escape justice for so long.
NICOLE WEISENSEE EGAN: Last Sunday, Bill Cosby's official social media account sent out a message wishing everyone a Happy Father's Day from America's dad. Not too long ago, this would not have raised many eyebrows. Bill Cosby was associated with the best of everything - not just a comedian, but a beloved one - not just a TV pioneer, but one of the most successful of his era - a major philanthropist, an educator, a mentor, a father figure - as he put it, America's dad.
But now he is an inmate at a Pennsylvania prison serving three to 10 years for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. And she is just one of the more than 60 women who have accused him of similar acts, which is why Cosby's post, which he apparently directed, sparked furious responses, as well as, it has to be said, supportive and appreciative ones.
And that really describes the purpose of Nicole Weisensee Egan's new book, "Chasing Cosby: The Downfall Of America's Dad." Egan was a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News when Constand's allegations first surfaced. Her book describes how Cosby's icon status helped him avoid prosecution as a violent sexual predator for some 14 years. Egan's been following the accusations against Cosby from the beginning, and it has to be said that Bill Cosby still denies all of them. And Nicole Weisensee Egan is with us now.
Nicole, thanks so much for joining us.
EGAN: Thanks for having me on.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And I just want to start by reminding folk that this is not a pretty story, and it may be challenging and even traumatic for some people to hear. So, with that being said, you start the book where so many other start when they think of Cosby. You know, you're watching reruns of "The Cosby Show." You're remembering how much you, like millions of other people, loved it when it came out in the 1980s. So be honest - when you were first assigned to report on Andrea Constand's story in 2005, weren't you skeptical?
EGAN: Oh, absolutely. You know, not only did I love him from "The Cosby Show" - I grew up watching "Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids" on Saturday mornings with my brother. And so yes, I was skeptical. I was, like, who is this woman? Because they weren't releasing her name.
MARTIN: So when did you start to think that the allegations could be credible? Because the fact of the matter is the media sometimes does not report on allegations against public figures because people don't find them to be credible.
EGAN: Well, when I started digging into who she was, she was a very credible person, first of all. And really, I could not figure out a motive for making up allegations against a powerful and beloved man like Bill Cosby. Then I found out there were tapes that she had that supported her allegations. It turned out to be a taped phone call between her mom and Cosby. And ultimately, really, it was when the Cosby people began leaking lies about her to the other media about that phone call. If they're making up lies about her, that means they have nothing else to defend themselves with.
MARTIN: So he had this pristine image, which he used to his advantage. And in addition to that, he was quietly - not quietly - or behind the scenes extremely intimidating. How quickly did other complainants come forward with similar acts? I mean, that was one of the other things that I learned from your reporting, is that other complainants started coming forward. But somehow, their stories disappeared.
EGAN: Yes. In fact, the first one - well, the other accuser to come forward in 2005 was attorney Tamara Green. She heard excerpts of the then-DA's press conference, and she could just tell from his tone that he was not going to be filing charges against Cosby. And so she decided to come forward with her own story of Cosby drugging and trying to sexually assault her 30 years prior. That's when another 10 or 11 other women come forward. The prosecution back then didn't even bother to interview most of them before closing the case.
MARTIN: But then the story seemed to end for years. I mean, you even put your own papers away and, you know, moved onto other things. What brought the story back?
EGAN: What happened was this incredibly strange turn of events where in October 2014, Hannibal Buress, a comedian, was performing in Philly. And a Philly Mag reporter decided to go at the very last minute. He's sitting there, and he hears Hannibal Buress start talking about Bill Cosby. So he gets his iPhone, and he starts recording him. And it's Hannibal Burress doing a routine about Bill Cosby lecturing black people about how to behave, basically, when he's - you know, he's a rapist. So the next day, Dan McQuade put it on Philly Mag's website. And that Monday, BuzzFeed picked it up, and then Gawker, and then the Daily Mail. And it just went crazy on Twitter.
MARTIN: So what happened then? I mean, are you telling me that the prosecutors decide to reopen a case 10 years later that they had declined to prosecute because a comedian talked about it? Is that really the truth?
EGAN: No. That's how it exploded again. Then what happened after that is more and more women began coming forward. And then Associated Press decided to get some documents from Andrea's court case unsealed. There were motions that had excerpts from his deposition in the case. And a federal judge in July of the next year allowed those to be unsealed because he said Cosby had given up his right to privacy by all the public scolding he had done to people through the years, so that narrowed his right to privacy. And so in those papers, where Cosby admitting to using - giving drugs to women he wanted to have sex with, specifically Quaaludes. And that's what prompted the reopening of the case.
MARTIN: Wow. So then there was a trial. It ends with a deadlocked jury. Then it goes to a second trial, which ends with his conviction. What changed between the first trial and the second trial?
EGAN: I think the prosecution had a - ran a much better case the second time around. They put a sexual assault expert up first to testify about rape myths and debunking rape myths and, you know, all of the victim behavior that might seem odd to you, like waiting to report it to authorities or reporting it at all is the norm for sexual assault. So she kind of set the stage for the jury to say, you're going to hear some strange things, but this is the normal thing for sexual assault victims. And then, this time, five other women were allowed to testify as opposed to one from the first trial. And it was like one, two, three, four, five they testified, and then Andrea.
MARTIN: I find myself wondering how covering this story affected you all these years. I mean, you were threatened by Mr. Cosby's representatives, according to your reporting - not just the fact of that, but also just engaging with this kind of conduct for all these years. And I did find myself wondering how it affected you.
EGAN: You know, it really affected me back in 2005 because I was completely shocked by it, and I was very disillusioned. And it was something I'd never experienced before working in journalism. You know, it was also the national media - you know, the coddling and the giving in to Cosby, you know? I was getting on all these national talk shows at night, and the bookers were telling me that Cosby's people were pressuring them not to have me on. And that's when I heard the phrase trading up, where you give up one story to give a better one. And soon enough, I wasn't on there anymore. So I was really disillusioned by the whole experience.
MARTIN: Well, you know, of course, as you report on this, to this day, Bill Cosby through his representatives denies this aggressively. His wife made this kind of a very aggressive argument that there's racial bias at work. You know, but other people say no. Actually, his profile in American life is quite unique. To the degree that you can, having lived with this for so long, take a step back, like, what is this about? What does this say? Is it about wealth? Is it about what? What's it about, really?
EGAN: Well, I think - and I tried to examine this somewhat in the book - it's also about the inherent distrust we as a society have of sexual assault victims when they come forward. I think a lot of the men are in these journalism organizations making the decisions, and I - so I think that's a huge part of it.
As far as race goes, you know, many of the African-American women who came forward about what Cosby did to them struggled with that, too. And in the end, they concluded, as I conclude, that he's not your typical African-American defendant. He had seven attorneys at his second trial. How many do you know that could have the income level to afford that? It's about power and privilege and wealth, and that's what allowed him to escape justice for so long.
MARTIN: That's Nicole Weisensee Egan. Her new book is "Chasing Cosby: The Downfall Of America's Dad." We spoke with her from member station WHYY in Philadelphia.
Nicole Egan, thanks so much for talking to us.
EGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.