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2016 Feature, Large Newsroom winner

Cosby: The Women

The accounts of 35 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault

Judges comments

An incredibly powerful piece of journalism presented in a modern way. It broke the silence and whispers around the story while help from social media. From portraits to the quotes, this is an incredible package. The interviews and reporting are matched with the design.

About the Project

“Cosby: The Women, an Unwelcome Sisterhood,” a multipart, multimedia story that gathered the accounts of 35 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, was an enormous project, six months in the making—a feat both of reporting and of digital storytelling imagination. It began with the idea that the news reports of women coming forward could be transformed into something that might reframe the story and make it impossible to ignore. The result was an unconventional feature that, in its groundbreaking format in both print and digital, strove to convey the sheer volume of the accusations and to give each woman a clear voice of her own.

Photo editors Jody Quon and Sofia de Guzman undertook the months-long reporting challenge of finding and persuading each woman to do collectively what they had never done before: face their accused as one, and tell their stories in wrenching, fearless detail—on the record and with their full names. Reporters Noreen Malone and Jen Kirby spoke to each woman at length about her alleged assault and its aftermath—a task requiring sensitivity and empathy, attention to detail and accuracy. Next came the challenge of turning hundreds of pages of testimony into a feature that would work narratively (35 parallel stories, told differently in print and online) without losing either the scope or the detail of the accusations.

Photographer Amanda Demme captured individual portraits of each woman, and filmed six women telling their stories in searing video accounts. On social media, Instagram “audiograms,” which combined voices and portraits, functioned as a third storytelling platform. Taken together, the women’s accounts composed a longitudinal study of how rape is processed by survivors. The accompanying essay by Malone placed their experiences in the context of the larger trajectory of the way American culture has treated women who allege rape—giving the feature a sweep that extended beyond this case.

Victoria Valentino, 72, a former Playboy bunny, was allegedly assaulted by Bill Cosby in 1969. Valentino was dining with her roommate at their usual joint, Café Figaro, where Cosby happened to be part owner. He knew that Valentino’s 6-year-old son had recently died, and he told Valentino’s friend that he thought she could use some cheering up. "He took my roommate and me out to dinner. It was this new hip steak restaurant on the strip near the Whiskey a Go Go called Sneaky Pete’s. He was chatting her up and trying to charm her. And he reached across and put a pill next to my wine glass and said, ‘Here, this will make you feel better,’ and he gave her one. I wasn’t really thinking. I thought, Great, me feel better? You bet. So I took the pill and washed it down with some red wine. And then he reached across and put another pill in my mouth and gave her one. Just after I took the second pill, my face was, like, face-in-plate syndrome, and I just said, ‘I wanna go home.’ He said he would drive us home. We went up this elevator. I sat down, and lay my head back, just fighting nausea. I looked around and he was sitting next to my roommate on the loveseat with this very predatory look on his face. She was completely unconscious. I could hear the words in my head, but I couldn’t form words with my mouth, because I was so drugged out." Tap the photo to hear Victoria Valentino tell her story, and watch her video interview at nymag.com/cosby-women.

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And then there was the cover, as important in its representation of the story online as in print: 35 women, each dressed in black and seated, defiantly staring at the camera. A 36th chair was unoccupied, adding metaphor to testimony. Sometimes a cover can really matter, and this cover mattered. On Twitter, a hashtag, #TheEmptyChair— took flight just half an hour after the cover had been made public: More than 12,000 people used it in the first week alone (and are still using it) to tell their own accounts and to call for action. “If you are in the #TheEmptyChair—you are not alone, you are not defined by what happened to you. I believe you. I hear you. I stand w/ you,” wrote New York City Public Advocate Letitia James. On NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Hanna Rosin pointed out that #TheEmptyChair was also an invitation, “basically is saying, ‘All of you, it’s time to speak up now. Walk up to this chair, sit down like the rest of us. There’s a sisterhood here, waiting to greet you and share your stories.’”

Within hours of its publication, the feature had gone ferociously viral, dramatically shifting the narrative specifically about Bill Cosby, but also, critically, stripping away layers of shame about rape and demonstrating the power of confronting a violator head-on. The feature made newspaper and television reports around the world—and even inspired a political cartoon by the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna, who wrote that the New York cover has “an accumulating power … In its silence, the display is deafening.”

Since publication, ten more women have come forward (at a press conference introducing new accusers, their lawyer waved a copy of New York). Several universities, including Fordham, Marquette, Spelman, Tufts, and Brown, have revoked Cosby’s honorary degrees. A judge has ordered Cosby to undergo a second deposition in a civil case against him, and in December, he was charged with aggravated indecent assault for a 2004 incident just before the statute of limitations expired. A judge decided in a May 24 preliminary hearing that enough evidence existed to move forward with that criminal case. If convicted, Cosby could face up to thirty years in prison.

The attention the New York story brought to the case—as well as the way it changed many people’s minds about whether to believe the women or not—helped spur a new legal strategy that circumvents the statute of limitations by going after Cosby and his team for defamation. The lawsuit argues that Cosby’s public denials of their stories smeared the women’s reputations by painting them as liars looking for a payout. So far, Cosby’s attorneys have failed to get the civil suit thrown out of court, and the comedian has responded by countersuing these women.

Cosby’s attorneys tried to subpoena all materials our journalists gathered in the course of research and reporting—interview transcripts, notes, audio and video recordings—in an attempt to find inconsistencies between the unpublished interviews and the women’s public stories. New York successfully fought this challenge, citing New York’s Shield Law that protects reporter’s privilege. The judge, in clear agreement with our publication, called Cosby’s motion a “fishing expedition” which, if granted, would have set a dangerous precedent.

But the impact extended beyond the courtroom. The National Sexual Assault Hotline’s online chat reported a 15% spike in demand in the week following the story’s publication. New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton referred to an uptick in rape reporting—including cases that “go back many, many years”—as the “Cosby effect.” Nevada, California and Colorado have all reevaluated their laws governing the statute of limitations for sexual assault, thanks in part to the work of women who told their stories to New York.
Painstakingly piecing together the testimony of so many women and contextualizing their stories with an illuminating examination of the history of rape testimony, the project was a triumph of craft and an exploration of multiple ways of telling a story. “Cosby: The Women” made it impossible to ignore something that had been hiding in plain sight for decades.