The Worst Moments in Media Coverage of the Kavanaugh Confirmation Fight

People watch Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., September 27, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The onslaught of shoddy journalism in a clear effort to sink the nomination was a blot on the reputation of the profession.

If anyone doubted before how strongly the mainstream media despise Donald Trump, surely their uncertainty was obliterated by the appalling coverage of the confirmation battle over Brett Kavanaugh, which suggested that much of our press corps dislikes not only the president but all conservatives.

The first major example of press bias against Kavanaugh was the New Yorker story published by Me Too hero Ronan Farrow and longtime left-wing activist qua journalist Jane Mayer in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford’s initial allegation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. In it, they reported an account from Deborah Ramirez, who claimed Kavanaugh had drunkenly exposed himself to her at a party when they were both students at Yale.

The only trouble was that they couldn’t find a single eyewitness to confirm that Kavanaugh had even attended the party in question, let alone one who witnessed the incident Ramirez describes. Ramirez herself admits to having spent “six days . . . carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney” before going on the record, as well as to having called several friends asking if they had any memory of the incident. She said she had been reluctant to go public with the story because she couldn’t be certain it had been Kavanaugh who did it.

Farrow and Mayer weren’t content with just the one smear job, though. More than a week later, the two journalists published a follow-up piece, asserting that the FBI was neglecting key witnesses during its investigation of the allegations against Kavanaugh. One such witness? Kenneth Appold, a Yale alumnus who told Farrow and Mayer that he remembers being told Kavanaugh had indeed exposed himself to Ramirez. Appold attests that he went on the record in this second report because he was able to remember who had told him the story, and after contacting that informant to verify the account . . . he never got a response.

Not only that, but when Farrow and Mayer contacted the informant themselves, he told them the incident hadn’t happened at all. Why they found this subsequent story worthy of publication is a mystery — or perhaps it isn’t. In a recent interview with Elle magazine, Mayer obliquely admitted her bias:

I knew that key issues would be whether the judge had a pattern of similar behavior, since that helps establish who is telling the truth when there is a standoff, and whether there were credible corroborators on either side. Knowing this is why Ronan Farrow and I were so alert to the significance of other accusers, such as Deborah Ramirez. Her allegation showed that, if true, yes, there was a pattern of misconduct, and likely another side of the judge.

Media outlets quickly lined up alongside The New Yorker, ready for a swift race to the bottom. For two weeks, supposedly respectable journalistic outfits credulously published one account after another, obvious efforts to tar Kavanaugh with any salacious tale they could get their hands on. NBC News, for example, conducted a television interview with Julie Swetnick, the third accuser to come forward — represented by clown-show attorney and 2020 Democratic hopeful Michael Avenatti. Swetnick alleged under oath, without a single piece of corroborating evidence, that Kavanaugh had helped to orchestrate a ring of Georgetown Prep high-school students that routinely drugged and gang-raped girls.

This outrageous claim was taken seriously by NBC, even though the network admitted that it had been unable to corroborate key details of Swetnick’s story prior to the interview with her. NBC News host Kate Snow had the decency to tell viewers in advance that parts of Swetnick’s account in the interview contradicted what she had averred in her sworn statement — but that apparently wasn’t reason enough to keep her off the air.

“This morning, Swetnick provided four names of friends she says went to the parties” with Kavanaugh, Snow added at the end of the interview. “One of them says he does not recall a Julie Swetnick. Another of the friends she named is deceased. We reached out to the other two and haven’t heard back.” And yet the interview was aired for NBC’s millions of viewers anyway.

CNN, for its part, reported on an anonymous man’s allegation that Kavanaugh had raped a woman on a boat in Newport, R.I., in 1985. The man recanted his story in full, but CNN published the piece reporting the claim an hour later — and CNN cable shows continued to discuss “five allegations” against Kavanaugh, counting both the recanted boat-rape allegation and the outlandish Swetnick story.

After Kavanaugh and Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, media outlets revealed their eagerness to establish that the judge had perjured himself when discussing his high-school habits. Doing so required completely disregarding what Kavanaugh had actually said in his testimony — “Sometimes I drank too much” — but reporters didn’t seem to mind. It also required plumbing the depths of Kavanaugh’s high-school yearbooks, a task for which our nation’s most dedicated journalists were more than suited.

Evidently, this collective quest to prove that Kavanaugh had lied about his drinking and his yearbook was an effort to imply — if not outright state — that, if he had lied about drinking and slang terms, he also must have lied about assault. Some suggested that if it could be proven that he had blacked out from drinking, we could rightly conclude that he committed the alleged assault but didn’t remember it. Even more sinister, some reports seemed to insinuate that, if it could be proven that Kavanaugh drank excessively, had blacked out from drinking, or was an aggressive drunk, he therefore must have been the type of person we could reasonably assume had also committed assault. Many in the media seemed to take the view that, if it could be proven Kavanaugh had perjured himself, that would be an additional reason to bar him from the Court, regardless of whether he had assaulted anyone.

We were treated to an uncritical New York Times report informing readers that Kavanaugh was once questioned by police after a bar fight in 1985, where he allegedly threw ice during the altercation. The piece was co-authored by Emily Bazelon, a New York Times Magazine staff writer, who in July wrote tweets criticizing Kavanaugh’s voting record. There was no editor’s note appended to the piece.

Current Affairs and The Intercept both published lengthy accounts detailing the manifold ways in which Kavanaugh had undeniably perjured himself in his testimony. Those claims and many others — aside from being facially unprovable — were slowly debunked, one by one.

Commentary pages weren’t much better. The Washington Post, for example, published a number of opinion pieces by authors critiquing the culture of Georgetown Prep but without reaching out to the school administration for comment. The New Yorker published a piece entitled “The Boys’ Club That Protects Brett Kavanaugh,” in which the school was portrayed as intentionally hiding or condoning the its students’ misdeeds.

The USA Today sports section published a piece asserting that Kavanaugh should no longer be able to coach girls’ basketball as a result of the allegation. (The article was heavily amended after criticism.)

The Post also ran an op-ed from three Yale alumni who claimed that they had been “drinking buddies” of Kavanaugh’s in college and that he had perjured himself about his drinking habits. Here’s what Ramesh Ponnuru had to say about it in the latest print issue of National Review:

Sometimes he was “stumbling drunk,” they wrote, and so he could not possibly have said with certainty that he had never blacked out. The op-ed didn’t even establish that the trio were actually “drinking buddies”; at best it established that Yale fails to teach its students about non sequiturs.

On CNN, host Chris Cuomo interviewed Liz Swisher, one of Kavanaugh’s former classmates. “What do you know about Brett Kavanaugh that he was not truthful about in the hearing?” he asked.

“I would’ve stayed on the sidelines if he’d said, ‘I drank to excess in high school,” Swisher told Cuomo. “I drank to excess in college. I did some stupid things. But I never sexually assaulted anybody. But to lie under oath, to lie about that, then what else is true?”

But Swisher’s comment about what she believes Kavanaugh ought to have said in order to be truthful lines up almost exactly with what Kavanaugh did say during his testimony. Another of Kavanaugh’s Yale classmates, Chad Ludington, claimed that Kavanaugh made a “blatant mischaracterization” of his drinking, but his statement offered no new evidence or information that contradicted what Kavanaugh himself had already admitted under oath. Nevertheless, Ludington’s unverified account was published uncritically by the New York Times.

No thanks to these and other outlets, Kavanaugh has been sworn in as the newest associate justice of the Supreme Court. Though the fight over his confirmation has left our politics in much worse shape than when his nomination was announced, perhaps we should be grateful that it was the occasion for so many within our media to reveal their true colors.

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