Law & the Courts

The New York Times Still Doesn’t Understand What It Did

The New York Times building in New York City (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
It had blockbuster new evidence exonerating Kavanaugh but instead emphasized a flimsy allegation.

It was every writer’s dream — or it should have been. Two New York Times reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, wrote a book about one of the most controversial and most reported news stories of our time, the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, and thanks to their due diligence, they uncovered a truly blockbuster revelation: Not only did Christine Blasey Ford’s key witness and friend — Leland Keyser — state that she didn’t recall the party where Ford claimed she was assaulted, she also says she doesn’t remember “any others like it.”

Her words were strong: “It would be impossible for me to be the only girl at a get-together with three guys, have her leave, and then not figure out how she’s getting home,” she said. “I just really didn’t have confidence in the story.”

Even more, Pogrebin and Kelly uncovered a pressure campaign to get Keyser to alter her testimony, to back Ford. Keyser told the writers, “I was told behind the scenes that certain things could spread about me if I didn’t comply,” and they report on group texts containing ominous language about Keyser’s allegedly “f***ed up” life.

While the reaction to the allegations against Kavanaugh was almost uniformly partisan (Republicans rejected the claims; Democrats either believed them or thought they cast enough doubt on Kavanaugh to deny him the nomination), there is — in fact — a truth of the matter here. Kavanaugh did or did not assault Ford, and in any fair proceeding Keyser’s testimony would detonate like a bomb. Remember, this was Ford’s witness and friend. She’s a Democrat. And, moreover, there was now evidence of a pressure campaign that looked a lot like an attempt to suborn perjury.

Confronted with these facts, other mainstream-media reporters were able to quickly discern the true blockbuster in the book. For example, here’s CBS News’s Jan Crawford, in a tweet from last night:

And here’s the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake analyzing its significance today:

[A]s Democrats go big on calling for Kavanaugh’s impeachment — despite a key clarification from the Times that the supposed victim of the newly alleged assault doesn’t recall it, either — Keyser’s account isn’t one they can simply ignore. It’s a significant implicit defense of Kavanaugh, from someone with plenty of motivation to be on the other side of this story.

So, given these facts, what does the New York Times do? Rather than feature the blockbuster, it ran with an incredibly odd “new” allegation against Kavanaugh (it wasn’t truly new; the Senate knew about the claim) that friends had “pushed” his penis into the hands of a female student, but it withholds from the readers the fact that the alleged victim would not speak to the reporters and told friends she has no memory of the incident.

All in all, the story was one of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of neglecting story for narrative. The true story casts strong doubt on the narrative that many New York Times readers and staffers firmly believe; so the Times fed its readers the narrative.

But does the Times get what it did even now? After the truth has been put on blast across the length and breadth of social media? No, it does not. In an extraordinary piece that purports to “answer reader questions” about the Brett Kavanaugh debacle, it does not even address the failure to report the true blockbuster. Instead it lamely attempts to backfill the new allegation.

But as the CBS report above indicates, you can do both. You can — in a brief span of time, it turns out — report on the full context of the new claim and the key claims from Leland Keyser. In fact, the CBS report concludes with a devastating and accurate summation: “Now all four people that Ford identified as being at that high-school party in the summer of 1982 have now said no such party occurred, and today both the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee said they would not support impeaching Kavanaugh.”

Remember, these were the witnesses whom Ford identified. There is zero direct corroboration of any of Ford’s claims, and there is now substantial reason to doubt the alleged party even took place as described.

Yet the needs of the narrative are still trumping the necessity of telling the story. Last night the reporters blamed the omission of the fact that the alleged victim in the new claim didn’t recall the incident on their editors. Pogrebin said, “I think what happened was that . . . we had [the woman’s] name, and the Times doesn’t usually include the name of the victim, and so in this case I think the editors felt like maybe it was better to remove it, and in removing her name, they removed the other reference to the fact that she didn’t remember [the incident].”

Well, just edit out the woman’s name. Leave in the key fact that no actual victim has come forward.

Moreover, we learned yesterday that the Washington Post long ago responsibly passed on printing the new claim against Kavanaugh, in part “because the woman who was said to be involved declined to comment.”

Today, the tale got even more incredible. In a radio interview, Pogrebin blamed the woman’s alleged failure to remember the new claim on her drunkenness. “She was incredibly drunk,” Pogrebin says, “as was everyone.” Does “everyone” include the person who allegedly witnessed the odd alleged penis-pushing incident? And isn’t it odd to omit the word “allegedly” when describing a college party that reportedly took place more than 30 years ago?

In that same interview, Pogrebin expresses surprise that one small part of her book has caused such immense uproar. She shouldn’t be surprised. The Kavanaugh controversy was one of the most intense and emotional public political battles I’ve ever witnessed. Any new revelations — especially regarding the key claims at the Ford hearings — was going to generate intense interest.

The Times owed its readers a far more complete picture. Jan Crawford could do it in less than two minutes. Why couldn’t the Times do it in 2,000 words?

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