NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A remarkable thing happened Monday: The New York Times executive editor, Dean Baquet, actually had to answer questions about his paper’s very different coverage of sexual-assault allegations against Joe Biden and Brett Kavanaugh. It did not go well. It is simply impossible to read the interview and the Times coverage of the two cases and come away believing that the Times acted in good faith or, frankly, that it even expects anyone to believe its explanations. The paper’s motto, at this point, may as well be “All the News You’re Willing to Buy.”
For all their lectures to the public about transparency and fearless independence, prestige journalists tend to be very reluctant to face accountability of their own. Ben Smith, who only recently left his position as editor in chief of BuzzFeed for a perch as media reporter for the Times, deserves credit for putting Baquet to some tough questioning. Let’s walk through the Times’ very belated report on the Biden allegations and Baquet’s defenses of that reporting. The article, blandly titled “Examining a Sexual Assault Allegation Against Biden,” ran on page A20 of the Easter Sunday edition of the paper. On the same day, the Times opinion page ran a much more visible op-ed by Biden himself on his proposals to reopen the country.
When Biden entered the presidential race in April 2019, he was faced with a flurry of accusations by various women he’d interacted with over the years. The charges had a common thread: Biden has long been too free with his hands, with physical contact such as hugging and kissing and touching and smelling women’s hair, without regard for their personal space or consent. When the Times editorial board met with Biden in January, it asked him no questions about any of this, but it did press him over not being sufficiently aggressive in supporting Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Tara Reade was one of the women who accused Biden in early 2019, but at the time, she did not accuse Biden of sexually assaulting her by penetrating her with his hands under her skirt, as she has now. Biden has never been asked personally to respond to Reade’s allegation. The Times assigned multiple reporters to the story but printed his campaign’s formal denials without addressing whether it had asked Biden himself to comment. Its report expressed no concerns that there has been inadequate investigation of the charge.
Smith started off by asking Baquet why it took until April 12 for the Times to even mention the allegations, which were made in a podcast interview on March 25 and reported at National Review and elsewhere within days:
Lots of people covered it as breaking news at the time. And I just thought that nobody other than The Intercept was actually doing the reporting to help people figure out what to make of it. . . . Mainly I thought that what The New York Times could offer and should try to offer was the reporting to help people understand what to make of a fairly serious allegation against a guy who had been a vice president of the United States and was knocking on the door of being his party’s nominee. Look, I get the argument. Just do a short, straightforward news story. But I’m not sure that doing this sort of straightforward news story would have helped the reader understand. Have all the information he or she needs to think about what to make of this thing.
So much for “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” This does not pass the laugh-out-loud test. Does any sentient being believe that the Times would have waited more than two weeks to even mention such an allegation against a Republican or conservative figure, while it tried to figure out how to tell its readers what “he or she needs to think about what to make of this thing”? Recall its wall-to-wall instant coverage of the Trump “Access Hollywood” tape, which by the next day had a full news analysis by Maggie Haberman asking why Trump had not apologized yet.
In Kavanaugh’s case, on September 14, 2018, before Christine Blasey Ford had even put her name to a public allegation against Kavanaugh, the Times published a 31-paragraph story on the then-anonymous charge. Two days later, the very day that Ford agreed to come forward publicly, the Times blared out a Sheryl Gay Stolberg story, which opened
President Trump’s bid to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was thrown into uncertainty on Sunday as a woman came forward with explosive allegations that Mr. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers more than three decades ago.
Unlike here, the story led with the most inflammatory line in Ford’s allegations (“I thought he might inadvertently kill me”) and contrasted that with what it described as “a terse statement” from the White House, terms it did not use in framing the allegations against Biden. Then, the Times complained that “some of the president’s allies on the right excoriated Ms. Ford — a registered Democrat — as a partisan.” Here, regarding Reade, the Times reported its reasons for skepticism of her political motivations (supporting Marianne Williamson, then Elizabeth Warren, then Bernie Sanders) without putting those accusations in the mouths of people primed to be disliked by Times readers.
The Stolberg article noted that “Ms. Ford’s account opens a window into the exclusive prep school culture in which Mr. Kavanaugh grew up.” This was a common theme throughout the Kavanaugh controversy: that if other women had been assaulted or harassed by other prep-school boys and frat boys in the several decades around the same time, or the several states of the Eastern Seaboard, this was probative evidence against Kavanaugh that required some sort of national conversation. Dozens of such articles were published. The Times ran an entire piece on a letter Kavanaugh wrote to some friends in 1983, which it framed as shedding light on “the binge-drinking culture” of his high school. It ran another entire article on his high-school yearbook.
Two Times reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, published a book on the Kavanaugh allegations. When the Times promoted this project with a book excerpt in September 2019 on one of the flimsy “similar” allegations against Kavanaugh, under the headline, “Brett Kavanaugh Fit In with the Privileged Kids. She Did Not,” it had to be corrected. The correction gives a flavor of why:
Editors’ Note: Sept. 15, 2019
An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book’s account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.
(Emphasis added). You might think that would be a detail worth printing.
By contrast, while there have been notorious cases of sexual harassment (and worse) by several of Biden’s Senate friends and colleagues in the early 1990s, the Times piece on Reade goes out of its way to use that culture as a defense of Biden: “Other senators and office staffs had reputations for harassing women at work and partying after hours, according to those who worked in the office at the time. Mr. Biden was known for racing to catch the train to get home to Wilmington, Del., every night.”
Kavanaugh-allegation coverage led the Times reporting for weeks after Ford’s charges, from poll analysis to Senate nose-counting to complaints about not having a more extensive FBI investigation to collecting reader suggestions on what questions Kavanaugh should answer. The Times editorial board ran editorials pushing Ford’s allegations and demanding a full airing on September 17, September 19, and September 27. Other opinion contributors piled on in droves.
It got worse: When undeniably disreputable figures came out of the woodwork to offer lurid and preposterous tales of Kavanaugh’s supposed predations (many of which have since been recanted or thoroughly debunked), the Times ran with them. As Smith notes, when since-convicted lawyer Michael Avenatti pushed forward the charges by Julie Swetnick of Kavanaugh’s involvement in gang rapes, “The Times wrote that story the same day she made the allegation, noting that ‘none of Ms. Swetnick’s claims could be independently corroborated.’” Baquet’s response:
Kavanaugh was already in a public forum in a large way. Kavanaugh’s status as a Supreme Court justice was in question because of a very serious allegation. And when I say in a public way, I don’t mean in the public way of Tara Reade’s. If you ask the average person in America, they didn’t know about the Tara Reade case. So I thought in that case, if The New York Times was going to introduce this to readers, we needed to introduce it with some reporting and perspective. Kavanaugh was in a very different situation. It was a live, ongoing story that had become the biggest political story in the country. It was just a different news judgment moment. . . . Kavanaugh was a running, hot story. I don’t think it’s that the ethical standards were different. I think the news judgments had to be made from a different perspective in a running hot story.
This is entirely circular: If the media make something a story, it becomes newsworthy; if it’s not reported, the readers don’t know about it, so it’s not newsworthy. No purer distillation can be found of the idea that the media set their own agenda.
How on earth do you pretend that Joe Biden’s character is not instantly newsworthy? He’s the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for president. He was the vice president of the United States for eight years. He’s been a front-page news figure since the 1980s. Thought experiment: Imagine that an allegation came forward against Ken Starr. We all know that, because Starr was involved in pursuing the Lewinsky story, any whiff of sexual impropriety would instantly be framed as a hypocrisy story even long after Starr has left public service. Biden chaired the Hill–Thomas hearings in 1991; how is that not the same thing?
We were constantly told that the Kavanaugh allegations should be judged by a low bar because the hearings were “a job interview” and he’d be confirmed to a powerful, life-tenured job. Well, presidents have a lot more power than any individual Supreme Court justice, including the power to appoint lots of life-tenured federal judges and justices. Isn’t this Biden’s job interview?
Baquet bobs and weaves over factors that normally would go into evaluating the credibility of an allegation, such as the importance of telling someone else at the time. Reade provided witnesses to the Times who said they were told by her about sexual harassment (not assault) by Biden in 1993, but they were unwilling to go on record; Ford brought no such source forward: “I don’t mean to imply that the notion that the person told someone contemporaneously is the ultimate test. It’s not. There are a lot of tests.”
The Times report noted blandly that “the seven other women who had complained about Mr. Biden told the Times this month that they did not have any new information about their experiences to add, but several said they believed Ms. Reade’s account.” No further statements were elicited, in contrast to the lurid efforts to get supporting quotes for Ford from people who had never even met Kavanaugh. In fact, unlike Reade (for whom the Times was easily able to confirm her employment in Biden’s office), there was never any corroborating evidence produced that Ford had ever met Kavanaugh.
The Times asked Reade about “medium posts and tweets, several of which are now deleted, she had written praising President Vladimir Putin.” Its reporting was never similarly curious about why Ford had purged her social-media accounts. Nor did the Times ever report that Ford’s own lawyer admitted after the hearings that “part of what motivated Christine” was wanting to put “an asterisk next to his name.”
Then there was this doozy of an exchange:
SMITH: I want to ask about some edits that were made after publication, the deletion of the second half of the sentence: “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.” Why did you do that?
BAQUET: Even though a lot of us, including me, had looked at it before the story went into the paper, I think that the campaign thought that the phrasing was awkward and made it look like there were other instances in which he had been accused of sexual misconduct. And that’s not what the sentence was intended to say.
That “beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable” is a pretty big “other than.” But even more damning is Baquet’s open admission that he changed the line under pressure from “the campaign” — Joe Biden’s campaign. We know who really calls the shots here.