It took more than two weeks, but on Sunday, the New York Times finally addressed the accusation of sexual assault lodged against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by a former Senate aide.
The story is inconclusive about the credibility of Reade’s allegations. It confirms that she did speak about what happened with a friend contemporaneously and soon afterward. Interviews with other figures then working in Biden’s Senate office also confirmed that Reade was, as she said, removed from her job supervising office interns at the time of the incident. Interviews with other staffers contradict her accounts, however, and Reade has been inconsistent in telling her story, at one point last year appearing to exonerate Biden.
Yet even if the Times didn’t shed much light on the truth of the underlying matter, the report itself was extremely illuminating. The double standards employed by mainstream media outlets when the targets of sexual harassment accusations are prominent Democrats rather than Republicans were on full display.
Setting aside the truth of Reade’s account, it is impossible not to compare the Times’ generally skeptical treatment with its credulous coverage of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The #believewomen mantra of the #MeToo movement in which accusers must be treated with kid gloves and not subjected to scrutiny dictated much of the coverage of Ford’s accusations.
Even before Ford’s riveting testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, mainstream outlets — including the Times — took her story at face value. Neither the Times nor its counterparts (the Washington Post also published a report about Reade’s allegations this same Easter Sunday) hesitated. There was no pause to send reporters digging through her personal history or social media. Media coverage depicted Kavanaugh — whose hitherto blameless public and private life was dismissed as having no bearing on the accusation — as a stereotypical habitually drunken and insensitive frat boy.
The Times didn’t refrain from publicizing the equally unsubstantiated claims of Deborah Ramirez, even though she chose not to talk to the paper and didn’t have a specific memory of the event. It covered with zeal the far more dubious claims of Michael Avenatti client Julie Swetnick of routine gang rapes.
Reade’s experience with the media has been . . . well, different. Reade was cited as one of seven women who claimed Biden had inappropriately touched them a year ago, but failed after various attempts to attract attention for her accusation of sexual assault. It was not until the broadcast of her interview on a podcast hosted by progressive activist Katie Halper on March 26 that her claims broke into the mainstream. Reade claims she struck out in efforts to interest other media outlets or even journalist Ronan Farrow.
Yet after her appearance on the podcast, there was a veritable mainstream media blackout for more than two weeks. Newspapers didn’t acknowledge the accusation. TV networks didn’t ask him about it in interviews.
The Times attempted to explain its long silence in an interview between executive editor Dean Baquet and media columnist Ben Smith. No coherent excuse was found in this attempt at transparency. Baquet suggests that Kavanaugh was “already in a public forum in a large way” (as if Joe Biden isn’t?) and flip-flops on whether contemporaneous corroboration (which Ford did not produce) is necessary to reporting an assault allegation. Worse than that, Baquet appeared to acknowledge that he edited out a reference to other accusations against Biden at the behest of the Biden campaign, lending weight to the claim that the Times’ decision was heavily influenced by its political lean.
It is incumbent upon journalists to fully vet salacious accusations before they are published. The allegations against Kavanaugh and Biden — who once sat in judgment on Justice Clarence Thomas when he was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill — should be judged on their own merits. But it is impossible to read the Times’ highly skeptical account of the charge against the former vice president without comparing it to the enthusiasm with which it aided the attack on Kavanaugh.
Tara Reade’s account of Biden’s alleged assault has once again exposed the fact that people tend to put their moral principles on hold when their partisan interests are at stake. If that is true of voters and parties, it is equally true of the New York Times.