In his interview with Ben Smith, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said that the reason he took 19 days to run a story mentioning the assault allegation against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden was his desire to do the necessary “reporting to help people figure out what to make of it.” He insisted upon being thorough — Biden’s alleged forcible penetration of former staffer Tara Reade was, in Baquet’s words, 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.” There was a lot on the line, and he wanted to get it right.
In his telling, Baquet proceeded with caution and refused to run a “straightforward news story” when Reade first publicly accused Biden of assault on March 25. A “short, straightforward news story,” he said, would not “have helped the reader understand.” And that is the most important thing, Baquet emphasized: That you understand.
I do understand, as a matter of principle, why a news organization would take more than two weeks to report Tara Reade’s assault allegation against Joe Biden. A newspaper should want to take its time with a “fairly serious” allegation of sexual misconduct. Lives and reputations are at stake. Joe Biden is a married man. He has children, and grandchildren. Publishing an allegation of sexual assault against him without first corroborating the accuser’s story — or venturing to find out whether the accuser is the least bit credible — would be tantamount to slander.
But Baquet and his newspaper are no strangers to slander. The Times reported Julie Swetnick’s gang-rape accusation against Brett Kavanaugh on the very same day that since-disbarred attorney Michael Avenatti made Swetnick’s allegation public. In the piece itself, the Times reporters admit that they had no evidence to corroborate Swetnick’s allegation. They published it anyway: “None of Ms. Swetnick’s claims could be independently corroborated,” the reporters wrote, “and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, declined to make her available for an interview.” The Times nevertheless parroted Swetnick’s sordid claims, citing the alleged “efforts by Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh and others to cause girls to become inebriated and disoriented so they could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.”
Facilitating and partaking in a gang-rape operation is, if nothing else, a “fairly serious allegation.” Baquet nevertheless felt no need to process that allegation with a two-week buffer period to interview the relevant witnesses. He did not enjoin his colleagues to do the necessary “reporting to help people figure out what to make of it,” as he did for the allegation against Biden. “Kavanaugh, he said, “was in a very different situation.”
That is one way of putting it.
Baquet defended his paper’s behavior to Smith by claiming that Kavanaugh “was already in a public forum in a very large way,” which allegedly justified the Times‘s decision to take the story to print. What this is supposed to mean is unclear. Do the basic standards of investigative journalism not apply when one is investigating those “in a public forum”? And how is Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States and the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, not also “in a public forum in a very large way”?
Baquet attempted to further distinguish Kavanaugh’s case from Biden’s by highlighting the fact that Kavanaugh’s “status as a Supreme Court justice was in question because of a very serious allegation.” He ignores the possibility that his paper played a role in bringing Kavanaugh’s appointment into “question” in the first place by publishing hagiographies of Christine Blasey Ford and think-pieces casting Ford as a vicar for all of history’s abuse victims. It’s also unclear why Baquet highlights the seriousness of the allegations against Kavanaugh, as if Biden’s alleged digital penetration of a staffer without her consent would, by the newspaper’s own standards, be an insufficiently “serious allegation” to bring his fitness for the presidency into “question.”
If we take Dean Baquet at his word that he does not entertain partisan considerations in his role as executive editor, his answers to Smith’s questions simply do not make sense. On the one hand, Baquet claims that the reason that he took more than two weeks to report the Biden allegation was because the conduct alleged was “fairly serious” against a prominent public figure. Fair enough. But on the other hand, Baquet felt no compunction running a report on an uncorroborated, unsubstantiated allegation of gang rape against a Supreme Court nominee on the day the allegation was made. The two are impossible to reconcile. Another inconsistency: Baquet says that the reason the Times ran the Kavanaugh allegation was because the judge was “already in a public forum.” In the very same interview, he insists that the reason his paper was cautious with the Biden accusation was because Biden “had been the vice president of the United States and was knocking on the door of being his party’s nominee.”
When Baquet says “there are no iron laws” in covering sexual assault allegation, he apparently means it.
Smith asked Baquet whether his failure to immediately report on the Biden allegations was motivated by partisanship. “I think once you start making those kinds of calculations, you are not a journalist anymore,” Baquet said, “You’re some sort of political actor.”
Not that he would know anything about that.