Perhaps the strangest moment in the coverage of the battle over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh was when much of the media decided that he had lied about how much he drank in high school and college.
In his electrifying testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee responding to the allegations against him, Kavanaugh said about his high-school days, “Sometimes I had too many beers.” He denied, however, that he had ever drunk beer “to the point of blacking out” or “sexually assaulted anyone.”
Emily Stewart, writing at Vox, claimed that Kavanaugh had “largely denied that he drank excessively in his youth.” It’s true that Kavanaugh had not dwelt on his excess drinking; why would he have? But “sometimes I had too many beers” was an admission, not “largely” a denial.
Other media outlets ran with the same obvious misrepresentation. CNN interviewed a Yale classmate who claimed to be disputing Kavanaugh’s account of his drinking. She said she would have kept silent if Kavanaugh had copped to drinking to excess in high school and college while denying that he committed sexual assault — which is, in fact, almost word-for-word what he had said.
The New York Times ran a “fact check” that claimed that Kavanaugh “portrayed himself in his testimony as enjoying a beer or two as a high school and college student, but not as someone who often drank to excess during those years.” It then, to its limited credit, quoted Kavanaugh’s actual words, which contradicted the Times by not referring to “a beer or two” and including his admission of excess drinking. A few days later, the Times ran the same false characterization nearly verbatim in a story by Michael Shear and Robin Pogrebin. This time, the Times omitted Kavanaugh’s words.
Phil Rucker of the Washington Post tweeted that Kavanaugh had “testified to the Senate that he did not drink to excess.” The newspaper ran an op-ed by three people it described as “drinking buddies” of the judge from his time at Yale. 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.
The Associated Press at least found a distinctive way to contribute to this festival of lunkheaded misrepresentation. It reported that Kavanaugh had misstated the drinking-age laws that had applied to him in the Maryland and D.C. of his youth. He hadn’t. He had mentioned the laws that had made drinking alcohol legal at 18 in the context of a discussion of its prevalence among his fellow students.
Drinksgate showed that much of the press was willing to believe nearly any allegation against Kavanaugh — even when the evidence refuting the allegation was right in front of it. Given that widespread attitude, it is no surprise that reporters amplified allegations with next to no evidentiary support.
In The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer reported that Deborah Ramirez claimed that Kavanaugh had thrust his penis in her face during a drunken dormitory party with friends. She wasn’t sure it was Kavanaugh until she’d worked through her memories for several days — after he was nominated for the Supreme Court, decades after the alleged event. Nobody was able to confirm that Kavanaugh had even been at the party in question. Farrow and Mayer included Kavanaugh’s disavowal in their story: “In a statement, Kavanaugh wrote, ‘This alleged event from 35 years ago did not happen.’” The New York Times noted that it had looked into the story, too, but had not been able to find enough corroboration to publish anything.
In a follow-up article, Mayer and Farrow said that the FBI had ignored “witnesses” who had contacted it. None of the “witnesses” turned out even to be claiming firsthand knowledge of the alleged incident. One of them said he was sure he had heard about the incident from someone else, but that person told Mayer and Farrow he had no recollection of it. Some defenders of Mayer and Farrow cast their candor about how poorly corroborated their articles were as a mark in their favor; it is actually a tacit admission that neither story should have been published.
NBC apparently decided to take The New Yorker’s reporting as a challenge to see which outlet could be more irresponsible. In its nightly broadcast and on its website, it announced that an anonymous source had heard from another anonymous person that Kavanaugh, after drinking, had in 1998 shoved a woman he was dating against a wall. Several witnesses were supposedly present, but none stepped forward.
Kavanaugh’s girlfriend at the time, now a judge, forcefully denied that this incident had ever taken place and affirmed that Kavanaugh had always treated her well. The judge, Dabney Friedrich, has yet to be mentioned on NBC.com as of three days after Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
NBC also suggested that Kavanaugh had lied in his response to the Ramirez story. In testimony to Senate staff, Kavanaugh denied that he had ever “discussed or heard discussion about the incident matching the description given by Ms. Ramirez to The New Yorker” before the magazine contacted him about its first article. He also testified that he had heard she was calling people to see whether they remembered “this story.” A natural reading of this testimony is that before Mayer and Farrow wrote, Kavanaugh knew that Ramirez was shopping around an allegation against him but did not know the specifics. NBC’s reporters ignored that possibility and assumed that he must have been lying in that first denial (and then have accidentally told the truth moments later).
Earlier, NBC had reported on a Facebook post from someone claiming to have heard about the attempted sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford in the early 1980s — although the author quickly deleted the post, admitted no firsthand knowledge of the incident, and even told an interviewer she had no idea whether it had happened.
CNN’s lowest moment may have been when it ran a story discussing an anonymous man’s claim that Kavanaugh had raped a woman on a boat in Newport, R.I., in 1985. The man recanted his story an hour before the network published it. It continued to flag “five allegations” against Kavanaugh on its cable shows — counting the Ramirez, shoving-against-a-wall, and Rhode Island stories, and an even more outlandish one claiming that Kavanaugh was part of a group that regularly held gang-rape parties. The CNN website would later run another story describing the Rhode Island accusation as “false,” although as of October 8 it had not updated its original article to note the recantation.
Some in the press were willing to believe anything, no matter how implausible, about Kavanaugh’s defenders, too. At a public forum, Senator Lindsey Graham denied that President Trump had treated Blasey Ford badly. By way of contrast, Graham alluded to James Carville’s infamous putdown of Paula Jones, one of Bill Clinton’s accusers: “Here’s what’s personally degrading: ‘This is what you get when you go through a trailer park with a $100 bill.’” Yahoo News was among those who missed the allusion and misunderstood Graham to be making the comment about Blasey Ford.
In a tweet, Jake Tapper of CNN noted that Graham was “paraphrasing a loathsome comment by James Carville.” That wasn’t enough context for Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor Jennifer Rubin, who responded to Tapper that Graham was “calling an assault victim a prostitute” — which, incidentally, would not be true even if she were right about the context.
Several of these examples of reckless journalistic behavior happened on Twitter. Journalists rarely give their tweets as much thought as they do the articles they write for their outlets. Perhaps they should consider whether their tweets are detracting from the credibility of their more professional output. Perhaps their outlets should consider it, too.
But the medium cannot be blamed for the decisions by magazines, networks, and newspapers that decided to suspend normal journalistic standards in the Kavanaugh affair. They almost always suspended them to the judge’s detriment — at least in the very short term. The barrage from the press, and its manifest unfairness, may have had the effect of strengthening Republicans’ zeal to defend the judge. The proliferation of accusations also tended to weaken the force of the initial, relatively strong one by Blasey Ford.
The press is unhappy with President Trump’s use of it as a foil. But neither Trump nor previous Republican leaders who criticized the press are the reason millions of Americans do not trust them. Those millions now have a fresh reason for distrust.