In March, a former staffer in Joe Biden’s Senate office in the 1990s appeared as a guest on a podcast called the Katie Halper Show and said that in 1993, Biden sexually assaulted her. The emergence of Tara Reade’s story has since served as a kind of stress test for the fourth estate. Would journalists pay it the same heed they had previously granted to allegations against other political figures, such as Donald Trump and Al Franken? Would they apply the same standards of credibility and proof to Reade’s allegations as they had for those made by Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was also accused of assault?
The immediate response to this test can’t even be called muted; it was nonexistent. But it was still revelatory.
For several weeks, no major newspaper mentioned the allegations, even though information about them was circulating widely on social media and in conservative publications. Biden continued to give television interviews to reporters who never once asked him about Tara Reade. It was almost three weeks later when the New York Times finally published a story about it, a surprising slow-walk from a newspaper that had been quick to publish every (often uncorroborated) detail as it emerged about other accused public figures such as Franken and Kavanaugh.
When Ben Smith, the Times’ own media columnist, asked editor Dean Baquet the reason for the delay, Baquet offered an almost willfully preposterous explanation. He argued that “Kavanaugh was a running, hot story” (which indeed he was because the Times ran everything it could find about Kavanaugh), but that Reade’s allegations did not make for a “hot” story because no one knew who she was. Worse, Baquet went on to admit that the paper, after publication, altered the wording of the Reade story because the Biden campaign complained about its tone. That was April 13.
Two weeks later, on April 27, television and radio journalists were still refusing to ask Biden directly for any comment about Reade’s allegations, even after several people who knew Reade had come forward to say they had heard her talk about the matter decades before. The response of the Washington Post that day was an official tweet written in a language similar to, but in the end not, English: “Developments in allegations against Biden amplify efforts to question his behavior.” The tweet was issued to promote a story that had been given the headline: “Trump Allies Highlight New Claims Regarding Allegations Against Biden.” The message was clear: The subject should be not the accusations against Joe Biden but rather “Trump allies” who were unfairly “amplifying efforts” to get Biden to respond to them.
Television producers, usually dogged in their pursuit of sexual and political controversy, seemed anesthetized here. “Typically, in a situation like this, media outlets would be competing intensely for the first major on-camera interview,” Ryan Grim of the Intercept noted. “Yet the only network calling Reade is Fox News.” As for Biden, it took until May 1 for him to address the matter directly in an interview with MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, which he did with a firm denial.
The columnist Michelle Goldberg used her perch at the New York Times to show how easily goalposts can be moved when you really want to move them. Unlike Reade, Goldberg claimed, Ford had credibility because she and others involved in the matter had signed affidavits. Goldberg failed to note that Reade and her supporters would presumably also have signed affidavits if there had been an official investigation by the FBI into these claims as there was with Kavanaugh. Where are those voices on the liberal side calling for such an investigation?
Goldberg also pointed out that Reade’s story has changed over time, which it has. But so had Ford’s, and Goldberg still championed and champions her. For example, Reade has friends who have gone on the record corroborating her claim that she told them about the assault close to the time it happened. But Ford says she didn’t tell anyone about Kavanaugh (and even then, did not name him specifically) until she told a therapist in 2010. Goldberg says the therapist’s notes made Ford’s claim stronger—but she fails to mention that no one knows what those notes actually said because Ford refused to turn them over to investigators. Goldberg’s arguments were preposterous, but they were typical of the liberal response to Reade.
Going forward, can the public expect the standards that so many in the media have embraced with regard to Reade’s allegations about Biden to be the same ones they will embrace in the future if the accused man isn’t a political ally? Is the bar for credibility when it comes to leveling accusations at prominent Washington figures the new one the mainstream media have set for Tara Reade? Will publications such as the Times, which has frequently reminded readers of the allegations against Trump in their coverage of Reade’s claims against Biden, now do the same by mentioning the Biden accusations when they write anything about claims made against Trump?
These aren’t idle questions. For those who have already forgotten the level of hyperbole (and at times, hysteria) that flourished among journalists during the Kavanaugh hearings, recall that Slate’s legal reporter, Dahlia Lithwick, claimed a year after Kavanaugh was confirmed that she couldn’t return to her job of reporting on the Supreme Court because she couldn’t “get over” the fact that Kavanaugh was now on the Court and because “none of us, as women, were ever going to be perfectly safe again.”
A few voices have spoken straightforwardly about the malleability (and, by implication, the hypocrisy) of their standards. Lucy Flores, one of the women who had complained that Biden was too handsy with her and other women, spoke to the Times about Reade’s allegations and said, “We acknowledge that this is a position of impossibility for so many women, and yet so many of us are willing to do the right thing—as in, we will vote for him despite this.” Retired Brandeis professor Linda Hirshman was more blunt and utilitarian in a Times op-ed: She wrote that although she believes Tara Reade, the moral imperative to remove Trump from office outweighs the imperative to investigate Reade’s claim in good faith.
Others are more tortured by their double standards. “I feel very trapped,” said Ana Maria Archila, the progressive activist whose 15 minutes came when she cornered then Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. “What motivated me to join the fight against Kavanaugh was the threat that he represented to my country,” she told the Times. “I feel like we’re in this situation where in order to protect ourselves, we have to do something that might feel morally incoherent—which is to vote for someone who was accused of sexual assault.”
It feels morally incoherent because it is morally incoherent. But Archila is struggling with the problem that bedevils everyone who wants her political choices to reflect her moral frame and finds that the world doesn’t make such things easy. That is not supposed to be a problem for the reporters and editors at major journalistic institutions, whose primary claim is that they are neither players nor coaches nor fans but umpires. As such, the minimum required of them is not to alter the dimensions of the strike zone at will to suit the needs of the home team. Unless, of course, they’re not umpires at all, but rather East German judges determined to hand Biden a gold medal.
When a large bank fails a stress test, consumers lose trust and the value of the bank’s stock often falls. But trust can be restored if an institution acknowledges failures and installs new safeguards to prevent mistakes in the future. The Tara Reade case provided media institutions with a major opportunity to establish some broad nonpartisan norms for vetting sexual-assault and harassment allegations. They have failed at it about as badly as anyone can fail anything.
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