Claire McCaskill sat down for a freewheeling discussion with David Axelrod, a former journalist and later Democratic political consultant close to Barack Obama. Having lost her Missouri Senate seat four months earlier, McCaskill seemed liberated to discuss the downsides of political life. Still, she made a rather surprising admission about her final, bruising campaign.
“It got so bad this time that they had a woman calling around to [my husband’s] former women employees trying to get them to say bad things about him,” she said. “He started getting calls at his business from women who used to work for him saying, ‘You know, somebody is calling us, trying to get us to say that you were inappropriate with us and. you know, you should just know they're doing this.’ That's how bad it's gotten.”
McCaskill’s husband, wealthy Missouri businessman Joseph Shepard, was definitely a target in her reelection campaign. Although already wealthy when he married McCaskill in 2002, Shepard’s companies received some $131 million in federal contracts after his wife became a senator in 2007. His personal life wasn’t deemed off-limits, either. Club for Growth, a conservative group, ran ads about charges of domestic abuse leveled by his ex-wife. (Shepard’s ex-wife would call the ads “terribly unfair” and was publicly supportive of McCaskill’s campaign.)
Also, a realty company founded and owned by Shepard had been sued in 2009 for allegedly ignoring sexual harassment in the workplace. In an example reported by Fox News, a female employee complained that a female supervisor unbuttoned her pants without her consent, took pictures of her in underwear, and forced her to watch her female boss simulate a sex act with another woman.” Shepard’s company then mounted a vigorous legal defense that critics said amounted to “victim blaming.”
These episodes were used as a cudgel to try and suggest McCaskill’s concern for the welfare of female voters was insincere. As one ad put it, “As victims cry for help, is Claire McCaskill listening?”
That’s what voters learned about the senator’s husband in the last election. But as McCaskill herself implied on David Axelrod’s podcast, there was more to Shepard’s behavior towards women than what had been reported. It turns out that the reasons voters didn’t learn more about the allegations against McCaskill’s spouse provide an illuminating look at the complex realities of reporting in the #MeToo environment. One of those realities is that news judgment is subjective, which raises the specter in these polarized political times of journalistic double standards.
Denise Murnin had been a stay-at-home mom for 20 years when she went to work in late 1997 for Joe Shepard at his St. Louis business, Reliant Healthcare. She was divorced and needed a job. Murnin recalls feeling uncomfortable around the boss. It started with backhanded compliments, she asserted in a lengthy videotaped interview conducted by a GOP-affiliated lawyer. “Denise, you are, you're a nice-looking woman,” he’d say. “You must have really been attractive when you were younger.” Murnin added that Shepard often made sexual remarks around women, but would not make similar comments when men were around.
At one point, she says, he invited her to watch a movie at his house. She says that when she indicated this might not be appropriate for a workplace relationship, his response hardly allayed her concerns: He invited her to bring her teenage daughter along if it would make her feel better.
The most galling moment for her, Murnin related, came one day when was alone with him in his office. Shepard asked her if she knew what a “lap dance” was and then patted his legs and asked her to perform one.
Murnin eventually complained about Shepard’s behavior to the head of human resources. “This is Joe’s company,” she said she was told, “and he can do whatever he wants.” Despite his unwanted advances, Murnin stayed on the job until 2002 before moving on.
But as McCaskill’s reelection race started heating up last year, she became upset with the excuses being made for Shepard after the ads highlighting his past began airing.
“I tell you what prompted me was, it's not just the ad, but the next day or day after, shortly after that ad ran, it was on the ‘CBS Morning News,’ which I watch every morning,” Murnin recalled. “Evidently, Claire McCaskill was on the Stephen Colbert show and she denied that ad, saying that it was false. Now I didn't see [the] Stephen Colbert interview with Claire McCaskill, but I heard it talked about on the morning show the next day. And that is what prompted me — the fact that I knew to be true what this ad was saying. And then [McCaskill] is getting on national TV, on the Stephen Colbert show, and saying that it was a lie.”
Murnin says she went through quite a bit of effort, calling the TV station that aired the ad, to find out who was behind it so she could tell them her own story about Shepard. Eventually, she got through to someone who listened, and the female lawyer affiliated with Republican causes in Missouri eventually talked to Murnin at length and determined she was credible. Not only was she willing to publicly talk about Shepard’s sexually inappropriate treatment of her, she said there were other women who could confirm her allegations that Shepard was grossly inappropriate around female employees.
The lawyer called one of them, Anita Laskaris. In another recorded interview, Laskaris said Shepard had a habit of sexualized banter, some of it quite explicit: One example she cited was his commenting on the “perky breasts” of female employees. She said that when she left the job, she flatly told the human resources head that the company’s owner needed to be reined in.
The lawyer also helped Murnin get in touch with St. Louis TV station KMOV. The station interviewed Murnin extensively and dug into the story. KMOV’s independent investigation of the allegations confirmed that the two women worked for Shepard; both reiterated their claims to KMOV. Laskaris even told the station that Shepard made inappropriate comments to her about her own breasts. The lawyer pushed KMOV to run the story ahead of the election. Instead, she received a voice mail from KMOV producer Steve Perron, saying, “At this point, this doesn’t meet our standards for reporting.” KMOV never ran the story.
A Question of Judgment
In the era of #MeToo, with its “Believe All Women” mantra, it’s surprising this story went unreported. It could have been empowering to women and humbling to men. At least, that’s how Murnin viewed it. “Every time I've seen women come forward in this MeToo movement, it's always been high profile men like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer. And it's kind of my thought, well, what about women who are going through this on a more local level? You never, you never hear about that,” Murnin says in her taped interview. “I thought about what happened to me when I worked for Joe … is happening to women in all walks of life and all kinds of jobs.”
However, while movements such as #MeToo are vehicles for social change, it’s also true that their idealism often steamrolls over the discrepancies and doubts typically encountered while pursuing the truth. While there’s no definitive reason to disbelieve these women, Murnin’s memory isn’t bulletproof. For one thing, the last time Claire McCaskill appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show was 2015. And though McCaskill called the allegations about her husband financially benefiting from her status as a senator “lies” in a September New York Times piece, she never mentioned her husband on Colbert’s show.
Laskaris’ tale is also less straightforward than it might seem. For starters, she concedes that Shepard never made any attempt to touch her and that when she traveled alone with him, he never acted inappropriately toward her. Further, she’s up front about the fact that she left her job with Shepard because he never gave her a promised employee review, and presumably, a pay raise. In her interview, Laskaris also intimates that Murnin may have had similar job frustrations involving recognition and pay.
Murnin freely admits that when she first saw the ads calling out Shepard’s behavior towards his ex-wife, she’d “been uncomfortable with Claire McCaskill as senator for a while.” Add to that the fact that this story was being pushed as part of a Republican opposition research effort operating on a specific timetable to help the party’s electoral prospects. It’s a set of facts that make journalists skittish.
Yet, when Steve Perron at KMOV was asked by RCP why he didn’t run the story on Shepard, he said he’d have to get back to us -- and never did. In the end, with ads already running about Shepard assaulting his cancer-stricken then-wife, voters had a pretty good idea he had some issues. Whether this was a factor or not, McCaskill lost the race. (RCP requested comment from McCaskill for this article but had not received a reply by the time of publication.)
KMOV’s news judgment may have been prudent -- and right. But prudence was hardly the standard practiced in the mainstream media on the biggest political story in the country during the final months of McCaskill’s unsuccessful reelection bid: The confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
In every significant respect, the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, a number of which were outlandish, came from accusers far less credible than Denise Murnin and Anita Laskaris. Yet, the media spotlighted them unreservedly, without anything resembling due diligence. In some cases, journalists actively obscured inconsistencies and ignored obvious ethical conflicts.
Kavanaugh’s primary accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, couldn’t identify the time or place of the assault she alleged or even credibly establish that she’d ever met him. She named four people supposedly at the scene, and every one of them -- including her lifelong female friend and fellow Democrat Leland Keyser (who opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination) -- denied knowing anything about the incident or the party where she said it took place. Her sole outside corroboration was her therapist’s notes from 2012, which said that four boys from “elitist boys’ school” assaulted her. That differs from the version she cited in 2018, which was being assaulted by two boys while another boy and girl were present.
Yet, the initial Washington Post story reported that there were four boys present, a detail that seemed to make Blasey Ford’s story sound more consistent than it was. Kimberly Strassel of The Wall Street Journal later obtained an email showing that before the story ran, Washington Post reporter Emma Brown had Leland Keyser’s name and chose not to mention it, even though the paper published the names of the other alleged witnesses. “That is WaPo admitting that it had the name, and had Ford’s response to what would clearly be a Keyser denial, but NEVER PUT IT OUT THERE,” Strassel observed on Twitter.
When Kavanaugh was subsequently accused of exposing himself to a Yale classmate, the New Yorker ran a detailed story about it. The piece was written by Jane Mayer and her colleague Ronan Farrow, whose groundbreaking work on Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer sexual assault allegations kicked off the #MeToo movement. The woman who made the allegation “was reluctant to characterize Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident with certainty” and agreed to go public only after “six days … of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney.” Only late in the story did we learn that not a single Yale classmate could be found to corroborate her account, which allegedly took place at a party with many others present. The New York Times would later report that it spoke to “dozens” of Yale classmates trying to verify the incident and came up empty. The New Yorker defended the story, saying it was intended to demonstrate a “pattern of behavior,” when it did no such thing.
When contrasted with Denise Murnin’s experience, the willingness of venerable publications such as The Washington Post and the New Yorker to run such threadbare stories with no meaningful corroboration raises the question of partisanship.
And if one is concerned that Murnin’s story was a partisan operation, well, that was much more the case when it came to the assaults on Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation. Millions of dollars were spent on coordinated efforts by outside liberal groups to torpedo his nomination and feed media narratives.
It also appears that there was direct coordination between Democrats and Christine Blasey Ford on how to present her allegations for maximum political impact. Blasey Ford was referred to the lawyer who represented her, Deborah Katz, by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Katz herself is such a party activist she had to hastily cancel a Democratic fundraiser to avoid the appearance of a conflict before taking on Blasey Ford as a client. Lawyer Ricki Seidman, former director of People for the American Way and a veteran of the Clinton White House, was also involved in the effort against Kavanaugh. (Seidman was a critical part of Anita Hill’s claims against Justice Clarence Thomas and, as a Senate aide to Edward Kennedy, involved in the derailment of Robert Bork’s nomination.)
Yet, no one learned about the coordination between Katz and Feinstein until Blasey Ford revealed it under oath. The media certainly didn’t pursue it. The least excusable – and most partisan – behavior by the Fourth Estate was the media’s credulity toward the smarmy (and now-indicted) lawyer Michael Avenatti. He is the Democratic activist who conjured up a troubled client who claimed preposterously that Kavanaugh was a gang-rapist. Feinstein, who must have known that her side was jumping the shark, allowed this slander into the hearing record. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, another Senate Judiciary Democrat who seems to believe that the ends justify the means, repeated a specious claim that Kavanaugh once assaulted someone on a boat in Rhode Island. This turned out to be a straight-on hoax. But it wasn’t unique. When a former classmate of Blasey Ford’s posted a note on Facebook saying that “many of us heard about [Kavanaugh’s assault of Blasey Ford] in school," NBC News and other media sent her accusation far and wide before the classmate acknowledged in an interview with NPR that her accusations were untrue.
In April of this year, as part of a scandal involving Virginia’s top three elected Democrats, it was revealed that the Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax had been accused by a woman he met at the 2004 Democratic convention of forcing her to perform oral sex.
The scandal was broken by Big League Politics, a small conservative website. After the news was public, Fairfax responded by claiming that the sexual encounter in a Boston hotel room was consensual and that the Washington Post had “carefully investigated the claim for several months.”
The paper didn’t publish anything, Fairfax continued, because of a lack of corroborating evidence “and significant red flags and inconsistencies with the allegation.”
This might have been an effective rebuttal, if true. The Post had indeed interviewed Fairfax’s accuser – and decided not to publish. But the editors, possibly embarrassed at being cast in the role of victim-shaming (to use a post #MeToo construct), responded with a story that reiterated the accusation against Fairfax. But it made a point of saying it had not found red flags or inconsistencies.
“The Post, in phone calls to people who knew Fairfax from college, law school and through political circles, found no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against him,” it wrote. “Without that, or the ability to corroborate the woman’s account -- in part because she had not told anyone what happened -- The Post did not run a story.”
As with KMOV in St. Louis, this may have been the judicious call. The Post ended its story with a blind quote from someone who knew Justin Fairfax and her accuser and whose uncertainty reflects the difficulty divining truth in such cases: “It doesn’t sound like anything he would do,” the mutual friend said. “It doesn’t sound like anything she would lie about.”
But again, the problem comes when one compares how the Post handled the Kavanaugh allegations -- where it had no corroboration and no previous complaints of sexual misconduct against the nominee -- but reported the allegations anyway. It simply appears that one of the nation’s most influential newspapers has an explicit -- and explicitly partisan -- double standard.
Unlike Joe Shepard, Brett Kavanaugh had dozens if not hundreds of female friends, colleagues, and acquaintances – many of whom do not share his conservative politics -- willing to publicly testify to his character. He had a spotless reputation. At the same time, the media not only amplified Blasey Ford’s claims, they downplayed or overlooked the many inconsistencies in her story.
If movements such as #MeToo are to have any credibility, the principles at work cannot be manipulated based on who benefits politically. Claire McCaskill herself once thought so; way back in 2006 she ruffled more than a few feathers in the Democratic Party when she told “Meet the Press,” “I have a lot of problems with some of [Bill Clinton’s] personal issues” and “I don’t want my daughter near him.”
McCaskill was more circumspect than many of her colleagues in expressing her opposition to Kavanaugh. She was in a close race and, perhaps mindful that she was vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, she framed her opposition to Kavanaugh as a matter of disagreeing with his First Amendment jurisprudence, which she felt would allow for more special interest money in politics.
Still, it’s ironic that she told David Axelrod that anger over Kavanaugh’s treatment is what cost her reelection.
But if McCaskill felt then, as she does now, that her husband was unfairly treated, she had ample opportunity to take a principled stand and warn the public about how allegations of sexual misconduct are being weaponized for partisan political purposes. Maybe it wouldn’t have saved her political career, but it might have done the country a lot of good if even one Senate Democrat had stood up during the Kavanaugh circus and pointed a finger at her party and the media and said, “This is how bad it’s getting.”
Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.