Twitter sage and satirist Iowahawk once summed up the widely shared frustration with the media by noting, “Journalism is about covering important stories. With a pillow, until they stop moving.”
Apparently, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet doesn’t get the joke. Over Easter weekend, and four days after Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary, the New York Times finally published a story on the sexual assault allegations against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
The allegations have been all over the Internet since March 25. Tara Reade, who worked for Biden when he was a senator, alleges that in 1993 Biden pushed her up against a wall and digitally penetrated her without her consent, while telling her, “Come on man, I thought you liked me.”
To address the growing criticism that the Times sat on the story for political reasons, the Times also published an interview with Baquet under the headline: “The Times Took 19 Days to Report an Accusation Against Biden. Here’s Why.” The headline promised an explanation, but the only thing the story delivered was humiliation for Baquet and his newspaper.
The Times’ recently hired media critic, former BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith, asked Baquet some obvious questions about the paper’s coverage, including why the paper never hesitated to report on the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Here’s Baquet’s answer to that question in full:
"Kavanaugh was already in a public forum in a large way. Kavanaugh’s status as a Supreme Court justice was in question because of a very serious allegation. And when I say in a public way, I don’t mean in the public way of Tara Reade’s. If you ask the average person in America, they didn’t know about the Tara Reade case. So I thought in that case, if The New York Times was going to introduce this to readers, we needed to introduce it with some reporting and perspective. Kavanaugh was in a very different situation. It was a live, ongoing story that had become the biggest political story in the country. It was just a different news judgment moment."
The executive editor of the of the New York Times is actually arguing that Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination meant he was already subject to scrutiny, but Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is not a “public forum in a large way.” This is absurd.
His further equivocating didn’t help. Baquet stated that “Kavanaugh’s status as a Supreme Court justice was in question because of a very serious allegation.” But what constitutes a serious allegation when it comes to sexual assault? By almost any standard, Reade’s accusations against Biden are far more “serious,” not to mention more credible, than the accusations brought against Kavanaugh just a year and a half ago. For instance, no one disputes that Reade worked for Biden and had some contact with him. To this day, no one has presented any outside evidence Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, ever even met.
The four witnesses Blasey Ford named as being present at the party where Kavanaugh allegedly tried to assault her all refused to corroborate her story. Yet, The Washington Post, lacking any corroboration, rushed to print with Blasey Ford’s accusations, touching off a national firestorm.
The Times, at Baquet’s direction, quickly joined the frenzy. In the interview on the Biden accusations, Ben Smith specifically asked Baquet to justify the Times’ treatment of Kavanaugh. To his credit, Smith noted that the Times also regurgitated additional -- and truly absurd -- claims that as a young man Kavanaugh had regularly participated in suburban gang rape parties.
These lurid tales were spun by Julie Swetnick, who has history of being party to dubious lawsuits, and her now-disbarred lawyer Michael Avenatti, who at the time had been accused of numerous instances of fraud and has since been convicted of extortion. Yet, the Times reported the Swetnick allegations the same day they were made, even though their report noted “none of Ms. Swetnick’s claims could be independently corroborated.”
Baquet is probably correct when he asserted, “If you ask the average person in America, they didn’t know about the Tara Reade case.” But why is that? Although her allegations were aired extensively by conservative media and among the Bernie Sanders-supporting left, for weeks there was a near total blackout of the story by the legacy media, including the Times.
As the Washington Free Beacon recently noted, “Joe Biden has been asked 81 questions in over two hours' worth of media interviews since a former staffer in his U.S. Senate office accused him of sexual assault three weeks ago. He hasn't fielded a single question about the allegation.” If the average person doesn’t know about Reade’s allegations, it’s because gatekeepers such as Dean Baquet chose not to inform them.
The most cynical take on all of this is that Baquet and his elite media peers are loath to report anything that would damage the chances of the Democratic establishment in the next presidential election. Yet, Baquet did nothing to reassure readers that his paper wasn’t putting his thumb on the electoral scale.
Instead of holding their fire during the last few critical weeks of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, one wonders what the Democratic primary would look like right now if the Times had pursued the Biden allegations with the same zeal reserved for Kavanaugh. While the Times’ hostility to conservatives is well-known, by helping Biden the paper managed to anger the left wing of the Democratic Party – a faction that is growing in influence and could be uniquely damaging to the paper’s credibility. On Tuesday, progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said it’s “legitimate to talk about” the allegations against Biden.
Most appalling, Baquet also admitted that the Times edited its story on Reade’s allegations at the behest of the Biden campaign. The original version noted in passing that there had been several previous complaints against the famously touchy-feely Biden: “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.”
Even this was too much for the Biden camp, which complained to the paper. Baquet admitted that the story was changed along the lines dictated by Biden’s campaign: The second half of the sentence was deleted. “The campaign thought that the phrasing was awkward and made it look like there were other instances in which he had been accused of sexual misconduct.” To date, no correction or note has been added to the story to show it was edited after the fact. A reader is left to wonder how many other changes to stories the paper is making at the behest of its preferred politicians.
Elsewhere in the interview, Baquet was asked if he believes that the Times “hewed to its standards both on Kavanaugh and on Biden.” He answered flatly, “I do.” Baquet was also asked if he was “reluctant to promote a story that would hurt Joe Biden and get Donald Trump re-elected.” On this question he demurred saying, “I can’t make that calculation. I won’t. I won’t let my head or my heart go there.”
Baquet’s responses suggest he thinks some admixture of delusion and dissembling is the way to protect his paper’s reputation. However, the allegations against Biden, while more credible than the accusations against Kavanaugh, are still far from being definitively proven. The paper is justified in covering them sensitively – and this would have been a perfect occasion for Baquet to at least tacitly admit the Kavanaugh coverage was flawed and they were treating Biden differently because they had learned from past excesses and mistakes.
Given that the questions Ben Smith asked his boss were direct and tough, Smith at least deserves kudos for realizing that honestly confronting the paper’s serious errors in judgment was the right way for the paper to restore credibility when confronted with such a brazen double standard. But if Smith led Baquet to water, the Times’ executive editor steadfastly refused to drink.