Media was blinded by the light.
For all the recent talk about facts versus “fake news,” telling the truth, and recapturing the public’s trust in the era of President Trump, some of our most important newsrooms blew it when it mattered most. Worse still, some media organizations demonstrated an immediate willingness to trade this industry’s already badly battered reputation for a political victory.
We are now at the unsuccessful conclusion of a four-week-long effort by certain media organizations to prove Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is a violent sexual predator and a lying alcoholic. The reckless and grossly irresponsible scramble by the New Yorker, NBC News, the New York Times, and others to make Kavanaugh into a monster produced some of the worst journalism of the Trump era to date – and that’s a pretty high bar.
There were plenty of minor fouls, including when the Times assigned a news story on Kavanaugh to a magazine opinion writer who openly opposed his nomination. Others were much greater, including when NBC published an anonymously written letter alleging (with zero corroboration) that Kavanaugh was observed by an anonymous woman in 1998 to have pushed another anonymous woman.
Journalists make mistakes, of course. But had all of the sloppy and often unethical reporting on Kavanaugh been the product of mere negligence or human error, the law of averages suggests that some errors would have been in his favor. None of them were. From great to small, they all tried to prove Kavanaugh unfit to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. It would be hard to blame a viewer or reader who concluded that these newsrooms acted not as the gatekeepers of truth, but as willing agents in the Democratic Party’s 11th-hour effort to destroy the judge’s good name, along with his chances of becoming the swing vote on the Supreme Court.
It began on Sept. 12. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim first reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., possessed a confidential letter alleging an “incident” between Kavanaugh and a woman “while they were in high school.” Soon after the publication of the Intercept report, Feinstein referred the secret letter to the FBI.
Once the story of Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, had been made public, all kinds of far less credible accusers were emboldened to come forward with absurd and fantastic stories. Usually, journalists exercise an amount of caution in such cases. But so eager were certain reporters and editors to create a pattern of behavior for Kavanaugh that all caution was thrown to the wind, writing what is easily one of the worst, most humiliating chapters in modern journalism.
Uncorroborated stories fly
On Sept. 19, NBC published a story that in any other time or place would’ve been quashed by even the laxest editorial standards. “Accuser’s schoolmate says she recalls hearing of alleged Kavanaugh incident,” read the attention-grabbing headline to a story co-authored by reporters Ken Dilanian, Brandy Zadrozny, and Ben Popken. The report was based entirely on a Facebook post written by one Cristina King Miranda. She claimed to have been a schoolmate of Ford.
By the time NBC News published the report, Miranda had already deleted her Facebook post. Miranda had also already admitted to having no first-hand knowledge of the alleged assault. She announced later on social media that she’d give no interviews. She then deleted her tweets. Miranda said later in an interview with National Public Radio that “I have no idea” if Kavanaugh assaulted Ford, adding, “I can’t say that it did or didn’t” happen.
Of course, anyone can say anything online – or claim to be anyone or to know anyone, for that matter. The bar for publication has to be pretty low for such a story to make the news without any follow-up, but this is exactly what happened, and the story stayed atop results pages on Yahoo News for days.
Days later, on Sept. 23, the New Yorker surpassed NBC in terms of having the worst coverage of the Kavanaugh allegation news cycle, publishing what stands out even now as a uniquely irresponsible report. A woman named Deborah Ramirez told the magazine’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer that Kavanaugh once exposed himself during a drinking game when they were both students at Yale.
The reasons to doubt the story were many.
Ramirez said she didn’t feel “confident” it was Kavanaugh who committed the act until after she “assessed” her memories 30-plus years later and talked it over with her attorney. Every person named by Ramirez as being present at the party said that they had no memory of what she alleges. Ramirez’s close friend since college claimed that she had never once mentioned the alleged incident. The only “corroborating” witness provided by the New Yorker is an anonymous source who claimed to have heard about the alleged indecent exposure because “another student told him about the incident either on the night of the party or in the next day or two.” Farrow and Mayer conceded in their own report that they couldn’t confirm whether Kavanaugh was even at the alleged party. Of course they published it anyway, despite having themselves debunked every piece of evidence and every lead toward which Ramirez had pointed them.
As if the lack of corroborating evidence weren’t disturbing enough, Farrow and Mayer later gave conflicting accounts of how their report came to be. Mayer claimed the “story came out” after she and Farrow “reached out to” Ramirez. But Farrow said elsewhere that Ramirez came forward after being approached by Senate Democrats.