NYT reporters: Kavanaugh was willing to talk to us -- but wanted us to lie and say we never spoke to him

NYT reporters: Kavanaugh was willing to talk to us -- but wanted us to lie and say we never spoke to him

How can we begin to assess the truth of this claim after the fiasco of the past week? No one who’s followed the fallout from the Times’s hit piece on Kavanaugh even casually can possibly trust these two to give them the full truth.

They say they reached out to Kavanaugh and his representative for an interview while writing their book and found him willing. Naturally he’d want to seize an opportunity to get his side of the story into an investigation into his past that was likely to make news. But his spokesman supposedly said that he wanted to do it off the record, no doubt figuring that going on the record would turn out to be a major publicity coup for the book and its authors. Imagine if he let himself quoted by name — “KAVANAUGH SPEAKS ABOUT HIS PAST,” with all the hype that would entail — and the resulting book turned out to be a hatchet job.

So he didn’t want to help them promote the book by going on the record but he was willing to talk to them “on background.” That’s … a basic, basic practice in journalism, the opposite of newsworthy. But, go figure, this time it did make news:

“Asked them to lie”? Here’s what HuffPo says:

New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly said that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed to let them interview him for their upcoming book ― as long as they would publicly lie about it.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday, Kelly and Pogrebin said that Kavanaugh told them he would talk to the reporters to provide them with background information as long as they falsely noted in the book that he declined to be interviewed.

A representative for Kavanaugh told The Hill’s chief Washington correspondent Saagar Enjeti that they asked the Times reporters to include a line saying that “Kavanaugh declined to comment” if the justice agreed to talk with them about the book.

I ask this in earnest: How is a situation like this normally handled by reporters? If you have a source that’s willing to speak but only off the record, you’re lying to readers at least *implicitly* by using their information in the story without acknowledging them as a source. For instance, if you’re working on a story about the White House and Trump offers to set you straight “on background” about what’s happening, and then you attribute what he tells you to “a source familiar with Trump’s thinking,” you’re encouraging the reader to believe, falsely, that someone other than the president gave you the information. It’s not a direct lie but it’s misleading.

The difference in this case according to Pogrebin and Kelly is that Kavanaugh (per his rep) wanted them to lie *explicitly,* by including a line claiming that he declined to comment. That would have been false: He declined to comment on the record but he didn’t decline to comment. I suppose they could have written “Kavanaugh declined to comment on the record” but the last part would have been a strong clue to readers that Kavanaugh did comment on background. His fingerprints still would have been on the book. He wanted them off completely and wanted the authors to lie to make it happen. They wouldn’t do it because they care about ethics ‘n stuff, as we’ve seen repeatedly this past week.

Conn Carroll is Mike Lee’s press secretary. Here’s his take on it:


Question, then. In the scenario above, in which Trump talks to a reporter on background, how should the reporter address his refusal to comment on the record? If they write “The president didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment,” that’s the same sort of out-and-out lie that Pogrebin and Kelly claim Kavanaugh wanted. He did respond to requests for comment, after all. Should the reporter instead omit any reference in the story to contacting Trump for comment? That would avoid an outright lie, but it’s good journalistic practice to note that you sought comment from the subject of a story even if the subject declines to say anything. It’d be weird to write a story about Trump, in which Trump commented on background, and include not a single word either way about whether the president was contacted about it.

I don’t know what the answer is but I also don’t know why anyone would trust Kelly and Pogrebin to give the warts-and-all truth about what was said between them and Kavanaugh at this stage. In fact, Jeryl Bier asks a good question: Since their book is all about the credibility of the major players in the Kavanaugh saga, beginning with the justice himself, why didn’t they include the fact that he allegedly wanted them to lie about whether he was a source? That would have been useful to readers to know. Instead they subject seems to have come up only in interviews. Why?

Here they are this morning being pressed on this subject.

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