This piece by Jack Shafer at Politico today was always inevitable. The only real surprise here is that CNN’s Brian Stelter didn’t write it first. But no matter, you can be sure that this vague and pathetic defense of the media’s credibility will be widely admired and imitated by other “media reporters” and a whole phalanx of column writers who want to defend the honor of journalism even if it makes no sense to do so.
About a month ago, Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer for Joe Biden in the early 1990s, appeared on Katie Halper’s podcast and accused Biden of having sexually assaulted her in 1993. Through a spokesman, Biden has denied the charges. (This isn’t the first time Reade has made Biden news. A year ago, she told a California newspaper that Biden touched her neck and shoulders without permission.) But within days, left, right, and libertarian critics were lining up to ask why the mainstream media was ignoring the accusation. Why weren’t reporters asking Biden directly about Reade’s latest charge? Reporters hadn’t hesitated to chase the sexual assault charges against Brett Kavanaugh after he was nominated to the Supreme Court. Was a double standard dictating that the press must sleuth after accused Republicans but cover up for Democrats?
This next line may be my favorite in the entire piece:
The double-standard theory took a torpedo to the bow on April 12, when the Washington Post and the New York Times published accounts of Reade’s charges. The Associated Press published its own investigation on April 13…It’s an ironclad rule of journalism that it’s exceedingly hard to complain something isn’t getting covered once the Post and Times assign a combined six credited reporters to the story.
Wow, six whole reporters! Notice he doesn’t spell out that it took nearly three weeks for that torpedo to hit the bow. That’s pretty important since that’s exactly what the critics had been complaining about. Where was the urgency the media had shown with Judge Kavanaugh? Shafer has an answer for that: “Journalistically sound cases could be made both to chase the allegation or to slow-walk it, so don’t look to me to damn outlets that haven’t gone full-tilt on it.”
Journalistically sound cases could have been made to slow-walk Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick too, but that didn’t happen. The NY Times jumped on Swetnick’s story the same day and repeated everything she claimed without checking it. Here I have to once again credit Ben Smith who put that point to NY Times executive editor Dean Baquet about why Reade was being treated so differently. Baquet’s repsonse was a confused word salad:
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.
He’s totally reversed the parties here. Julie Swetnick wasn’t a household name either. That’s the point. The Times helped make her one. Meanwhile, Joe Biden is a household name and his nomination is a big deal. But Jack Shafer just skips over all of that even as he admits that the big TV networks do seem strangely allergic to Tara Reade even now.
On Tuesday, the media critics at NewsBusters charted the slim coverage of the Biden charges on CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and PBS. (It should go without saying that Fox News Channel has run hot on the story.) According to NewsBuster’s calculations, ABC, NBC, CNN and MSNBC have all interviewed Biden recently but not one of 77 questions they asked of him between March 25 and April 27 has been about Reade’s charges. There can be no finessing around this line score: The broadcasters deferred to Biden.
But Shafer has an answer for that too and, wow, is it pathetic. It’s so pathetic that he apologizes for it as soon as he offers it:
I might be tempted to second NewsBuster’s view that the fix is in for Biden at “liberal” TV news networks if not for Jake Tapper’s interview one year ago on his Sunday show, CNN’s State of the Union, where he interviewed former Nevada state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores for 12 minutes about Biden inappropriately touching her and kissing the back of her head in 2014. (Here’s the video of the interview, which CNN titled “First TV interview with Lucy Flores on Biden accusation.”) I’m not suggesting that one interview from a year ago should give the mainstream press a permanent pass from all Biden criticism, but it does argue against the notion that the press has formed a phalanx in front of the candidate.
I want to ridicule this but I think it may be beyond ridicule. The best I can do is to restate his argument, which goes like this: The fact that one reporter at one network interviewed a different person about a less serious allegation 13 months ago, shows the media is okay. Up next, the world’s biggest straw man argument:
On Tuesday, Atlantic contributor Peter Beinart called on Biden to release his senatorial papers, now being held at the University of Delaware, to help sort out Reade’s claims. (She says a sexual harassment claim she filed against Biden in 1993 might be in his papers. She did not keep a copy for herself.) The Atlantic’s status as one of the glittery jewels in the liberal media crown cannot be denied. If the libs were so determined to silence this story, wouldn’t Beinart’s editors have broken his typing fingers?
For a guy who does this for a living and gets paid for it, Shafer doesn’t seem to know much about conservative media criticism. And make no mistake, that’s what he really cares about here. That’s why he’s creating this stupid strawman argument about “libs” breaking someone’s fingers as if conservatives imagine that’s how this works. And for the record, this isn’t the only time Beinart has written something for the Atlantic which cut against the progressive groupthink. Again, pointing out one author or one person at CNN who maybe shows some willingness to break from the herd does not prove all is well.
The press might not have reacted as swiftly or as aggressively as some would have liked in reporting out a 27-year-old allegation it first learned about from a March 25 podcast. We can—and should—criticize broadcasters for not putting the question directly to Biden. But as coverage from the Post, Times, Business Insider, the Intercept, and others show, neither did the press avert its glance. Over the past week, the press has accelerated its pace from a cruise to a sprint, which is a good thing. If you’re keeping score at home, ding the broadcasters for their meekness at confronting Biden but award a gold star to print and digital outlets that have reported the story out giving the accuser her say without giving Biden a dose of vigilante justice.
Business Insider and the Intercept have carried this story when no one else wanted to touch it. Lumping them in with the slow-walkers at the NY Times is an insult. If you’re keeping score at home the score that matters is the hundreds of reporters who generated saturation coverage of the Kavanaugh allegations versus the handful of timid stories we’ve seen about Joe Biden so far. And yes, the fact that most networks haven’t touched this and Biden himself hasn’t been asked proves the same point: The media and the activists and women’s groups are all treating this allegation very, very differently.