Dean Baquet: Why the Times treated the Tara Reade allegation differently than claims about Kavanaugh

Writing for the NY Times, Ben Smith (formerly of Buzzfeed) has a piece out today headlined “The Times Took 19 Days to Report an Accusation Against Biden. Here’s Why.” The piece is an interview with executive editor Dean Baquet in which he attempts to answer that question. I’ll be honest, I was expecting the worst from this. It’s the NY Times explaining itself to the NY Times. Maybe some readers will find Baquet’s explanations convincing but to me it sounds like he’s doing his best to skirt the issue of political bias and doing a really bad job.

So why did the Times sit on this when the allegation was made? The way Baquet explains that decision is revealing. First, he says he wanted the Times to be able to “help people figure out what to make of it.” What does that mean exactly? As he explains in subsequent answers, it means he wasn’t sure the Times would publish anything at all and making that decision would depend on whether reporters found Reade credible:

You have people on Twitter asking, “Where’s The New York Times?” and a narrative developing that The Times’s decision not to cover it represents a political stance. And you and your team are silent through that. You don’t think to say, “Hey, we’re working on it”?

So this is a tricky question. You wish you could say to the world, “Hey, we’re working on this.” But you don’t actually know what you’re going to end up writing. Let’s say for some reason we found out something that made us not want to write a story. Then what do we say to readers? “We looked at this hard and we found a reason. We found out something that made us not want to write. But we’re not going to tell you about it.” So it felt to me like that wasn’t quite the right alternative either…

Does the ultimate decision to publish mean that there’s at least some credibility to her allegation?

It means that there is enough about her case and her allegation to present to readers for them to make their own judgment.

Working backwards, Baquet seems to be admitting the Times didn’t report the story initially because they weren’t sure she was credible. That’s an interesting approach in the era of #MeToo when the standard has usually been shortened to something like: Believe all women. In any case, if that’s how the NY Times approaches sexual assault allegations, why did it quickly publish claims about Judge Kavanaugh which no one could confirm?

I’ve been looking at The Times’s coverage of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. I want to focus particularly on the Julie Swetnick allegations. She was the one who was represented by Michael Avenatti and who suggested that Kavanaugh had been involved in frat house rapes, and then appeared to walk back elements of her allegations. The Times wrote that story the same day she made the allegation, noting that “none of Ms. Swetnick’s claims could be independently corroborated.”

Why was Kavanaugh treated differently?

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.

Notice he says Kavanaugh was in the public eye, then switches to Tara Reade, the Biden accuser, and says she’s an unknown. But Julie Swetnick was also an unknown. The point is that Joe Biden, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, is very much a person in the public eye, just like Kavanaugh was. So this answer makes no sense. A bit later Baquet added:

Kavanaugh was a running, hot story. I don’t think it’s that the ethical standards were different. I think the news judgments had to be made from a different perspective in a running hot story.

Either you have a standard for publishing these allegations or you don’t. Baquet first suggests there is a standard involving credibility but since the Times clearly didn’t apply any such standard to allegations against Judge Kavanaugh, he has to change his tune.

It’s worth clicking on that link a re-reading the Times’ story on Swetnick. Paragraph four reads, “None of Ms. Swetnick’s claims could be independently corroborated by The New York Times, and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, declined to make her available for an interview.” In other words, their approach at the time was to hell with standards and full speed ahead.

Smith also pointed out that Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation against Kavanaugh was not backed by any contemporaneous witness, making it arguably less credible than Tara Reade’s allegation against Biden. So why did the Times publish Ford’s claims but slow-walk a story on Reade? Baquet’s reply is a retreat into vaguery, “I don’t mean to imply that the notion that the person told someone contemporaneously is the ultimate test. It’s not. There are a lot of tests.” He added, “There’s no magic formula.”

No formula except the obvious one: Biden is a Democrat. Kavanaugh was nominated by a Republican. The reason Kavanaugh was such a “running, hot story” is that the left was in full freak-out mode trying to stop his nomination. Would the Times have responded as aggressively to a “hot” story of interest to the right?

There’s one more tidbit in this story. Baquet reveals the awkward line about Biden’s history of touching and kissing women was removed at the request of the Biden campaign. “I think that 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,” Baquet said. Baquet said he didn’t offer a note about the change because it wasn’t a “factual error.”

That’s revealing, but not as revealing as Baquet’s lame attempt to explain why standards were dramatically different for Judge Kavanaugh. I think this interview probably did the Times’s reputation more harm than good. There don’t appear to be any comments allowed on the story so it’s impossible to tell how readers are reacting.

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John Stossel 5:30 PM | July 13, 2024