Washington Post columnist on Biden allegations: 'sometimes we’re left with coming to our own conclusions'

I don’t know if Tara Reade is telling the truth about an alleged assault by Joe Biden. I’m fine with the nuance that exists between ‘He definitely did it’ and ‘She made it up.’ But what I do know for a certainty is that the media’s handling of this, with cues from celebrity #MeToo activists, has been an absolute train wreck of hypocrisy and motivated reasoning. Major papers have published piece after piece after piece about how this allegation is different from the one leveled at Judge Kavanaugh and all of them have been really awful and embarrassing.

Today’s example from this ongoing mini-genre is almost an exception but not quite. Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse has written a nuanced piece about the fact that, ultimately, journalists can’t provide easy answers to questions in some of these he said, she said situations. The uncomfortable truth is that sometimes we’ll never know the truth:

The profession has limitations, memory has limitations, people have limitations.

I know all of this, and yet, even as I read the account I found myself thinking the same things I thought during Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s hearings or while reading accounts of a molestation accusation against Woody Allen or with any number of other accusations regarding long-ago events: Solve this. Show us the smoking gun, or the indisputable security-camera footage, or the telltale lie. Produce an old roommate, an old diary. Eliminate all doubt, so we don’t have to live with it.

Most sexual assaults don’t have eyewitnesses. Many don’t have DNA evidence. We all have gut feelings, personal experiences, perhaps a passing knowledge of statistics. So when an event is a chasm, what do people use to fill it?

Hesse answers her own question by pointing to comments she’s seen on stories about the controversy from both the left and right side of the aisle. What she sees is that many people fill in the blanks with their own preconceived ideas about which side is right and which side is wrong. She concludes, “I’m very sorry, but sometimes we’re left with coming to our own conclusions, based on our own imperfections. Someone else has done all the homework and it’s still a godawful mess.”

What help’s Hesse’s argument is that she also introduced some nuance when writing about Judge Kavanaugh back in 2018. Here she is touching on some of the same themes:

Are you willing to believe one woman if it means explicitly, definitively not believing one man? How many women’s testimonies are worth one man’s protestations? In the long list of vastly important issues facing America today, where do you place, “believing women”? Is it above or below, say, “climate change” or “upholding Citizens United”?

These aren’t meant to be leading or accusatory questions. They’re not even really about Brett Kavanaugh. They’re about what it means to develop your personal moral code when cases are deeply messy, as these types of cases often are. These questions are about forcing yourself, honestly, to imagine what standards you would be applying if the accused was from a different political party. Or if the accuser was. Or if the timing was of the accusation was different. Or, or, or.

When she returned to the Kavanaugh case last year she sounded a lot less nuanced:

It’s important to remember that Kavanaugh’s defense all along was never, “I was young and dumb and drunk.” His defense was “It never happened. Everyone else is lying.”

His defense was about black and white, but we all could have had a lot to discuss in the gray of it; we could have waded into some truly thorny conversations. His defense, as it turned out, worked well for him. But it knee-capped the rest of us.

I would have liked for Kavanaugh to inspire a national conversation about young people and alcohol, about young people and toxic pack mentality, about young people and the alcohol-infused toxic pack mentality that might cause a blackout-drunk Yale undergrad to, say, thrust his genitals into the face of a mortified classmate as friends around him laughed.

She doesn’t seem to be taking a “we can’t really know” approach to the allegation against Kavanaugh at this point. Hesse has also previously written about Biden as someone who almost gets why his treatment of women has been worrisome but not quite. Her reasoning in that case sounded somewhat different:

When confronted earlier this month by women who said his physical contact had made them uncomfortable — shoulder rubs, hugging — Biden issued a video apology. “Social norms are changing,” he said in a statement positioning him as a well-meaning grandpa trapped in an eddy of cultural upheaval. And then the next day he told a group of reporters that he was “not sorry for anything that I have ever done.”

It’s almost impossible to know how to deal with a candidate who almost gets it, but not quite. A different kind of candidate, who not just misses the point but willfully ignores it, is so much easier to dismiss. With a candidate like Biden, though, who has made serious efforts on issues of sexual assault and gender equality — there are conversations to be had, about babies and bathwater, about allowing for human foibles in the middle of systemic progress.

When you’re talking about “babies and bathwater” that isn’t an estimation of the truth of something, it’s an estimation of the net outcomes of deciding to throw something out…or not. The something in this case is Joe Biden. So it’s not a perfect record of consistency but it’s better than some of the other pieces I’ve written about recently.

But just as Hesse wishes Kavanaugh had opened up more about teen drinking and wishes Biden had opened up more about his past behavior toward women, I find myself wishing Hesse would open up about the way the media is twisting itself in knots right now. You don’t have to know who is telling the truth in each case to know that Dean Baquet’s explanation for why the Times took 19 days to report Reade’s story but reported Julie Swetnick’s story immediately is complete hogwash. Even beyond the media there are some pretty clear double standards in play here.

Perfect knowledge of the truth of these allegations is impossible, but equal treatment of the accusers by the media and the culture really shouldn’t be.