Between an offensive tweet and a significant revision, The New York Times’ handling of a new sexual misconduct allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has attracted more attention as the accusation itself.
The backfiring bombshell has reporters and editors at the newspaper blaming each other — and facing down demands for resignations from President Donald Trump and others.
The story gave Trump and his allies fresh ammunition in his campaign against the liberal media, where The Times was already a favorite target.
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The revelation that led several Democratic presidential contenders to call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment came in a story labeled “news analysis” that ran in the Sunday opinion section. The story is based on an upcoming book by Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation.
Headlined “Brett Kavanaugh Fit In With the Privileged Kids. She Did Not,” the story was primarily about Deborah Ramirez, a Connecticut woman who alleged that Kavanaugh, as a freshman at Yale in 1983, had pulled down his pants in front of her.
Like all the accusations against Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court Justice has vigorously denied those claims. At least one of the named eyewitnesses also said they have no memory of the alleged event.
The authors also claimed they’d uncovered a similar story involving Kavanaugh at another freshman-year party, where he allegedly exposed himself and friends pushed his genitals into the hands of a female student.
The story said Max Stier, a lawyer with deep connections to the Democratic Party and former President Bill Clinton, reported the incident to the FBI and senators as Kavanaugh’s nomination was being discussed.
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However, Stier refused to discuss it with the authors. Kavanaugh would also not comment on the story, a court spokeswoman said Monday.
Then, The Times revised the story to add that the woman supposedly involved in the incident declined to be interviewed, and that her friends say she doesn’t recall the incident. Further, reports say the woman in question has privately denied any memory of the incident.
The editor’s note failed to explain why those key facts had been left out in the first place. It has led to a public blame game.
The authors of the column told MSNBC star Lawrence O’Donnell on Monday that their editors took out the key facts after the story was written.
“In your draft of the article, did it include those words that have since been added to the article?” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell asked.
“It did,” both Pogrebin and Kelly responded.
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“So somewhere in the editing process, those words were trimmed,” O’Donnell said.
Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly claim that the qualifier about the other alleged Kavanaugh accuser not remembering an incident at Yale was included in the initial NYT draft but removed. pic.twitter.com/p9wUTnFyM1
— Chuck Ross (@ChuckRossDC) September 17, 2019
The Times’ deputy editorial page editor, James Dao, posted answers to readers’ question on the newspaper’s website Monday evening but did not address this issue.
The failure to initially report that the woman did not remember the alleged incident “is one of the worst cases of journalistic malpractice in recent memory,” John McCormack wrote in the conservative magazine National Review.
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The Washington Post, detailing its own decision on the story, called into question The Times’ decision to run with the accusation in the first place.
The Post said that last year it had independently confirmed that lawmakers and authorities knew of the second accusation against Kavanaugh, but did not write about it because the woman involved would not comment and the alleged witnesses were not identified.
Placement of the accusation in the midst of an opinion-section piece struck many in the journalism community as odd.
In a statement, The Times said the opinion section frequently runs excerpts of books produced by the newspaper’s reporters.
Still, this doesn’t explain why the new accusations weren’t pointed out to editors and given more prominence in news pages. Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor, suggested bureaucratic inertia might partly explain it – since it had been determined that the piece would run in the opinion section, no one stepped forward to question that.
“There have been a number of decisions on this that strike me as dubious,” Gitlin said in an interview.
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Dao said opinion section pieces have made news in the past, citing a Maureen Dowd interview with actress Uma Thurman with accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. He noted that The Times’ news section did write about it — after reactions came in from Democratic presidential candidates, who all called for Kavanaugh’s resignation.
Trump, not unexpectedly, was harsh in his assessment. He said his Supreme Court appointee was “the one who is actually being assaulted … by lies and fake news.” The White House also distributed a copy of a New York Post editorial headlined “The latest Times hit on Brett Kavanaugh is a clear miss.”
“How many stories are wrong? Almost all of the stories the New York Times has done are inaccurate and wrong,” Trump wrote in a tweet Monday.
Trump said Kavanaugh should start suing people for libel or the Justice Department should come to his rescue. Yet Roy Gutterman, a journalism professor at Syracuse University and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, said a libel case would be tough.
“Given the developing nature of the allegations and the sourcing of the story, coupled with the correction, it still does not appear to rise to anything that would be actionable under libel law,” Gutterman said.
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The Times also apologized for an offensive tweet sent out by the opinion section advertising its initial story.
The tweet said: “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun. But when Brett Kavanaugh did it to her, Deborah Ramirez says, it confirmed that she didn’t belong at Yale University in the first place.”
The Times deleted the tweet and said it was “clearly inappropriate and offensive” and was looking into how it was sent.
2018 FLASHBACK: New York Times admits Kavanaugh error
The Associated Press contributed to this article