The recent fiasco at The New York Times, which last weekend published the latest uncorroborated sexual-assault accusation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was a monument to hearsay and a travesty of journalistic ethics.
The story, since modified to include crucial information, was an adapted excerpt from a book — “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” written by two Times’ staff writers, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. In it, the authors reported allegations by a Yale classmate that Kavanaugh was at a “drunken dorm party” where “friends pushed his penis into the hand of a female student.”
Setting aside the logistics of such a feat, more eye-popping was the omission from the original Times’ piece that the alleged victim refused to be interviewed for the book — and, according to friends, doesn’t remember any such incident.
Such an oversight is inexcusable.
The Times added these details to the story after they were flagged by The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who had an advance copy of the book. The Times’ writers, who said that the details had been in the excerpt’s initial draft, made media rounds Monday and Tuesday to explain the omission and essentially blamed editors, who, they said, “in the haste” of trying to close out production, had deleted the reference.
The facts that the alleged victim refused to be interviewed by the authors and apparently told friends that she doesn’t recall any such incident amount to the very definition of a non-story. For the record, The Washington Post learned of the accusation last year but declined to publish it because the alleged witnesses weren’t identified and the woman said to be involved refused to comment.
Indeed, the authors’ only sources for the claim were two unnamed officials who spoke to Washington attorney Max Stier, who last year apparently told the FBI and various senators that he witnessed the alleged incident. But Stier refused to talk to the Times’ writers himself.
Some Democratic contenders for the presidency immediately called for Kavanaugh’s impeachment. They include Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
But let’s rewind the reel a bit. With apologies to my grandmothers, the reason The Times’ writers likely included the penis-in-hand accusation at all is because it added context to the accusations by both Deborah Ramirez, who alleged last year that she experienced sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh at another boozy Yale party, and Christine Blasey Ford.
Ramirez, for her part, initially wasn’t quite sure of events. She has admitted to time lapses and also to having been drunk, but told The New Yorker and the Times writers that she remembers brushing away a penis thrust in her face, allegedly by Kavanaugh.
If these stories are true, then Kavanaugh could have been a creepy, perhaps monstrous, drunk in his youth. But all we have to go by is alleged victims who also were drinking at the time and comments from former classmates, who may also have been inebriated, some of whom corroborate the Ramirez accusation and others who dispute it. The Times’ writers reported finding seven people who they say corroborated Ramirez’s story, but much of what they documented were second- and third-hand reports, things overheard and, yes, Ramirez’s mother, to whom she apparently said “Something happened at Yale.”
Not exactly a wrap for justice.
The truth is, Kavanaugh has been the target of a media siege since his name was announced for consideration for the high court. Ramirez’s story was first reported by The New Yorker just days before Ford’s congressional testimony, which, frankly, was flimsy at best. None of the other four people Ford named as attending the high school party where she claimed Kavanaugh groped her recalled any such gathering. One of them, a close friend and the only other female, Leland Keyser, not only doesn’t remember the party — but says she’s never even met Kavanaugh.
What’s all too clear is that America’s privileged youth had a serious drinking problem in the early 1980s; and boozy memories from high school and young adulthood are unreliable. Far more troubling is that several presidential candidates seemingly would impeach a Supreme Court justice on nothing more than hearsay — and impeachable journalism.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.