Tuesday, September 18, 2018


Brett Kavanaugh
The bombshell accusations in The Washington Post by a California professor that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her say as much about media coverage of the issue as they do about the current state of victims' rights and efforts to counter such incidents.

Once again the press has brought a troubling accusation to light, and we have seen it halt the government process in its tracks so that the information can be properly reviewed. This is just the latest way that investigative journalism has raised the issue and may well help to bring justice.

Since The New York Times first broke the story of Harvey Weinstein's many alleged assaults and harassment attempts on women a year ago, the news media has been front and center exposing such incidents ranging from Charlie Rose -- whom the Post earlier exposed and who lost his job -- to Al Franken, who resigned reluctantly from the U.S. Senate after CNN broke the story of his alleged groping of a fellow comic.

Not to mention Ronan Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, whose personal life has been touched by sexual abuse claims from his step-sister, Dylan, who has accused Allen of molesting her. A claim he denies. To add to that issue, Allen's wife, Soon Yi-Previn (the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow) went public in an interview with New York this week to defend Allen.

To make matters even more complicated, the writer of the New York piece, Daphne Merkin, has drawn criticism for revealing in the story that she is a longtime friend of Allen, sparking some to say she has a conflict of interest.

Ronan Farrow, reporting for The New Yorker, and the Times shared the most recent Public Service Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Weinstein story, while Farrow more recently also gained praise last month for uncovering claims by at least six women against former CBS Chairman Les Moonves, which led to his ouster.

This latest Kavanaugh coverage by the Post, which posted the story Sunday night of  Christine Blasey Ford -- who claims Kavanaugh pinned her down, covered her mouth and groped her when the two were in high school -- may be the most impactful of all. It has delayed the confirmation vote for the would-be justice, and may well derail his nomination.

This is oddly familiar territory as it recalls the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, who was accused by former colleague Anita Hill of inappropriate and sexually harassing comments and actions. In that case, the Senate Judiciary Committee reconvened to hear testimony from both Thomas and Hill. In the end, he was confirmed by a 52-48 vote in the Senate.

In that case as well, it was an inquiring reporter who brought the accusations to light. NPR's Nina Totenberg, now one of the public radio outlet's top journalists, aired the first story on the accusations and an interview with Hill that revealed for the first time what was alleged.

Hear her original report below:

In 2016, Totenberg recounted how the coverage affected her, noting she was facing a contempt charge when she refused to testify before the Senate committee and ended up burning her notes.

What followed was a messy battle between Thomas's supporters and Republican backers and Hill and Democrats who wanted the nomination stopped. It also included dramatic testimony that kept millions riveted to their televisions during the renewed hearings.

But perhaps as impactful was the effect it had on women's rights and the ability of victims to counter sexual harassment and other abusive acts against them, which in many ways gave the first signs of empowerment for women making the most recent claims.

Still, the claims by Ford at such a sensitive and angry time in politics will likely mean a heightened battle with critics attacking her and others wondering what to believe when the committee reconvenes on Monday. The Wall Street Journal weighed in today with an editorial that all but dismissed her claims.

"This is simply too distant and uncorroborated a story to warrant a new hearing or to delay a vote," the Journal editorial page stated. "We’ve heard from all three principals, and there are no other witnesses to call. Democrats will use Monday’s hearing as a political spectacle to coax Mr. Kavanaugh into looking defensive or angry, and to portray Republicans as anti-women. Odds are it will be a circus."

Yes, a three-ring battle. 

But in all of these cases, and perhaps more to come, it is reporters who are bringing the issue to light. They have been the ones following the leads and convincing the victims to come forward so that justice can hopefully be done. In the case of Ford, she wrote letters to at least two members of congress last summer with concerns about Kavanaugh. She wanted to remain anonymous, and did until word of her letters leaked.

She had also reached out to the Post in July with her allegations, but declined to go public until this week, the newspaper reported in its story, stating:

She contacted The Post through a tip line in early July, when it had become clear that Kavanaugh was on the shortlist of possible nominees to replace retiring justice Anthony M. Kennedy but before Trump announced his name publicly. A registered Democrat who has made small contributions to political organizations, she contacted her congresswoman, Democrat Anna G. Eshoo, around the same time. In late July, she sent a letter via Eshoo’s office to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

In the letter, which was read to The Post, Ford described the incident and said she expected her story to be kept confidential. She signed the letter as Christine Blasey, the name she uses professionally. 

Though Ford had contacted The Post, she declined to speak on the record for weeks as she grappled with concerns about what going public would mean for her and her family — and what she said was her duty as a citizen to tell the story.

She engaged Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer known for her work on sexual harassment cases. On the advice of Katz, who said she believed Ford would be attacked as a liar if she came forward, Ford took a polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent in early August. The results, which Katz provided to The Post, concluded that Ford was being truthful when she said a statement summarizing her allegations was accurate.

Quite a bit of journalism. But the kind of reporting that is crucial when these issues are at stake, both for the news outlets involved and the suspects and victims. 

And that is why more than ever news outlets need to be careful as they continue covering this story, others that have come along and still more that will probably continue to come up.

A 2017 report from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University warned that coverage of this issue at this time is crucial: "Figuring out how to talk about rape and sexual assault is one of the biggest challenges a journalist can face. The lack of proof that accompanies the crime is only one difficulty of covering an issue that is intimate, intense, and emotional for victims. The shame and stigma they feel can make it difficult for reporters to build trust with sources, to properly report on the severity of crimes without being gratuitous, and even to choose the very words they use to avoid injecting bias into the story."

The report also quoted Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, as saying, “This is one of the most pervasive forms of violence in our society, and yet it is one that has been historically silenced and carries the greatest stigma for victims ... As reporters, we are confronted not only with the suffering of the survivor, but also our own prejudices and preconceptions, fears, past experiences, and ethical conflicts.”

Most news outlets have been pretty responsible in their reporting, with numerous sources and background checks in many cases. With more and more eyes on the issue, and the press, that must not change.

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