On Sunday, the New York Times walked back and significantly revised the latest incendiary allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but the unusual correction to a central part of its bombshell story seemed to mean little to the field of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.
Sen. Kamala Harris had “pinned” her weekend reaction to the story — a call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment — to the top of her Twitter page, the social media equivalent of running a banner headline about a position on a high-priority issue.
“I sat through those hearings,” Harris tweeted. “Brett Kavanaugh lied to the U.S. Senate and most importantly to the American people. He was put on the Court through a sham process and his place on the Court is an insult to the pursuit of truth and justice. He must be impeached.”
Harris’ Tweet was still there by Monday night, without qualification, despite a fierce bipartisan backlash against the Times’ initial reporting of the uncorroborated sexual misconduct allegation, and the Gray Lady’s clumsy efforts to correct its original reporting about it.
The controversy began Saturday when the Times ran a “news analysis” piece by Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, adapted from their forthcoming book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh.”
The wide-ranging story included a seemingly new allegation — that a Kavanaugh classmate at Yale, nonprofit CEO Max Stier, “saw Kavanaugh with his pants down at a drunken dorm party, where friends pushed his penis into the hand of a female student.”
Late Sunday, the Times updated the Kavanaugh story with an “editor’s note” acknowledging that the alleged victim of the incident had declined to be interviewed and several friends had said she did not recall the alleged misconduct.
The Times only added that note after The Federalist’s Mollie Hemmingway, who had an advance copy of the book, flagged the glaring omission in the Times reporting.
Pogrebin and Kelly on Monday night blamed their editors for cutting the critical pieces of exculpatory information from the story. They said they had included the details about the victim declining to be interviewed for the story and her friends saying she didn’t recall the incident, along with the woman’s name. Pogrebin said their editors decided against using the woman’s name and in “the haste” of trying to close the editorial process edited out all of the information about the woman, instead of just her name. The pair did not say why they didn’t object.
Pogrebin and Kelly are hardly new to the editing process. Pogrebin has been a Times reporter since 1995, and her mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, is a founding editor of Ms. magazine, a liberal feminist publication created in the early 1970s. Kelly has been covering business and finance for 20 years, including a decade at the Wall Street Journal.
“We certainly never intended to mislead in any way. We wanted to give as full a story as possible,” Pogrebin told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Monday evening.
But that wasn’t the only hole in the story. The piece also omitted relevant information about Stier’s work during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal as a member of Bill Clinton’s defense team at the law firm Williams & Connolly.
And it included a strangely constructed attribution that wouldn’t pass most major newsrooms’ standards when reporting on a sexual assault allegation against a major public figure. In the piece, the reporters wrote: “We corroborated the story with two officials who have communicated with Mr. Stier.” But they did not indicate what type of “officials,” government or otherwise, those sources are.
Several liberal commentators across a variety of media, from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to National Public Radio and at least one host on “The View,” spent Monday blasting the Times’ report as a particularly egregious example of journalistic malfeasance.
Despite the widespread criticism of the piece, Harris and other 2020 Democrats who spent the weekend calling for Kavanaugh’s impeachment based on the new report, aren’t dialing back their demands or even acknowledging the Times’ correction of the very story that sparked those demands.
In fact, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer jumped into the fray to call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment on Monday after the Times issued the correction.
“The @GOP is so hell bent on guaranteeing a conservative court, they are willing to overlook serious allegations on sexual misconduct and perjury,” he tweeted Monday. “The system is broken.”
RealClearPolitics reached out to spokespersons for Harris, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, all of whom called for Kavanaugh’s impeachment over the weekend after the Times’ story broke. None of the campaigns responded.
In fact, Harris continued to attack Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Twitter Monday morning, the day after the Times issued its correction.
The Times also did not respond to an RCP inquiry on how it planned to restore its credibility, whether any reporter or editor would be fired over the failings and where the breakdown in journalistic standards occurred that allowed the seemingly new but uncorroborated allegation to be published.
Since the Times’ corrected the piece, President Trump has lambasted the paper, firing off multiple tweets calling the new efforts to force Kavanaugh off the court “lies and fake news,” and encouraging lawsuits against the paper.
At a campaign rally in New Mexico Monday night, he assailed the paper once again, calling for the resignation of “everybody at the New York Times involved in the Kavanaugh smear story.”
The president was in the rare position of following a bipartisan outpouring of outrage over the story, as well as the correction, which for some journalists raised more questions about the process that led to the material’s publication than it answered.
Early Monday, MSNBC’s anti-Trump host Joe Scarborough said it was a “stunning decision to leave that central [lack of corroboration] fact out of an article filled with damning accusations.”
Liberal Yale law professor Scott Shapiro called it an “outrageous omission” and appeared to promote a boycott of the paper over the issue.
“Would love to see my fellow liberals who routinely threaten to unsubscribe to the NYT to make the same threat now,” he tweeted.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik asserted that having the alleged victim corroborate the story was a central and necessary part of any reporting on the incident.
“One can argue that the failure to remember, given her intoxication, is not dispositive,” he tweeted. “One can’t argue, however, that that fact didn’t need to be in the Kavanaugh story from the outset.”
“The View’s” self-described moderate, Abby Huntsman, denounced the Times’ report as “sloppy and lazy” and congratulated the paper for helping Trump get re-elected.
Conservative media critics cited the Times’ reporting as proof that the media is working hand-in-glove with Democrats to relentlessly and falsely attack Republicans.
“Omitting these facts from the @nytimes story is one of the worst cases of journalistic malpractice I can recall,” tweeted National Review’s John McCormack.
The controversy also played into the hands of some of Kavanaugh’s staunchest supporters. Carrie Severino, the chief counsel and policy director for the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group that reportedly spent $10 million backing the Supreme Court nominee last year, called the Times’ reporting of uncorroborated accusations a part of several “shameful attempts to reignite baseless smears about Kavanaugh.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who ran Kavanaugh’s tumultuous Judiciary Committee confirmation process last year, on Twitter pointed out that no one from the Times’ had reached out to his office for the story and his office had not received an allegation against Kavanaugh “like the one referenced over the weekend.”
The Iowa Republican later Monday disputed the references to the alleged incident as a “new allegation.” Instead, during a speech on the Senate floor he said the report amounts to “barely a third-hand rumor” and the type of reckless, uncorroborated reporting that is having a corrosive impact on the country’s democratic process.
“These writers – can you believe this? – these writers didn’t even speak to the man whom they claim originally recounted this rumor. What’s left are only layers and layers of decades-old hearsay. No more corroboration, no more verification, not even anything from the accuser himself.”
Referencing the New York Times’ slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” Grassley said journalism has hit a new, Trump-era low.
“When did this stuff I described become something fit to print by the supposed American paper of record?” he asked. “The sad consequences of this article are a misinformed public, a greater divide in our own discourse, and a deeper lack of faith in our news media.”