Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh reacts as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 6. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Media critic

On Sunday night, the New Yorker single-handedly lengthened what was already slated to be an exhausting workweek for Washington types. Under the bylines of Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer, the magazine recounted the story of 53-year-old Deborah Ramirez, who attended Yale University in the 1980s alongside Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Ramirez told the reporters that “she remembers Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away.” The allegation — which Kavanaugh strongly denied, calling it “a smear, plain and simple” — adds to the Kavanaugh file at the Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel that last week stumbled over just how to deal with another allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford, who claims that the nominee sexually assaulted her at a high school party in the early 1980s. Over the weekend, Ford reached terms with the committee to testify this week.

The Ramirez story was a New Yorker exclusive, though the magazine had some competition. In a Sunday story on the Kavanaugh fray, the New York Times disclosed that it had pursued the same set of allegations. After citing the New Yorker’s scoop, New York Times reporters Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos wrote: 

The Times had interviewed several dozen people over the past week in an attempt to corroborate her story, and could find no one with firsthand knowledge. Ms. Ramirez herself contacted former Yale classmates asking if they recalled the incident and told some of them that she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself.

Asked about that disclosure, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told the Erik Wemple Blog, “I gather some people thought we were trying to knock down her account, but that’s not what we were doing,” said Baquet. “I’m not questioning their story. We’ve been competing against Ronan Farrow for a year and he’s terrific.” Indeed: The New York Times and Farrow together brought down Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The purpose behind the disclosure in the New York Times piece, says Baquet, was … disclosure: “We did a lot of reporting and thought we had to say that in a story.”

Does that mean that the New York Times “killed” the Ramirez story? No, the process hadn’t reached that point, says Baquet. Farrow said on Twitter that Ramirez “declined to participate [with the New York Times] because she was talking exclusively to the New Yorker.” As it turns out, competition for Ramirez’s story was intense, with The Post also in the running. “Ramirez declined to speak to a Washington Post reporter who visited her Colorado home last Tuesday and turned down follow-up requests by text,” the newspaper disclosed.

Stepping back from the Ramirez story, Baquet said of the newspaper’s standards on these sorts of stories: “What we’ve tried to do — and I don’t think anybody can say the New York Times has been shy [about these stories] — is we have tried to show some contemporaneous” corroboration,” he says. “We have tried to have a standard where there’s some independent verification and looking at all the coverage we’ve done, it’s very rarely one person’s word against another’s. We’ve always tried to have something else to back it up, whether the person told someone at the same time, or a settlement.” Again, that was Baquet commenting in general on sexual misconduct stories, not specifically the Ramirez situation.

In a press release formulated on Sunday night, the Republican National Committee blasted the New Yorker story with fodder from … the New Yorker story. Here’s the full text:

Tonight’s New Yorker story has major holes.

Here are seven lines that everyone should question and show this story has very serious veracity issues.

Omitted from the GOP treatment is quite a bit. The New Yorker interviewed a classmate who said he was “‘one-hundred-per-cent sure’ that he was told at the time that Kavanaugh was the student who exposed himself to Ramirez. He independently recalled many of the same details offered by Ramirez, including that a male student had encouraged Kavanaugh as he exposed himself.” Other details lined up. And another classmate — an on-the-record Richard Oh, “recalled overhearing, soon after the party, a female student tearfully recounting to another student an incident at a party involving a gag with a fake penis, followed by a male student exposing himself.” And Ramirez herself told her mother and sister at the time about an “upsetting incident,” though merely in general terms.

That the New Yorker itself disclosed the sundry results of its various inquiries on Ramirez’s story only strengthens the piece. It also speaks to the pitfalls of documenting something that allegedly happened decades ago. Memories fade; people decline to comment; and so on. New Yorker Editor David Remnick told the Erik Wemple Blog, “I have enormous respect for the Times and all they do, but in this case Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow spoke on the record to Deborah Ramirez; they spoke with someone who with ‘one hundred percent’ confidence recalled hearing about the incident within a day of its happening; and they wrote with fairness and transparency about what doubts there might be, too. And the lede of the story makes clear that senators on the judiciary committee have known about this, some are investigating it, and one, Senator Hirono of Hawaii, says on the record that she believes Ramirez to be credible. All of that is news and it’s fairly reported.”

Never underestimate the power of an on-the-record accuser. To step forward with an accusation of this sort is to invite thousands of sleuths to examine your every social-media posting, to examine your finances, to examine your romantic past, to examine any and all court records that you’ve kicked up over your entire adult life. The incentives to silence are overwhelming.

As the Erik Wemple Blog has written before, even anonymous sources in #MeToo stories have racked up impressive credentials for reliability.

Whatever your feelings about the viability of the New Yorker’s story, it’s clear that news outlets have been working hard to vet a man who would likely spend decades on the Supreme Court. As the Ford and Ramirez stories have shown, journalists have only so many tools to extract the truth from reluctant or unwilling sources. Perhaps it’s time, as our colleague Greg Sargent writes, to hand things over to people with a bit more investigative muscle.