Media critic

Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, in a high-profile hearing last Thursday, sought to cleanse an emerging image of him as a party boy in high school and college. “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the No. 1 law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college,” said the federal judge under questioning from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “And you know, in college — two things. A, I studied. I was in cross-campus library every night, and B, I played basketball for the junior varsity. I tried out for the varsity. The first day I arrived on campus, we had captain’s workouts. I played basketball everyday, all throughout — and then as soon as the season was over, in late February, captain’s workouts started again.”

With that profession of academic-athletic single-mindedness, Kavanaugh opened yet another door for inquiry into his past. Was he really that clean?

Into that door swept the New York Times on Monday, with the headline “Kavanaugh Was Questioned by Police After Bar Fight in 1985.” A New Haven Police Department report obtained by the newspaper shows that Kavanaugh, then a Yale undergraduate, was accused of throwing ice on a 21-year-old man “for some unknown reason” at a bar named Demery’s. There was quite a fracas, as an onlooker attested. “On one of the last occasions I purposely socialized with Brett, I witnessed him respond to a semi-hostile remark, not by defusing the situation, but by throwing his beer in the man’s face,” said Chad Ludington, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, in a Sunday statement.  

According to the New York Times report, Ludington said that the “guy swung at Brett,” and a friend of Kavanaugh’s then allegedly smashed his beer into the fellow’s head. “I don’t know what Brett was doing in the melee, but there was blood, there was glass, there was beer and there was some shouting, and the police showed up,” reads the article.

Notable, too, in the piece was its first byline: Emily Bazelon, a New York Times Magazine staff writer of firm opinions on criminal justice, the courts and Kavanaugh:

Last month, the Times came under attack from conservatives for an article from which casual readers would have concluded that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had gotten herself extravagant window treatments for her taxpayer-funded New York residence. The Times revised the article and acknowledged its mistake. That was a mistake of substance. The Yale ice-throwing story drives more at appearances: How could the newspaper allow an opinion person write a news piece? None other than White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — along with many, many others — seized on this angle:

Vis-a-vis the various fiefdoms at the Times, Bazelon is something of a hybrid. She’s a magazine writer and not a “newsroom reporter,” according to the newspaper. She has a commercial-grade license to express her opinions, as she does in magazine features, her Twitter feed and the Opinions section itself. In fact, she recently wrote a piece for the Opinion section, titled, “Why the Senate Must Seek the Truth,” with a key piece of context for her Monday news article:

Judge Kavanaugh also didn’t much back off his denials of being a hard drinker or an aggressive drunk. This is his big weakness, stacked against other facts that have been gathered. Several classmates from his college days at Yale paint an entirely different picture of him as a drinker than the innocent one he offered of being a person who “likes beer.” So do his own yearbook entries and speeches. If you’re a judge who believes in strictly reading a text for its plain meaning, as Judge Kavanaugh says he is, his dismissals and wispy explanations aren’t persuasive. His downright misrepresentations are disturbing and, taken in context at this point, disqualifying.

In June, she wrote an opinion piece about the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “With Justice Kennedy on the bench, the thinking among liberals went, how bad could things get? Now that he’s gone, we’re about to find out,” she wrote. None of those opinions, mind you, have been cited as reckless or irresponsible or anything of the sort. Were she a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Opinions Tribunal, pundits would say she’s an excellent drafter whose work falls in the mainstream of here’s-what-I-thinkdom.

All that said, she’s still an opinions person, which creates problems for the Times in regard to the beer-brawl story. One of the foundational promises of the Times — and other outlets like it — is that the opinion people write opinions and the news people write news. And no mixing allowed. In a statement on the piece, Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the paper, wrote:

Emily Bazelon is a writer for The New York Times Magazine who occasionally writes op-eds for the opinion section. She is not a newsroom reporter. Her role in this story was to help colleagues in the newsroom gather public documents in New Haven, where Emily is based. In retrospect, editors should have used a newsroom reporter for that assignment. To be clear, the story is straightforward, fact-based and we fully stand behind it.

That’s not just any old statement. It’s a plain concession that the concept of a news-opinion firewall may well be bunk. Which is to say, people with reporting and writing skills can be trusted to put aside their opinions for an afternoon, and write a fair piece of reporting. The setup recalls the defiance of former Times Supreme Court beat writer Linda Greenhouse, who insisted on signing contribution checks to Planned Parenthood even as she covered the law. “It was the signature of a citizen,” wrote Greenhouse in her book on journalism. “The stories that appeared under my byline, on abortion and all other subjects, were the work of a journalist. If anyone ever thought those failed to measure up to professional standards, they never told me or anyone else.”

All this high-minded thinking about newsroom boundaries, of course, doesn’t account for how the paper’s detractors view things. On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times broke a blockbuster on President Trump’s fraught tax history. As a CNN panel discussed the story, political commentator Scott Jennings raised a couple of questions: “I’ve been thinking about how are Republicans going to react to this, and I’ll just tell you: They’re going to look at it through two lenses: One, this is the same newspaper that just told us about Nikki Haley’s curtains, which turned out to be a complete fabrication. And No. 2, this is the same newspaper that just put a byline on a story this morning from a reporter that was hate-tweeting Brett Kavanaugh over the summer and then hitting him with the bar story [yesterday],” he said.