Like everyone who arrives in the public square these days, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh brought his own supply of media invective. When he sat for the historic Sept. 27 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he decried “breathless” cable-news coverage of sexual-assault allegations. Under questioning from a skeptical senator, he criticized a “media circus” surrounding a claim in the New York Times that he and his high school buddies had boasted of sexual conquests with a particular girl.
In a venue controlled by Republicans, there’s no downside to attacking the media.
Now that Judge Kavanaugh has become Justice Kavanaugh, people are looking back at what may well be the most covered Supreme Court confirmation battle in U.S. history, at least to judge from an accounting of nightly news coverage. In a column for The Post, Michael Gerson argues that the media handed Trump a victory. The New York Times, he insists, erred in running its story on the New Haven bar fight in which Yale student Kavanaugh participated in 1985 — and unwisely allowed “partisan” Emily Bazelon to share a byline on the piece. He also questioned the reporting that supported the New Yorker’s story on the allegation of Deborah Ramirez, who cited Kavanaugh for what Gerson terms “first-degree penis exposure” at a Yale dorm party. MSNBC, says Gerson, undermined journalism by interviewing Julie Swetnick, the woman who was represented by famous lawyer Michael Avenatti and claimed to have witnessed sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh in high school.
On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s Brian Stelter put the matter this way: “I have to ask this question: Has the news media come out of this controversy looking better or worse? Because I’m pretty sure we don’t look better,” said Stelter. “The narrative from Trump world is that the media worked with the Dems to take Kavanaugh down. And there’s a lot of concern that newsrooms have lowered their standards in pursuit of this story.”
Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN journalist, said, “I was bureau chief here at, you know, at CNN during the Lewinsky thing. We had a whole series of procedures to make sure that hearsay didn’t get on the air, and that we were going to confirm it before we put it on the air. That’s completely been overtaken by events now with social media.”
“Hearsay” is one way of looking at the allegations. On-the-record statements is another.
Any retrospective on the media’s handling of the Kavanaugh nomination needs to consider its oddball nature. On July 9, President Trump announced that Kavanaugh was his pick for the seat being vacated by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee began on Sept. 4 amid appeals from Democrats for more time to plow through all the documents relating to his professional past. Proceedings were frequently interrupted by protesters. In all, the process was chugging along unspectacularly.
On Sept. 16, however, The Post published the details of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh stemming from a party in 1982, when Kavanaugh was a student at Georgetown Prep.
The entire country, at that point, faced a critical threshold question: Is a sexual assault allegation from high school relevant to the work of a Supreme Court justice? Gradually, and by no means unanimously, the country and the Senate Judiciary Committee edged toward an answer: Yes, it’s relevant. And so a whole lot of other things became relevant, such as Kavanaugh’s answers about his behavior more than three decades ago. His drinking, his respect for women, his memory, his truthfulness. And, yes, his involvement in a bar fight — a story whose door the nominee himself opened with some rosy testimony before the Judiciary Committee: “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,” said Kavanaugh. “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.”
Now on to MSNBC. The allegations against Kavanaugh by Julie Swetnick surfaced in a declaration tweeted by her lawyer, Michael Avenatti. That tweet has approximately 40,000 likes and 23,000 retweets. Which is to say, it was a matter of hot public interest. So the media applied some skepticism. NBC News national correspondent Kate Snow interviewed Swetnick and attempted to track down other folks who could attest to her claims that Kavanaugh was present for a gang rape, among other allegations. The effort was bumpy. Summing up her findings, Snow said that Swetnick had some credibility issues. “There are, just to be clear, things that she said to me that differ from her initial statement, which was a sworn statement from last week submitted to the [Senate] Judiciary Committee. That, in many people’s minds, raises a credibility question,” Snow said on MSNBC. Breitbart eagerly aggregated Snow’s assessment.
And finally, the Deborah Ramirez complaint. It’s true, as Gerson writes, that “no one else cited in the article could directly confirm” Ramirez’s claim that Kavanaugh had exposed himself to her. It’s also true that the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer found a classmate who lived in Kavanaugh’s suite at the time. That suitemate — anonymous in the original New Yorker article; named as Kenneth G. Appold, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, in a follow-up — is “ ’one-hundred-per-cent certain’ that he was told that Kavanaugh was the male student who exposed himself to Ramirez,” according to the New Yorker. The original New Yorker story included input from another classmate who’d heard about the situation at the time, not to mention the fact that Ramirez herself told her mother and sister at the time about an “upsetting incident.” Line all that up and, yes, you run that story.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the average tenure of a Supreme Court justice is likely to jump up to 35 years over the next century, as opposed to 17 years over the past century. The implications are obvious — vacancies on the court will be increasingly rare, and the stakes involved in confirmation fights increasingly high.
Media organizations must respond accordingly. A Supreme Court nomination is like a presidential campaign with only one candidate, a nominee who sustains all the accountability that the Fourth Estate can generate in a few months. To many observers, especially conservative ones, the sustained spotlight on Kavanaugh looked like liberal media bias. In truth, the media was expressing its much stronger bias toward piling on one galvanizing story. And with plenty of justification.