The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A book on Kavanaugh has real news. But it’s lost in the furor over a botched New York Times essay.

President Trump with Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh at a swearing-in ceremony at the White House on Oct. 8, 2018.
President Trump with Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh at a swearing-in ceremony at the White House on Oct. 8, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

A previous version of this column called the essay mentioned in this story a book excerpt. It has been updated.

If you happened to see the article based on a new book about Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in print, you might have flipped right past it.

It was on an inside page of the New York Times Sunday Review section with a soft, feature-story headline: “Brett Kavanaugh Fit In. She Did Not.” Oddly, it was labeled “news analysis” and wasn’t even promoted on the front page of the section.

If you happened to see the article first because of a Times tweet (and if you were the least bit enlightened), you would have been appalled. It began: “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun.”

If you read the article, though, some startling news — or what seemed like news — jumped out.

The book authors, Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, wrote that they had found significant corroboration that Deborah Ramirez — a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s — had experienced an incident in which the future Supreme Court justice thrust his penis at her at a college party.

And they wrote that they had uncovered an account of a different incident involving Kavanaugh. Another classmate — now the prominent lawyer Max Stier — said he saw Kavanaugh with his pants down at a different party, where friends of his “pushed his penis into the hands of a female student.”

What wasn’t in the essay was a crucial piece of information: that the woman supposedly involved in the Stier-relayed incident wouldn’t corroborate the story, or be interviewed, and that her friends said she didn’t remember it.

The Times has been busy over the past two days fixing the story online, explaining some aspects of what happened, and apologizing for the tweet.

And politicians at the highest levels are expressing outrage: President Trump accused the Times of smearing Kavanaugh with lies: “The one who is actually being assaulted is Justice Kavanaugh - Assaulted by lies and Fake News!”

And several Democratic presidential candidates called for Kavanaugh’s impeachment.

And, sadly, what’s been downplayed — or at least less shouted from the rooftops — is the actual news that was in the essay: that Stier notified senators and the FBI about what he witnessed, but the FBI chose not to investigate before Kavanaugh’s ascendancy to his lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land.

Other news organizations have followed up on that and confirmed it. But that’s not what’s getting the most attention.

Why the Times’s essay was so poorly handled, on so many fronts, is murky.

I asked the highest-ranking editors on the news and opinion sides of the paper — Dean Baquet and James Bennet — for interviews on Monday morning but got no answer. (Unsurprisingly, I tended to get much better response when I was public editor of the Times from 2012 to 2016.)

But I can piece this much together from the Times’s official communications on the subject and from background conversations with other journalists, including at the Times:

First, it’s not unusual for book excerpts and essays to appear in the Sunday Review section, which is part of the opinion department, not the news section.

In fact, that’s a fairly common landing place for excerpts, although there’s certainly no rule about it. For example, the excerpt of Times reporter Mike Isaac’s book about Uber, “Super Pumped,” appeared in the business section.

What clearly should have happened here is that the reporters themselves — or one of the editors handling the essay — should have alerted the news desk that there was fresh information that should be evaluated for a possible story in the news pages.

Even a second or third editor proofreading the article should have picked up on this and raised a red flag.

If that had happened, some important questions would have been asked and the blunders probably averted.

The actual news then could have been put in a news-side headline and article, where it belonged.

The tweet — which may have set a new insensitivity record for social media from a major news organization — is something of a sideshow here.

Still, let’s acknowledge just how awful it is to consider, even for a brain-dead moment, sexual assault as harmless fun. Anybody can make a bad misjudgment, but there should be a review process in place — yes, editing! — that halts one this bad in its tracks.

But the real harm was not in the tweet but in the need for the editor’s note appended to the story Sunday night.

“The book,” it read, “reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.”

In these contentious days of bad-faith politics and maneuvering for advantage, the presentation and framing of stories — as well as their dead-on accuracy — are more important than ever.

There’s little room for error and not a shred of forgiveness for it.

By all accounts, Pogrebin’s and Kelly’s book is a well-reported and thoughtful exploration of the Kavanaugh saga.

Jill Filipovic, in her review for The Washington Post, called it “a remarkable work of slowed-down journalism.”

Because of the bungled handling of the essay, that’s not how it’s going to be remembered.

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