“I’m very sorry, but,” is a common phrase for me. Reporters do their best to not be advocates or therapists, and the sentence doesn’t exactly mean, “I’m so sorry this terrible thing happened to you,” as much as it means, “I’m sorry this conversation is such an awkward, imperfect experience; would you like to take a break? I’m sorry that this is the best shot at restitution you’re going to get, and it’s not ideal, nothing is.”
This week, The Washington Post and the New York Times both published lengthy investigations into a sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden — an account that had previously been reported via the Intercept and on a podcast, and which the Biden campaign denies.
Tara Reade, who worked in Biden’s Senate office in 1992 and 1993, last year came forward to say that Biden had touched her neck and shoulders when she was in his employ. She has now expanded that account with a more serious charge: One day, she says, she was asked to deliver the senator’s gym bag. While handing it off, she alleges, he pressed her against a wall, reached under her skirt and inserted his fingers inside of her.
A friend of Reade’s said that Reade discussed the alleged incident at the time. Reade’s brother also said that his sister told him Biden had put his hand “under her clothes.”
Meanwhile, former Biden staffers to whom Reade said she had complained about harassment said they had no recollection of such complaints. “I have absolutely no knowledge or memory of Ms. Reade’s accounting of events, which would have left a searing impression on me as a woman professional, and as a manager,” read a statement from a former executive assistant.
Each news account is thousands of words long. They attempt to chase down 30-year-old records in government offices that no longer exist, and corroborate events with people who are afraid to be named. They’re based on many interviews beginning with, I’d imagine, “I’m very sorry, but.”
Thorough as these news articles were, some readers still found them unsatisfying. One small example: Reade recently filed a police report alleging an assault, and The Post’s account included the line, “Filing a false report is a crime punishable by up to 30 days in jail.” Some of Reade’s supporters argued that this line unfairly raised the possibility that her report was false. Others argued that this line gave weight to her report being true: Why on earth would someone file a false report if doing so could land them in jail?
Reporters didn’t have access to the full police report; it’s not public. And, unlike the legal system, reporters don’t have the power to subpoena witnesses and compel truthful testimony; key players can decline to comment at any moment. And news outlets can’t sentence individuals to prison, and they cannot know, with 100 percent certainty, exactly what happened on congressional grounds or at parties or in basements or with powerful celebrities 20 or 30 years ago.
The profession has limitations, memory has limitations, people have limitations.
I know all of this, and yet, even as I read the account I found myself thinking the same things I thought during Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s hearings or while reading accounts of a molestation accusation against Woody Allen or with any number of other accusations regarding long-ago events: Solve this. Show us the smoking gun, or the indisputable security-camera footage, or the telltale lie. Produce an old roommate, an old diary. Eliminate all doubt, so we don’t have to live with it.
Most sexual assaults don't have eyewitnesses. Many don't have DNA evidence. We all have gut feelings, personal experiences, perhaps a passing knowledge of statistics. So when an event is a chasm, what do people use to fill it?
I’ve spent the past few days lost in comments sections. The Post, the Times, Slate, Salon, Reason, the Federalist, Elle — almost every outlet, liberal or conservative, that published news or commentary on the assault allegation. I wondered how the stories were coming across to readers (understanding, of course, that deducing broad public opinion from online comments has serious limitations of its own). What did people make of the allegation?
There were those who leaped straight to the silly, accusing Reade of being a Russian operative because of a praiseful essay she’d once published on Vladimir Putin. (Are Russian agents that obvious?) There were those who turned to academic literature, discussing patterns of predation — repeat offenders like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby — and speculating that, if Biden were guilty, there would be more accusers. He’d previously been accused of shoulder rubs and hugs, but was this on the same spectrum?
There were readers who found the whole investigation frustrating, saying newspapers hadn’t treated Reade’s allegations “seriously.” But if dedicating multiple reporters to weeks’ worth of investigation isn’t serious, I’m not sure what is. Treating something seriously isn’t believing it without question; it’s the opposite — rigorously fact-checking, crosschecking, anticipating what issues readers are going to raise, and showing them that you’ve already raised those issues. The truth is often messy and complicated, but journalism is only honest when subjects share their hardest secrets and are offered no promises other than a reporter’s very best attempt at getting it right.
The more comments I read, the more it seemed as though what people were not taking seriously was the ambiguity that those attempts can ultimately produce. Many readers seemed to have determined Biden’s guilt or innocence, and Reade’s level of truthfulness, without skimming much beyond the headline. Either they were eager to exonerate Biden because he had to beat Trump — who has himself been accused by many women of sexual misconduct — or they were eager to convict Biden because Trump had to beat him. Or, perhaps, because they believed another Democratic candidate would have been a better nominee all along.
None of which has much to do with Tara Reade, or the satisfaction the rest of us think we are owed. When journalism bumps up against its inevitable limitations, reporters who have tried their level best to provide evidence are left in that familiar posture: apologizing for the discomfort.
I’m very sorry, but some evidence cannot be obtained in full. I’m very sorry, but sometimes the security cameras aren’t there. I’m very sorry, but sometimes we’re left with coming to our own conclusions, based on our own imperfections. Someone else has done all the homework and it’s still a godawful mess.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.