Readers of the Los Angeles Times were furious in 2003 when — only five days before the California gubernatorial election — the paper published a stunning investigation in which 16 women accused candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping them.
They canceled their subscriptions in droves and accused the paper of trying to help Democrat Gray Davis’s campaign.
The paper’s revered editor, John Carroll, later explained the imperfect timing.
Basically, he said, it came down to this: The story wasn’t ready until it was ready.
As Washington reels from the disclosure in The Washington Post on Sunday of Christine Blasey Ford’s detailed allegation of an attempted rape by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh decades ago, those who remember can hear echoes of 2003.
Right-wing pundits like Erick Erickson have relentlessly pounded the idea that The Post’s story is a suspiciously timed Democratic/media plot to interrupt Kavanaugh’s glidepath.
“I’m not as surprised by the Democrats pulling out a last minute allegation against Kavanaugh as I am by the number of 20 & 30 something Republicans who immediately think surrender is the only option,” Erickson wrote on Twitter, adding a hopeful note: “Clarence Thomas survived worse.”
The timing — a last-minute allegation, as Erickson put it — may seem unfortunate, given that the Senate Judiciary Committee was due to vote on Kavanaugh this week. The judge has consistently called the allegation false.
The Post itself reported Ford first contacted the paper’s tip line in July, when Kavanaugh was merely a shortlist prospect, not the nominee.
What could have possibly taken so long, the thinking goes.
Carroll took up this point in an editor’s note after the election, which Schwarzenegger won.
The editor addressed the question of the moment: Should he have waited to publish until after the election, as some thought — or maybe never?
Carroll thought citizens deserved to know everything they could, even though the timing was bad.
But why did it take so long to do that reporting, some demanded?
“It is hard to overstate the amount of wasted time such work entails,” Carroll wrote. (Schwarzenegger later admitted he had often behaved badly toward women.)
But that time is necessary. In the Kavanaugh case, as The Post’s Emma Brown reported in her piece, Ford didn’t want her name used, for fear of subjecting herself to criticism and the personal attacks that would be sure to follow. (And have.)
In time, and for various reasons — including what she described as a moral duty — she changed her mind and spoke to Brown on the record. It’s always a long, necessary process, with many twists and turns, from tip line to completed story.
“With time and reporting, the truth can always be known,” Jill Abramson, the former New York Times top editor, told me Sunday, disagreeing with the notion this is strictly a “he said, she said” case.
As a Wall Street Journal reporter in the 1990s, Abramson investigated Thomas for the acclaimed book “Strange Justice,” co-authored with Jane Mayer.
Much of their reporting, she said, came too late to make a difference in Thomas’s ascendence to the Supreme Court. And there wasn’t much media interest in following up afterward, though Abramson has recently made the case Thomas should be impeached from the court.
And, she noted, it wasn’t just that the reporting wasn’t complete in time.
The Senate, rushing to confirm Thomas, refused to hear the testimony of other women who could have lent more weight and credibility to Hill’s accusations, she said.
That shouldn’t happen now.
Unlike the California case in 2003, there is no set-in-stone Election Day to worry about.
This isn’t the 11th hour, because the clock isn’t running out; in fact, there is no clock.
There’s time for more reporting. There’s time to hear out Ford publicly, as she now says she’s willing to make happen. There’s time for deliberate consideration and second thoughts.
Let senators — and the country — be informed, as they were about Schwarzenegger, as they were not fully about Thomas.
Journalism is known for its punishing deadlines.
But there is no deadline here.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan