Is it all a big conspiracy, masterminded by the Democratic Party and abetted by the “liberal” news media?
Conservative supporters of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s embattled nominee for the Supreme Court, have seen it that way ever since the first sexual misconduct allegation was leveled against Kavanaugh by a long-ago acquaintance, Christine Blasey Ford, this month.
Accusations of collusion between the news media and Democrats opposed to Kavanaugh’s confirmation were renewed on Sunday after the New Yorker published another accusation by a college classmate of Kavanaugh, Deborah Ramirez.
Kavanaugh himself has vaguely suggested that a conspiracy is afoot, although he hasn’t specified who he thinks is behind it. In denying the latest accusation on Monday, he called it part of “a coordinated effort to destroy my good name.”
But suggestions of a media-Democratic alliance have been advanced a number of times, including in commentaries in the Washington Examiner and the New York Post and by the likes of the conservative commentator Ann Coulter and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
The conservative outlet Breitbart.com, which called the New Yorker a “left-wing magazine,” picked up the theme, writing that White House “officials note that Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-HI) quote in the New Yorker story shows that Democratic senators are colluding with media outlets to create news stories against the judge instead of working with the Senate Judiciary Committee when they become aware of issues.”
In remarks on Monday, Trump cast doubt, too, though he did not explicitly attack the news media. “These are highly unsubstantiated statements from people represented by lawyers,” he said. “You should look into the lawyers doing the representations.” He added: “In my opinion, it is totally political. It’s totally political.”
To be sure, Ramirez’s allegations have some inherent weaknesses, most of which are acknowledged in the New Yorker article, by reporters Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer.
The story notes that Ramirez was at first “hesitant to speak publicly, partly because her memories [of an event that allegedly occurred 35 years ago] contained gaps because she had been drinking at the time.” Farrow and Mayer also reported that Ramirez was “reluctant” at first to characterize Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident “with certainty,” but did so “after six days of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney.”
The reporters also said they couldn’t confirm with other witnesses that Kavanaugh was at the party at which Ramirez alleges his misconduct took place. The only indirect corroboration of Ramirez’s account in the article came from an unidentified classmate who said he heard about the alleged incident from another student a day or two afterward.
Mayer on Monday rejected the suggestion that there was any partisan intent behind the story. She said in an interview that she and Farrow last teamed up in May to produce a story about sexual harassment allegations against Eric Schneiderman, the Democratic attorney general of New York and a political foe of Trump. Schneiderman resigned three hours after that story was published.
Farrow, meanwhile, won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his reporting on sexual harassment and assault allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic fundraiser and ally of Hillary Clinton.
“We try to be fair, accurate and tough on all sides,” Mayer said.
The notion of a “liberal” media conspiracy to sink a conservative nominee appears to be further belied by a contrary case: There were no accusations reported about Neil M. Gorsuch, a Trump nominee who was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year.
What’s more, after weighing Ramirez’s claims, other news outlets were hesitant to publish a story about them.
The New York Times said it declined to do so after failing to substantiate Ramirez’s account. The newspaper said it had interviewed “several dozen people” over the past week to corroborate her story “and could find no one with firsthand knowledge. Ms. Ramirez herself contacted former Yale classmates asking if they recalled the incident and told some of them that she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself.” [Update: The Times later clarified that “unlike the New Yorker, [it] was not able to obtain an interview with Ms. Ramirez.”]
Reporters at The Washington Post also sought corroboration but were unable to substantiate Ramirez’s allegation. She declined to speak to a Post reporter who visited her Colorado home last Tuesday and turned down follow-up requests by text. The Post did not publish a story about Ramirez until after the New Yorker’s article appeared Sunday night.
The Post also held off for more than a month in publishing what it knew about Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Ford. Post reporter Emma Brown initially spoke with Ford in July, but those conversations were off the record, meaning they couldn’t be published without Ford’s permission. Brown’s story identifying Ford was published on Sept. 16, after Ford put her name and accusations on the record following leaks of her identity.
“We aren’t colluding with anyone about anything, including the Kavanaugh nomination,” said Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “The conspiracy theories are pure nonsense and completely false.”
Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson also said journalistic efforts to vet Kavanaugh are the product of hard work, not partisanship.
“The essence of good reporting is digging out the truth and being scrupulously factual in that endeavor,” said Abramson, who wrote a book with Mayer, “Strange Justice,” about the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation.
Given Ford’s allegations, she said, reporters naturally pursued a follow-up question: Are there other examples of Kavanaugh behaving as Ford says he did?
“The New Yorker and others have rightly pursued that question and found relevant information, another woman whose story adds credibility to Dr. Ford,” she said. “That’s important information to bring to the public. That’s good journalism, not a smear.”
This story was updated Tuesday afternoon.