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Opinion The New York Times’s rocky Kavanaugh weekend

Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh appears at a confirmation hearing Sept. 5, 2018. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly are eager to present the broad-brush themes of their new book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation.” In a New York Times essay over the weekend to introduce the book, the reporters sketch out the cultural clash experienced by Deborah Ramirez during her years at Yale University, where, she later alleged, fellow student Brett M. Kavanaugh whipped out his penis during a drunken dorm party. She allegedly had to push it away.

Though others laughed at the incident, “To Ms. Ramirez it wasn’t funny at all. It was the nadir of her first year, when she often felt insufficiently rich, experienced or savvy to mingle with her more privileged classmates.”

Sociological insights are fine and all, but the news-consuming public fixated on another aspect of the essay:

We also uncovered a previously unreported story about Mr. Kavanaugh in his freshman year that echoes Ms. Ramirez’s allegation. A classmate, Max Stier, saw Mr. Kavanaugh with his pants down at a different drunken dorm party, where friends pushed his penis into the hand of a female student.

Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire tweeted:

Former Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer:

There was a lot of such sentiment on Twitter over the weekend. It was social media’s way of saying: No, silly, that’s not the lead. This is the lead.

The roar from the Internet left the New York Times with some explaining to do. How did this piece land in the Sunday Review section? What was going on here? The newspaper’s communications team tweeted out some answers, noting that the book by Pogrebin and Kelly “is a well-reported and newsworthy account that reveals new details and sheds new light on a matter of significant national interest. . . . The excerpt of the book was published in the Sunday Review, a section that includes both news analysis and opinion pieces. The section frequently runs excerpts of books produced by Times reporters. . . . The new revelations contained in the piece were uncovered during the reporting process for the book, which is why this information did not appear in The Times before the excerpt.”

Perfectly sensible. Another possible explanation as to why the Times didn’t give more prominence to the new allegation is that it rests on some less-than-direct reporting. For one, the Times reporters didn’t interview Stier; they spoke with “two officials who have communicated with Mr. Stier.” And the female student who was allegedly subjected to this sexual assault “declined to be interviewed and friends say she does not recall the episode.” Not all of these caveats appeared in the initial version of the story, as an editor’s note subsequently pointed out:

Editors’ Note: Sept. 15, 2019
An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book’s account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book 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.

That’s a grievous omission, one that could account for some of the outrage following initial publication of the piece. Calls to impeach Kavanaugh — elevated last year to Supreme Court justice — came from several Democratic presidential candidates. “Last year the Kavanaugh nomination was rammed through the Senate without a thorough examination of the allegations against him. Confirmation is not exoneration, and these newest revelations are disturbing. Like the man who appointed him, Kavanaugh should be impeached,” tweeted Democratic hopeful Elizabeth Warren.

The Post, in its own coverage of the ruckus, disclosed that it had passed on the story during the Kavanaugh confirmation fight. Here’s its explanation: “The Washington Post last year confirmed that two intermediaries had relayed such a claim to lawmakers and the FBI. The Post did not publish a story in part because the intermediaries declined to identify the alleged witness and because the woman who was said to be involved declined to comment. The Times article, drawing from reporting for a forthcoming book, is based on interviews with ‘two officials who have communicated with Mr. ­Stier.’”

In reporting their book, Pogrebin and Kelly had a commodity that Republicans placed in short supply back in the confirmation process: time. They found several people who’d heard of the Ramirez incident before Kavanaugh had ascended to the federal bench. “During his Senate testimony, Mr. Kavanaugh said that if the incident Ms. Ramirez described had occurred, it would have been ‘the talk of campus.’ Our reporting suggests that it was,” reads the news analysis piece in the Times. On both the Ramirez and Stier accounts, the FBI did very little investigating, report the authors. It interviewed none of at least 25 people who Ramirez & Co. said could provide corroborating evidence; it didn’t investigate the Stier allegation.

Just how the Pogrebin-Kelly collaboration advances the state of knowledge is a bit unclear. For instance, the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrowand Jane Mayerhad already cited several people who were familiar with the Ramirez story prior to its emergence as part of the Kavanaugh fight. And NBC News last year reported that the FBI hadn’t contacted “dozens” of potential sources with possible information on the judge. We’ve asked the book’s PR rep what’s new in the account.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that even though the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh, it left unfinished business in the file. After Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats pushed for a supplemental FBI investigation into the matter -- and the Senate GOP approved a week delay to allow for such a step. President Trump ordered the FBI to assist, but the investigation was cursory. Or, in the well-chosen words of Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), a “sham.”

Republican leaders thus had a choice back in 2018. Door No. 1: Authorize a legitimate FBI investigation with no time limits, and get the full scoop on the nominee. Door No. 2: Rush the whole thing and allow further information to drip its way into the public realm over time. We are watching the Door No. 2 scenario play out in real time. It has the added disadvantage of discrediting the FBI, the Senate and the Supreme Court all at once.

The Times isn’t looking too glorious either. In addition to initially omitting details about the woman in the Stier incident, it promoted the story with a dreadful and offensive tweet:

The newspaper wisely came to its senses:

A separate tweet from the newspaper’s communications team indicated that there’s a review of the “decision-making” underway. Perhaps the Senate should do likewise.

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: There’s nothing wrong with good, harmless fun!

Henry Olsen: Calls for impeaching Kavanaugh are damaging our democracy

Greg Sargent: Not just Kavanaugh: Another alarming reason to fear the Supreme Court

Erik Wemple: Why Fox News’s ‘straight news’ is a crock

Erik Wemple: Wilbur Ross will be a presenter at a good-government event