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Opinion Did Brett Kavanaugh ask New York Times reporters to lie in their book? Yeah, pretty much.

Then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 5, 2018. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, the New York Times reporters behind the book “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation,” completed their “investigation” of his confirmation proceedings without a key piece of input: “Kavanaugh himself declined to be interviewed,” reads the author’s note.

Behind those six words lies a longer story. In an interview Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, Pogrebin and Kelly were asked about their efforts to secure a sit-down session with Kavanaugh. As Pogrebin told the story, they came close to finalizing terms for an interview late in the process, near the time that book was headed to the presses.

Yet things didn’t work out. “We were on our way to Washington to speak to him,” said Pogrebin. “We had finally kind of arranged for an interview. Ultimately we could not agree on terms that we felt comfortable with, and so we didn’t do it, regrettably. We didn’t feel like we could."

Asked to elaborate, Pogrebin did:

We have debated whether to talk about this. But it is what it is — which is, he wanted us to say we hadn’t spoken to him, and we even went to negotiate the phrasing of that, where we even were willing to say nothing, not to talk about who we spoke to, not to talk about our sources. But he wanted a line in there saying we did not, and we felt that to mislead our readers in a book about, that very much deals with issues of truth, would probably not be a good foot forward.

In a separate interview with Yahoo News, Kelly put the matter a bit more clinically: “The dispute was that he wanted us to say in the book that he had declined to be interviewed,” she said, also noting that the authors worked through intermediaries to suss out Kavanaugh’s interview preferences.

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The bind in which Pogrebin and Kelly found themselves is as old as investigative journalism. The competing imperatives here are both compelling: On the one hand, you have to protect your sources; on the other hand, you have to be honest with the reader about who’s cooperating. Over time, news organizations have dealt with the situation by writing something like, “So-and-so declined to speak for the record," or they might just leave out an attribution note, as Pogrebin and Kelly were prepared to do in this instance. Had they chosen the latter option, of course, they still would have faced questions about whether Kavanaugh had cooperated for the book.

Famous investigative journalist Bob Woodward tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he doesn’t remember any such request from one of his sources. “I don’t recall it happening, but it’s been 48 years of reporting,” says Woodward, whose books rely extensively on background and off-the-record conversations to nail down specific events, negotiations and disputes. The idea of speaking on any basis whatsoever with a source, only to turn around and write that the source declined to comment, is a no-no in the Woodward book: “We just need to be as straight about all these things as possible,” he says. “It would be like in ‘All the President’s Men’ saying, ‘Mark Felt declined to comment.’”

Why deal with someone who would insist on such a condition anyhow? This is “somebody that’s supposed to be telling the truth and then they’re saying, ‘Let’s engage in this minor deception,’” says Woodward, later adding, “You want a relationship of trust and then somebody says, ‘Okay, let’s deceive the public or my boss.’”

John Cook, investigations editor at Business Insider, tells us via email, “Kavanaugh has been around for a while, and talked to plenty of reporters in his time. I doubt he would have made the request if it wasn’t something he’d become accustomed to getting.” Indeed: Kavanaugh is a former aide to George W. Bush and worked under independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr — meaning he knows how to talk terms with D.C. reporters. The Columbia Journalism Review noted last year:

In July, Kavanaugh acknowledged having “been a source for several books written about the Starr investigation.” Last week, he told Washington Post reporters Tom Hamburger, Robert Barnes, and Robert O’Harrow, Jr., “I have also spoken to reporters on background as appropriate or as directed.” [Author Dan] Moldea told the Post that Kavanaugh “was the designated person” the Office of the Independent Counsel “puts with people like me.” As evidence, Moldea kept recordings of his conversations with Starr deputies and has played them for Judiciary Committee lawyers. According to the Post, “The recordings suggest that Starr’s top deputies referred Moldea to Kavanaugh for answers to questions about the Foster matter.”

Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, notes that the newspaper has rules covering the sort of activity alleged by the book’s authors. “In general, our guidelines for handling and describing anonymous sourcing say we should be truthful and not mislead readers. That seems to be what Robin and Kate were striving for here,” writes Corbett in an email. The book, of course, wasn’t controlled by New York Times rules. Washington Post Managing Editor Tracy Grant says the following section of the paper’s standards document governs off-the-record-declined-to-comment subterfuge: “We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence. Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources.”

A separate question relates to the authors’ decision to reveal the negotiations themselves. As Pogrebin herself disclosed on Wednesday, the decision to talk about them was a matter of “debate” between the authors. “[M]aybe these intermediaries weren’t sophisticated enough to force Pogrebin and Kelly to agree to treat their negotiations as off the record,” notes Cook. “And if Pogrebin and Kelly want to exploit that to reveal that Kavanaugh wanted them to lie to their readers on his behalf — fine! But you have to admit that it seems a little unsportsmanlike.”

Or sharp-elbowed. Or squarely in the public interest.

Following a new sexual misconduct allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, some Democratic presidential candidates called for impeachment. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Graphic: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Erik Wemple: The New York Times’s rocky Kavanaugh weekend

Paul Waldman: No, the Kavanaugh controversy won’t help Trump in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s how to handle Kavanaugh

Karen Tumulty: Don’t revisit the Kavanaugh fight. Learn from it.