Times faces ques­tions over Ka­vanaugh story

Of­fen­sive tweet, re­vi­sion ob­scure new ac­cu­sa­tion lev­eled against jus­tice

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By David Bauder

NEW YORK — Be­tween an of­fen­sive tweet and a sig­nif­i­cant re­vi­sion, The New York Times’ han­dling of a new sex­ual misconduct al­le­ga­tion against Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh at­tracted al­most as much at­ten­tion as the ac­cu­sa­tion it­self.

The story also gave Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his al­lies fresh am­mu­ni­tion in his cam­paign against the me­dia, where the Times was al­ready a fa­vorite tar­get.

The rev­e­la­tion that led sev­eral Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial con­tenders to call for Ka­vanaugh’s im­peach­ment came in the 11th para­graph of a story la­beled “news anal­y­sis” that ran in the Sun­day opin­ion sec­tion. The story is based on an up­com­ing book by Times re­porters Robin Po­gre­bin and Kate Kelly, “The Ed­u­ca­tion of Brett Ka­vanaugh: An In­ves­ti­ga­tion,” about the ju­nior jus­tice’s bru­tal con­fir­ma­tion bat­tle last year.

Head­lined “Brett Ka­vanaugh Fit In With the Priv­i­leged Kids. She Did Not,” the story was pri­mar­ily about Deb­o­rah Ramirez, a Con­necti­cut woman who al­leged that Ka­vanaugh, as a fresh­man at Yale in 1983, had pulled down his pants and thrust his penis at her.

Ka­vanaugh has de­nied those claims.

Yet the au­thors said they’d un­cov­ered a sim­i­lar story in­volv­ing Ka­vanaugh at an­other fresh­man year party, where he al­legedly ex­posed him­self and friends pushed his penis into the hands of a fe­male stu­dent. The story said for­mer class­mate Max Stier re­ported the in­ci­dent to the FBI and sen­a­tors as Ka­vanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion was be­ing dis­cussed, but said Stier would not dis­cuss it with the au­thors. Ka­vanaugh would not com­ment on the story, a court spokes­woman said on Mon­day.

Af­ter the story was posted on­line but be­fore it was in the print edi­tion, the Times re­vised the story to add that the book re­ported that the woman sup­pos­edly in­volved in the in­ci­dent de­clined to be in­ter­viewed, and that her friends say she doesn’t re­call the in­ci­dent. While an edi­tor’s note pointed out the re­vi­sion, it did not say why those facts had been left out in the first place.

A Times spokes­woman said no one was avail­able for an in­ter­view on Mon­day.

The fail­ure to ini­tially re­port that the woman did not re­mem­ber the al­leged in­ci­dent “is one of the worst cases of jour­nal­is­tic mal­prac­tice in re­cent mem­ory,” John McCor­mack wrote in the con­ser­va­tive magazine Na­tional Re­view.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported Mon­day that Sen. Christo­pher Coons, D-Del., alerted the FBI of the al­le­ga­tion at is­sue but that it was not in­ves­ti­gated.

Coons wrote to FBI di­rec­tor Christo­pher Wray on Oct. 2, re­quest­ing an “ap­pro­pri­ate fol­low up” with one in­di­vid­ual who had come to Coons with in­for­ma­tion about Ka­vanaugh. Al­though the per­son’s name was redacted in the one-page let­ter, a spokesman for Coons con­firmed Mon­day that the in­di­vid­ual was Stier, who now leads a prom­i­nent non­par­ti­san group in Wash­ing­ton.

In the let­ter ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post, Coons said “sev­eral in­di­vid­u­als” who wanted to share in­for­ma­tion with fed­eral au­thor­i­ties had con­tacted his of­fice, but they had “dif­fi­culty reach­ing any­one who will col­lect their in­for­ma­tion.”

The book’s au­thors wrote that they had cor­rob­o­rated the sec­ond misconduct al­le­ga­tion with two of­fi­cials who said they had com­mu­ni­cated with Stier. The news­pa­per did not iden­tify them.

Place­ment of the ac­cu­sa­tion in the midst of an opin­ion sec­tion piece struck many in the jour­nal­ism com­mu­nity as odd.

“How is this not a front-page story?” wrote Tom Jones of the jour­nal­ism think tank the Poyn­ter In­sti­tute.

In a state­ment, the Times said the opin­ion sec­tion fre­quently runs ex­cerpts of books pro­duced by the news­pa­per’s re­porters. The new ac­cu­sa­tions were un­cov­ered dur­ing the au­thors’ re­port­ing process for the book, which is why they had not ap­peared in the news­pa­per be­fore.

Still, this doesn’t ex­plain why the new ac­cu­sa­tions weren’t pointed out to ed­i­tors and given more promi­nence in news pages. Todd Gitlin, a Columbia Univer­sity jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor, sug­gested bu­reau­cratic in­er­tia might partly ex­plain it — since it had been de­ter­mined that the piece would run in the opin­ion sec­tion, no one stepped for­ward to ques­tion that.

“There have been a num­ber of de­ci­sions on this that strike me as du­bi­ous,” Gitlin said in an in­ter­view.

Trump, not un­ex­pect­edly, was harsher. He said his Supreme Court ap­pointee was “the one who is ac­tu­ally be­ing as­saulted ... by lies and fake news.” The White House also dis­trib­uted a copy of a New York Post ed­i­to­rial head­lined, “The lat­est Times hit on Brett Ka­vanaugh is a clear miss.”

Trump said Ka­vanaugh should start su­ing peo­ple for li­bel or the Jus­tice De­part­ment should come to his res­cue. Yet Roy Gut­ter­man, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at Syracuse Univer­sity and di­rec­tor of the Tully Cen­ter for Free Speech, said the Jus­tice De­part­ment has noth­ing to do with the case, and a li­bel case would be tough.

“Given the de­vel­op­ing na­ture of the al­le­ga­tions and the sourc­ing of the story, cou­pled with the cor­rec­tion, it still does not ap­pear to rise to any­thing that would be ac­tion­able un­der li­bel law,” Gut­ter­man said.

The Times also apol­o­gized for an of­fen­sive tweet sent out by the opin­ion sec­tion ad­ver­tis­ing its ini­tial story.

The tweet said: “Hav­ing a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harm­less fun. But when Brett Ka­vanaugh did it to her, Deb­o­rah Ramirez says, it con­firmed that she didn’t be­long at Yale Univer­sity in the first place.”

The Times deleted the tweet and said it was “clearly in­ap­pro­pri­ate and of­fen­sive” and was look­ing into how it was sent.

SU­SAN WALSH/AP

Pres­i­dent Trump de­fended Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh, say­ing he was “be­ing as­saulted.”

PORT­FO­LIO

“The Ed­u­ca­tion of Brett Ka­vanaugh: An In­ves­ti­ga­tion” was writ­ten by two Times re­porters.

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