A New York Times story from over the weekend contains a third, previously undisclosed sexual misconduct allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The report was later updated to make it clear the new allegation is not as strongly corroborated as readers of the first version of the story may have been led to believe. Fox News is capitalizing on the revision to dismiss all the sexual misconduct allegations Kavanaugh faces — and doing so in a misleading way.
Over the past 24 hours, Fox News hosts and reporters have described changes the New York Times made to Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly’s story as a “correction” at least a dozen times. This supercut of clips illustrates how the network is framing things:
Here's a supercut of all the times Fox News personalities have falsely characterized the editors' note the New York Times added to its Kavanaugh story as a "correction" over just the last 24 hours pic.twitter.com/rVyCpSTPtg— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 17, 2019
But there’s just one problem — the Times did not, in fact, “correct” anything.
To make a “correction” to a story indicates something was factually wrong. The newspaper did not acknowledge anything of this sort. Instead, the Times story — based on a forthcoming book Pogrebin and Kelly are writing about the Kavanaugh allegations — was updated to say that friends of the student who may have been assaulted say she does not remember the alleged incident.
Here’s the relevant passage of the Times piece, with the clause that was added in the second version in bold:
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. Mr. Stier, who runs a nonprofit organization in Washington, notified senators and the F.B.I. about this account, but the F.B.I. did not investigate and Mr. Stier has declined to discuss it publicly. We corroborated the story with two officials who have communicated with Mr. Stier; the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say she does not recall the episode.
To be clear, the change is a significant one. If the student doesn’t recall the episode, the accusation that Kavanaugh and others may have assaulted her is arguably weaker than if she did. But, contrary to what Fox News would have you believe, the change to the Times story does not prove that the alleged incident didn’t happen.
As the above excerpt details, one of Kavanaugh’s classmates, Max Stier, claims to have witnessed the alleged misconduct, and told the FBI and US senators about his recollections. The allegation also tracks closely with a separate sexual misconduct allegation made by another Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s, Deborah Ramirez, who came forward during Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS confirmation process last year to accuse him of thrusting his exposed penis at her, prompting her to inadvertently touch it, during a drunken college party.
Furthermore, in a Q&A piece addressing criticisms of the Times’s presentation of the story, Times deputy editorial page director James Dao notes that Pogrebin and Kelly corroborated Stier’s allegation “with two government officials, who said they found it credible.”
A fixation on the Times’s process has helped obscure new information about existing allegations
Ramirez’s accusation was the second sexual misconduct allegation made against Kavanaugh last year. It came on the heels of an allegation from Christine Blasey Ford shortly after Kavanaugh’s nomination, accusing him of sexually assaulting her during a party when the two of them were high school acquaintances in Maryland.
In the New York Times article adapted from their forthcoming book, Pogrebin and Kelly write that months of reporting indicated to them that both Ford and Ramirez’s accusations are credible. From their piece:
But while we found Dr. Ford’s allegations credible during a 10-month investigation, Ms. Ramirez’s story could be more fully corroborated. 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.
At least seven people, including Ms. Ramirez’s mother, heard about the Yale incident long before Mr. Kavanaugh was a federal judge. Two of those people were classmates who learned of it just days after the party occurred, suggesting that it was discussed among students at the time.
The significance of this part of the Times piece has been obscured by controversy surrounding the Times’s revision — one Pogrebin attributed during an MSNBC appearance to “the haste of the editing process,” with Kelly adding that their book “has a much fuller context.” Fox News, however, has already twisted the story into an opportunity to attack the New York Times in particular, and media outlets that try to hold Trump accountable in general.
On Tuesday morning, for instance, Fox News host Sandra Smith’s interviewed Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), largely about the Kavanaugh story. But instead of engaging with the substance of any of the allegations, Smith and Tillis teamed up to trash the New York Times, with Tillis dismissing the story as “another liberal media mob hit” and Smith falsely characterizing the piece as “corrected” and “botched.” This has been the vogue talking point both during the day and on Fox News’s primetime shows — to cite another example, on Monday night, host Sean Hannity accused the Times of “intentionally and willfully” misleading its readers, despite the fact that the Times has not retracted its reporting about the new allegation.
It should be noted that Fox News is not alone among media outlets in conflating “correction” with clarification. And certainly the New York Times bears responsibility for not being careful to provide the full context for the allegation from the start. But the network is the most prominent voice using the “editors’ note” to cast doubt upon all the allegations Kavanaugh faces — a tactic that has been taken up by the president himself.
Fox News’s handling of the situation illustrates how willing the network is to seize on any opportunity to defend not only the president, but those aligned with him — even if its anchors must distort the facts to do so.