If you’re looking for evidence that at least some people at the paper are embarrassed by this past weekend’s fiasco, look no further than this Vanity Fair scoop. One of the questions asked by left-wing critics of the Times’s Kavanaugh story is why it was shunted off into the Sunday Review section, which is edited by the paper’s opinion staff, instead of receiving a splashy treatment in the news section befitting the gravity of a new sexual-misconduct claim against a Supreme Court justice. The Times’s deputy opinion page editor, James Dao, offered a “neutral” explanation for that decision: The Sunday Review section is typically the section where the paper publishes “excerpts or adaptations from books.” The new reporting on Kavanaugh comes from a new book. Simple as that.
But that’s not what “people familiar with how things went down” told Vanity Fair. Supposedly the news section *did* have first crack at the new claim about a woman’s hand being placed on Kavanaugh’s dong during a party at Yale when the two were students.
They passed. Why?
Why did the Kavanaugh excerpt end up in the Review? People familiar with how things went down told me that Kelly and Pogrebin initially pitched their scoop to the news side, but the top editors ultimately felt that there wasn’t enough juice to warrant a story there, let alone a big page-one treatment (the type many lefties would have been salivating for). Instead, Pogrebin and Kelly were told that they could pitch the Review, which is entirely independent of the News department. I asked for clarification as to what about the story wasn’t News-pages-worthy, but the Times declined to comment, as did Kelly and Pogrebin. (A Times spokesperson did, however, point out that “it’s not unusual for Opinion or Sunday Review pieces to break news.”)
I got mixed reactions from insiders as to whether the Times made the right call. Some agree that the new material, as presented in the book, wasn’t earth-shattering, especially since the anonymous woman at the center of the alleged penis-thrusting incident claims to not remember it. (In a related story, the Washington Post revealed on Monday that it “did not publish a story” about the incident last year “in part because the intermediaries declined to identify the alleged witness and because the woman who was said to be involved declined to comment.”) Others feel that if a piece of reporting meets the standards of the Review, then it should meet the standards of the News department, and vice versa. Still others find it surprising that newsroom brass didn’t want what Pogrebin and Kelly were offering. Summing up the internal vibe on this overall, one source said, “The most charitable read is that the Times sometimes twists itself in knots with weird internal rules and traditions.”
“There wasn’t enough juice to warrant a story” is an odd thing to say about a scoop of this magnitude, presuming that “juice” means buzzworthiness. But I don’t think that’s what it means in context. “Juice” here means credibility: Of course the Times’s news section would have loved to showcase a new allegation about fratty Brett Kavanaugh finding comedy in sexually assaulting a classmate, but there just wasn’t enough by way of evidence to meet the section’s standards for publication. How could there have been when the supposed victim herself doesn’t remember it happening?
But there was enough for the Sunday Review section, strangely. “I seriously don’t get this new standard where reporters think passing on second- or third-hand hearsay, or campus legend, is suddenly OK,” tweeted NRO’s Kyle Smith this morning. It isn’t okay! — for the news division. It’s fine for opinion, apparently. If you vaguely remember something that may or may not have happened when you were in college and may or may not have involved Brett Kavanaugh and isn’t actually corroborated by the alleged victim, we can’t call that a “fact”…
…but I suppose we could call it an “opinion.” That’s good enough for the paper of record, it seems. Which reminds me of a question I asked yesterday: Has the *print edition* of the Times acknowledged any problems with its Kavanaugh story yet? They added that “editor’s note” to the online version but as I write this at 11 a.m. ET on Tuesday I’m unaware of any print correction or retraction or follow-up story that delves into the controversy about the piece. Print readers presumably remain completely in the dark that there’s any problem with the article.
In fact, the little Q&A feature I linked up top in which Dao answered questions about the story somehow avoids answering the most burning question about it. Why was it never mentioned that the alleged victim of the newly reported assault by Kavanaugh doesn’t remember it happening? Here’s as close as Dao gets to responding:
Some readers have argued that the latest accusation against Mr. Kavanaugh was too weak to appear in The Times. Given that the woman who was said to be involved in the incident refused to be interviewed, and her friends have said she doesn’t remember what happened, why did you include that accusation in the essay?
DAO: The essay included a previously unreported claim that friends pushed Mr. Kavanaugh’s penis into the hand of a female Yale student during a dorm party with drunken classmates. During the authors’ investigation, they learned that a classmate, Max Stier, witnessed the event and later reported it to senators and to the F.B.I. The authors corroborated his story with two government officials, who said they found it credible. Based on that corroboration, we felt mentioning the claim as one part of a broader essay was warranted.
That’s a defense of why Stier’s claim was included in the piece, not an explanation for why the alleged victim’s denial wasn’t included. As we now know from the authors of the piece, the denial *was* included originally. The paper’s editors took it out. Why? Radio silence from Dao.
I strongly recommend reading that entire Q&A, by the way, just to see the bias on display *even while the paper is trying to clean up its earlier bias.* Of the five questions posed there about the Kavanaugh piece, only one — the one I just quoted — has to do with the paper being unfair to Kavanaugh by running unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct. Of the other four, three are basically left-wing complaints that the paper should have done more to promote the smear and the fourth has to do with the weird phrasing of a tweet the paper sent while promoting it.
Just to put a cherry on top here, it turns out that the authors of the book that inspired the Times story on Kavanaugh never actually spoke to Stier himself about the bombshell allegation. They’ve confirmed — I think? — that Stier *did* make this accusation last year, but they weren’t able to grill him about the details or personally test his credibility.
Max Stier refused to talk to authors of new anti-Kavanaugh book. From MSNBC: pic.twitter.com/GiorY47AD3
— Byron York (@ByronYork) September 17, 2019
That was from an interview last night. When the authors were interviewed again this morning on CNN, however, they were cagier about whether they’d spoken to Stier — as if not wanting to further undermine their reporting by forthrightly admitting that they haven’t spoken to the key witness for their new bombshell allegation against Kavanaugh. (Whom, by the way, they also fail to note was a Clinton defense lawyer with a possible partisan motive in accusing Kavanaugh.) How many more layers of shadiness can be piled onto this incident?
Last night NYT’s @katekelly said she didn’t talk to her key source, Max Stier. Now she says “we can’t address our sources” but says Stier is “a very respected, good governance advocate.” pic.twitter.com/6P661aPZ4X
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) September 17, 2019