The Media Had a Formula for Reporting Sexual Misconduct. Then Joe Biden Was Accused.

For nearly three weeks after it surfaced, Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden was ignored or downplayed in the media. A Jacobin analysis shows that she’s been covered unlike any other accuser in the post–Me Too era.

Joe Biden delivers remarks about the coronavirus outbreak at the Hotel Du Pont on March 12 in Wilmington, DE. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Nearly a year ago, journalist E. Jean Carroll wrote an essay in which she publicly accused the president of the United States of sexually assaulting her in a dressing room more than two decades ago. The accused, or rather, his press team, called it “false.” There was no evidence Carroll could point to — how could there be? — except for two people she had told at the time, who confirmed the memory to New York magazine.

The story was left off the front pages of the nation’s top newspapers, including the New York Times, which banished it to its book section, and was nowhere to be found among the 164 stories on the paper’s homepage (executive editor Dean Baquet later admitted the Times had been “overly cautious” and had underplayed the story). On TV, the Sunday shows largely gave it a pass. The most powerful man in the world had been credibly accused of sexual assault, and no one seemed to care.

Fast-forward nine months later. A woman has come forward to publicly accuse the frontrunner to become the next president of the United States of sexually assaulting her in a Senate office more than two decades ago. The accused’s team has called the story “false.” There is no evidence, except the two people still living whom the accuser confided in at the time, who confirmed to the Intercept their memory of being told the story.

The result has again been media silence, only this time with a twist. Because not only has Tara Reade and her allegation against Democratic frontrunner and now presumptive nominee Joe Biden inexplicably received perhaps the least mainstream media attention of any high-profile sexual assault allegation of the past three years, but it is some of the news outlets most critical of the media’s treatment of Carroll and other survivors who are choosing to ignore the story — or, in some cases, undermining their gravity.

After Hillary Clinton’s loss, liberals harshly criticized the press for reporting on hacked Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails, whose revelations damaged her campaign against Trump. The Times itself charged that every major news outlet became “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence” for doing their jobs. Some journalists have publicly questioned their decision to report negatively on Trump’s opposition, such as the Times’s own Amy Chozik.

“The choice wasn’t between getting it right and getting it first,” the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reflected in December 2016 on reporting about the leaks; “it was between getting it first and playing to the potential agenda of an anonymous source — a source who could have been an adversarial world power such as Russia or a more nefarious source or just some random hacker.”

Donald Trump is an odious figure who deserves scorn and criticism. But as one observes the demonstrably different standards the media have applied to a sexual assault allegation against the man many see as his best-placed rival, it’s hard not to suspect that parts of the press have unhealthily internalized partisan accusations that their reporting put him in power.

A Deafening Silence

The mainstream media silence around Reade was abruptly broken on Sunday, when the New York Times reported on her allegation, leading to a flood of stories from other mainstream outlets. But it’s worth taking stock of where the situation was at the end of last week.

Two weeks after the Intercept first broke the story, and after the world first heard the details of what allegedly happened to Reade in interviews with Katie Halper and Rising’s Krystal Ball, the national, mainstream outlets that had covered Reade’s allegation could be counted squarely on both hands: Yahoo News, Newsweek, the Huffington Post, Vox, the Economist, the Guardian, and Democracy Now!, which interviewed Reade.

None of the country’s biggest newspapers had covered the allegation whatsoever, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today and the Washington Post. Only the latter had even mentioned Reade’s allegation: a single time, in a reader question about the odds of New York governor Andrew Cuomo becoming the nominee “in light of the Tara Reade bombshell”; in his answer, the Post’s Aaron Blake — the same person who years earlier mused that accurate reporting that potentially serves a pro-Trump agenda “adds a whole new element to the journalistic equation” — avoided even referencing the allegation. Reporting about it was absent from Politico, too.

Nor was it covered by CNN or MSNBC, in either their political coverage or interviews with the former vice president. According to Newsbusters, a right-wing media watchdog, Biden sat for at least four interviews with cable news hosts in the six days that followed the allegation, including an hour-long CNN town hall. None of the forty-one questions he fielded were about the allegation.

Indeed, one of the ironies of Reade’s story is that while the mainstream press ignored the story, it was being extensively covered by right-wing media, including Fox News, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, Reason, and the Daily Wire. Where the past three years have seen mainstream and left-leaning news outlets devote increasing resources to reporting on sexual misconduct by powerful men and grant survivors a larger platform, right-wing outlets such as these have been openly skeptical, even disdainful, when accusations have targeted conservatives.

With a powerful Democrat now under the spotlight, the roles have seemingly reversed. And much of the conservative coverage of Reade’s story is now aimed at hitting mainstream outlets for hypocrisy.

The Standard Last Year

Compared to the dearth of coverage of Reade, Carroll’s allegation was treated like the story of the century. Carroll may have inexplicably been relegated to the New York Times book section, but the paper at least devoted an entire piece to it the day it broke. Under criticism for under-covering the story, the Times followed up six days later with a much more in-depth, prominent feature on it. Even as four of the “big five” TV networks left her off their coverage in the days that followed her essay, Carroll’s story was nonetheless covered by MSNBC, NBC News’ online portal, NPR, the Atlantic, and Vanity Fair, among others.

By contrast, until Sunday, none of these outlets so much as mentioned the existence of Reade’s allegation. Some still haven’t.

Of the major newspapers named above that failed to cover Reade’s allegation two weeks later, all but one reported on Carroll’s the same day it was revealed: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Tribune, and the Boston Globe, typically after interviewing Carroll and getting corroboration from her friend. Often, they ran follow-up pieces in the days after. USA Today ran its piece on Carroll’s allegation a day after it first broke. In the days and months since, Carroll’s story received a steady amount of media attention, and she was invited onto CNN three days after her story broke. By June 26, five days after the story first ran, it was fodder for late-night talk show hosts.

At the time, the muted response to Carroll’s allegation saw news outlets big and small noting, sometimes angrily, the lack of media coverage that greeted it. The fact that Carroll’s story didn’t receive the “wall-to-wall coverage” comedian Samantha Bee felt it deserved led her to launch a celebrated takedown of the press within a week of the story breaking. Others followed suit.

“E. Jean Carroll accused the president of sexual assault — and the media didn’t seem to care,” wrote Vanity Fair.

“Why Has the Reaction to a Rape Allegation Against the President Been So Muted?” asked New York magazine, which had broken the story.

Similar pieces have been written about Reade’s allegation, but they’ve been limited to outlets that covered it from the start, such as the Hill and Huffington Post. The outlets that railed against Carroll’s relative erasure from the press failed to muster the same outrage about Reade, who received far less attention.

MSNBC’s silence particularly stands out. It was the Democrat-aligned network that first allowed Carroll to recount her story, appearing with Joy Reid, who charged that the media had “relatively buried” it, and thundered that “in any other universe, in any other presidency, in any other news cycle, E. Jean Carroll’s bombshell revelations against the sitting president of the United States would have been the lead story all week long, as soon as they dropped.” Elsewhere, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough complained that “there are a lot of Democrats out there that are saying, ‘Wait a second. Joe Biden placed his hands on a woman’s shoulders, and that got more press coverage on every Sunday show than [Carroll’s accusations].’” (“How balanced do you have to be when one side is irrational?” Scarborough once said about his attacks on Trump.)

MSNBC finally reported on Reade’s allegation about Biden on Sunday, ending the report by “underscor[ing] that the current sitting president has also faced multiple accusations that he denies.”

Beyond Carroll’s story, it’s difficult to comport the lack of Reade’s coverage with how the stories of other accusers of powerful men have been treated in the media. Take Christine Blasey Ford and her accusation against Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, another allegation whose existence, as with Reade, was first revealed by the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, who reported on a letter being withheld from the Judiciary Committee.

Two days later, Ronan Farrow first revealed the content of that letter for the New Yorker, namely that it accused Kavanaugh of holding down a girl at a party and trying to force himself on her as a high-school student in the early 1980s. The allegation was immediately and widely covered across the media the same day Farrow’s piece ran, with outlets ranging from the New York Times, USA Today, and the Guardian to CNN, the Washington Post, and NPR re-reporting its details. At the time, several of the key elements that have lent credibility to Reade’s allegation were absent: Blasey Ford’s identity wasn’t known, no journalist had spoken to her, and no one had yet corroborated her accusation.

The Times Weighs In

The treatment of Reade’s story by the New York Times, the first major paper to even acknowledge the existence of Reade or her allegation, is particularly difficult to square with its coverage of other accusers.

One is the time frame. Though the paper says it “began reporting on her account and seeking corroboration” as soon as the Intercept broke the story, it ultimately took the Times nearly three weeks to put out a report. By contrast, the paper’s report on Carroll dropped the same day that the rest of the world found out about it, and the same goes for its story on Blasey Ford’s letter.

Some have defended the Times, arguing that it takes time to get the reporting right. But while the paper no doubt needed time to interview dozens of former Biden staffers for its in-depth evaluation of Reade’s allegation, it could’ve reported on the existence of the allegation at the time it surfaced by simply speaking to Reade’s witnesses. This is exactly what it did in the case of Carroll and Trump, writing an initial report after interviewing the two friends Carroll confided in at the time, before releasing a longer, more detailed profile of Carroll six days later that featured the testimony of many more interviewees.

It’s even harder to square with the Times’s reporting on the accusation against Kavanaugh: the paper reported on the allegations the day the broke, basing its report entirely on an anonymous letter the paper admitted it hadn’t even seen.

The content also raises eyebrows. Though the most newsworthy part of the Times’s report is that it further corroborates Reade’s story — there is now a third person who recalls Reade telling her about it at the time, and two former interns confirm Reade was suddenly pulled off her duties, as she has repeatedly claimed — the paper instead framed the piece around denials by Biden’s staff, most of whom were never told about the incident in the first place. “Former Senate office staff members do not recall such an incident,” the paper concludes in the article’s subhead.

Mystifyingly, the paper devotes two paragraphs to detailing Trump’s history of sexual misconduct, which the paper informs readers “went far beyond the accusations against Mr. Biden.”

It’s a stark contrast to the sympathetic treatment the Times offered Kavanaugh accuser Deborah Ramirez, who the Times reported on two days after her allegation surfaced, without interviewing her or being able to find a witness (the New Yorker confirmed one fellow student remembered the incident in question, and a year later the Times published a more detailed report corroborating it further). Unlike when covering Reade, denials from those loyal to the accused were relegated to the bottom of the piece, which centered Ramirez and her story, and made her struggle to find a corroborating witness part of a tender opening to the piece.

Nonetheless, the Times piece opened the floodgates in the mainstream press, as several other outlets apparently spontaneously concluded their own weeks-long investigations into the allegation on the same day, including the Washington Post and NBC News.

When Kavanaugh was accused in 2018, all three of these outlets had reported on the allegation against him the day it broke, when the only source was a letter none of the reporters involved had even seen; when it was Biden, they took nearly three weeks, despite the existence of two people corroborating the accuser’s story from the beginning.

Doubt From Unexpected Quarters

While most outlets chose to simply ignore Reade, others took a different tack: playing down or even attempting to discredit her allegation. In an added twist, it’s some of the most vocal forums of liberal feminism who took on this task.

Some simply ignored it. New York magazine, which had broken the Carroll story and noted its lack of media coverage, didn’t report on Reade’s story, only updating a year-old round-up of Biden accusers on Sunday with Reade’s new allegation. It published a standalone piece later that day.

Others have taken an explicitly skeptical tone. Salon’s Amanda Marcotte wrote a piece purporting to set the record straight on the controversy, arguing the press was rightly taking “a slow and careful approach.” Various “red flags” in Reade’s story — namely, the fact that she added details to her story over time, was publicly complimentary of Biden, supported some of his rivals, and that his longtime staff issued denials — mean what’s “likely driving the silence — so far — is a genuine reluctance to dive into a story that contains such a high number of complicating factors and proves difficult to pin down.”

Marcotte was less sanguine when the accuser in question was Carroll and the accused was Donald Trump. “Trump accused of rape, major media yawns,” she wrote only three days after Carroll’s story broke. For Marcotte, that case was “an incredibly serious story, deserving of at least the wall-to-wall coverage and outrage that greeted” the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, concluding that “the main reason the media is underplaying this story is that women are still not taken seriously as full citizens and participants in our democracy.” Carroll’s story was not a “he said/she said,” she wrote, but “backed by significant evidence,” citing the friends Carroll had spoken to at the time — an aspect Marcotte treats with far less significance in the Reade case.

Marcotte’s reasoning that “red flags” in Reade’s story justify media inaction is difficult to comport with how “imperfect” survivors have been treated by the press in the past, including by Marcotte herself. Inconsistencies and gaps in Blasey Ford’s testimony hadn’t stopped Marcotte from deciding she had been an “oasis of clear-headed competence, decency and genuine commitment to the value of truth and civic duty.”

The fact that Reade’s “public statements about Biden were entirely positive” was a red flag for Marcotte that muddied the waters for reporters. Elsewhere, Marcotte has cited Trump accuser Jill Harth, without taking the time to weigh the “red flags” of Harth’s own personal history, which included dating Trump after he attempted to rape her, and a year earlier sending his campaign emails asking for a job and stating that she was “definitely on Team Trump.”

It was a similar situation with feminist outlet Jezebel, which, unlike its treatment of presidential candidate Trump’s sexual misconduct, took six days to cover Reade’s allegation, and has only done so once. Though acknowledging Reade’s story was “both harrowing and credible,” Jezebel chose to frame its coverage of the bombshell not around a leading presidential candidate’s alleged assault of a staffer, but around a critique of Halper’s handling of the story even as it acknowledges Halper had confirmed Reade’s account with her brother and friend — the core of what Reade is alleging.

Jezebel has taken a very different approach to reporting on accusations made against other powerful men. Just four days earlier, it had quickly reported on a rape allegation against rapper French Montana, based entirely on anonymous allegations made in a lawsuit. The same applies to other political figures already mentioned. Jezebel wrote early and often on the accusations against Kavanaugh, including when Blasey Ford’s accusation was still an anonymously penned, uncorroborated letter reporters hadn’t actually seen. It likewise covered Ramirez’s allegation the day it was first reported, at a time when the New Yorker was only able to find a single classmate to corroborate it — less than the “lack of corroboration” the outlet now claims for Reade’s story.

And it raged at the “absence of effect” and lack of “attention and outrage” that greeted Carroll’s story, excoriating the Times for its cautious treatment of the story even though the paper had “taken the time to re-corroborate Carroll’s story with the two friends she spoke to after the alleged assault — a detail that New York had already explicitly, prominently fact-checked.” As with Marcotte, what was significant evidence for Jezebel when Trump was accused became buried by handwringing when it was Biden in question.

Despairing at the lack of coverage for Carroll, the outlet had waved away attempts to justify media silence on the issue. The words and actions of a powerful political figure, it concluded,

regardless of how petty, how baseless — will always remain the domain of news, while the words and recounting of the woman he allegedly assaulted — no matter how exactingly constructed her story, how righteous her message, how broad her platform — will remain fodder for analysis.

A year later, it reads as an indictment of the treatment Jezebel itself has given Reade’s story.

Jacobin sent the Times, Marcotte, and Jezebel a detailed list of questions about what the editorial thought process was behind covering Reade’s allegations differently to previous accusers. Only Jezebel responded, though it declined to answer any of the questions:

Jezebel wrote about and reported on Reade’s credible story, as we did with Christine Blasey Ford, E. Jean Carroll, an anonymous Al Franken accuser, and countless others. Your questions suggest that there was some ulterior motive for not covering Reade’s story with more frequency, which is both disingenuous and insulting.

The Wages of Silence

It’s fair to say that Tara Reade has been treated unlike any high-profile accuser of the past three years.

While previous accusers of powerful men were widely covered in mainstream print, digital, and TV media, only a handful of outlets trickled out stories on Reade’s allegation. While widespread coverage greeted past accusers almost instantly, it has taken nearly three weeks for Reade’s mere existence to be acknowledged by a single major newspaper. And while there was no shortage of articles fiercely criticizing the media’s underplaying of another survivor’s story, those same critics have now taken to justifying the even more egregious media silence over Reade’s.

Defenders of this particular media silence are right to insist on vetting accusers’ claims, no matter how long it takes. Yet Reade’s story started out with as much corroboration as previous claims that saw no similar delay in reporting — in fact, it had more than several key cases.

“The model going forward will likely involve Republican media covering Democratic corruption and Democratic media covering Republican corruption,” Matt Taibbi lamented in August 2016.

With Reade’s case, we appear to be seeing that playing out in real time. And that approach will fail not only political discourse, but future accusers of sufficiently powerful men or women.