Less than three years ago, journalists helped spark change throughout American culture when they exposed the pattern of sexual abuse and harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Investigative work by reporters has since led to the resignation, firing and sometimes prosecution of powerful men in politics, business and entertainment.
The partisan contours of the #MeToo movement came to bear during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, where Republicans went on the defensive against credible allegations of sexual assault from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Democrats positioned themselves as the party of #MeToo and fought tooth and nail to investigate the claim.
Cable news, major newspapers and online outlets covered the story around the clock, investigating new claims, and analyzing. And that’s for good reason. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment by powerful people are up against incredible odds. When reporters decide to investigate their stories, it provides an avenue for survivors to change that power dynamic and leverage demand for true accountability.
Last year, a number of women came forward to express that Biden had made physical contact with them in a way that they found very inappropriate. Among them was a former Biden Senate staffer named Tara Reade, who spoke about how the former Vice President “touched her several times making her feel uncomfortable.”
This year, on March 24, The Intercept’s Ryan Grimm reported new allegations from Reade that her uncomfortable interactions with Biden included a sexual assault that occurred in the workplace. Her brother and a friend both went on record to say that she told them about the assault after it took place.
Grimm also reported that Reade had taken these allegations to the Time’s Up legal defense fund, which provides legal support for survivors, and even helped some of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. The fund had declined to help Reade because they claimed that working on an allegation against a political candidate would violate their status as a non-profit.
— The Intercept (@theintercept) March 24, 2020
The day after the Intercept story, Reade recorded a podcast interview with Rolling Stone reporter Katie Halper to talk more about her experience:
— Katie Halper (@kthalps) March 25, 2020
The week this information came to light, Vox became perhaps the first mainstream liberal outlet to cover the story with the article The Sexual Assualt Allegation Against Joe Biden, Explained. But since that piece, there has been practically radio silence on the story from most mainstream and legacy outlets. That includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC and NPR. Meanwhile, conservative media outlets, which notably rallied to brush aside and disprove the allegations against Kavanaugh, are now jumping at the chance to possibly use the allegations to hurt Biden as well as cast doubt on the entire #MeToo premise.
Joe Biden Said To Believe Women Who Say They’re Sexual Assault Victims. Now He’s Denying A Woman’s Sexual Assault Accusation. https://t.co/zfWAruNfNm
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) March 29, 2020
The Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi was one of the first in the press to point this out: “Rightwing news outlets have gleefully seized upon the accusations against Biden; the story has also been discussed by leftwing commentators. However, the mainstream media has largely ignored the allegations. Instead, there have been headlines like The top 10 women Joe Biden might pick as VP (CNN) and Joe Biden’s inner circle: No longer a boy’s club (AP).”
Joe Biden has since become the presumptive Democratic nominee to take on Donald Trump in November. He will now occupy the media spotlight for months, and a new dynamic is already taking shape; conservative outlets cynically use Reade’s allegations to politically damage Biden while major centrist and liberal news fail to engage. The problem with that dynamic is neither centers accountability or avenues for justice for survivors.
Of course, it’s worth repeating that Trump has a number of sexual assault and harassment allegations against him. He also admitted to sexual assault on tape, which first surfaced in 2016. Journalists would be right to avoid turning the serious and nuanced issue of sexual assault by presidential candidates into yet another “both-sides” bonanza. But at the same time, they can’t let the fear of potentially obfuscating the difference between the two candidates stop them from reporting on accusations that deserve a robust public airing.
Journalists have been an essential institution for furthering the #MeToo movement. It would be a shame if the Biden campaign cruises to November without any serious questions from the reporters who have the platform and resources to hold the powerful accountable.