NYT Criticized For Burying Lede About New Kavanaugh Allegations

Updated: September 16, 2019
MediaFile has updated this article to reflect an editor’s note The New York Times published on Sunday evening, which included important information about the allegations made by Max Stier.

The New York Times came under fire on Saturday for its mishandling of new information which is said to corroborate sexual harassment allegations made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation last year.

In the article, Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly revealed that a previously unverified allegation made by Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University, had been corroborated by seven people, including two classmates who recalled hearing about the alleged misconduct days after it occurred.

Pogrebin and Kelly also reported that another classmate from Yale, Max Stier, had witnessed Kavanaugh harass another female student during a party, and had notified the FBI of the incident during Kavanaugh’s bitter Senate confirmation last year. Stier’s story was later judged to be credible by “two officials” who had communicated with him, Pogrebin and Kelly said. On Sunday evening, however, The Times published an editor’s note clarifying that the woman Stier claimed he saw being harassed had declined to be interviewed, and that her friends had said she did not recall the incident.

In the end, the FBI never investigated Stier’s account and declined to interview any one of the more than 25 individuals who Ramirez’s lawyers suggested could corroborate her allegations, the article claimed.

When the article was published on Saturday evening, The Times was immediately criticized for burying the news about corroborating evidence deeper in the story, which was framed as an opinion piece about the culture of harassment at Yale in the 1980s. 

In fact, the first mention of corroborating evidence does not come until the tenth and eleventh paragraphs. Additionally, it is not revealed until the end of the 1,800-word story that the FBI agents who interviewed Ramirez judged her to be “credible” but said they lacked the authority to investigate further.

Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press, asked on Twitter why the revelations were not published separately on the front page with a “hard news lede,” while Moira Donegan, a columnist at The Guardian, questioned why the revelations were published in the opinion section in the first place.

Others observed the inconsistency of publishing the story under the opinion section, but also describing it as a “news analysis” piece—a kind of explanatory article which does not contain editorial opinions and is usually authored by reporters who have broken multiple stories on a particular topic and can offer context about the larger picture.

“News analysis” articles on the Trump administration, for instance, are regularly written by White House correspondents like Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, including this piece about the government shutdown earlier this year and a recent analysis of Trump’s comments about Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair. In both instances, the articles were published as news, not opinion, in The Times’ politics section.

Donegan also criticized The Times for a separate controversy, in which its opinion section promoted the story in a since-deleted tweet which referred to Kavanaugh’s alleged misconduct as “harmless fun.” The Times later issued an apology for the tweet, calling it “clearly inappropriate and offensive” and adding that it would be reviewing the decision-making process with those involved.

“Between the tweet calling sexual assault “harmless fun,” the framing of this bombshell article as being primarily about social life at Yale, and the placement of this story in the opinion section, it’s abundantly clear that the Times needs a public editor,” Donegan wrote.

Meanwhile, Michelangelo Signorile, a former editor-at-large at The Huffington Post and host of the Michelangelo Signorile Show on Sirius XM Radio, observed how other outlets like The Post and Axios directly led with the information about Ramirez and Stier’s allegations in their coverage of The Times’ piece.

“It’s got [to] be weird to have every other news org re-writing your story with the lede in the right place,” Signorile tweeted.

In comments emailed to MediaFile, Signorile said The Times exercised “very poor news judgment” in burying the revelations in the middle of the story, adding that the confusing description of the story as both “news analysis” and opinion “bolsters the idea that there was a fear of reporting the story as hard news.” On the subject of the deleted tweet, Signorile said that it was not only “highly offensive,” but also seemed to “make it a smaller, less explosive story.” 

“We have seen instance after instance, in which the Times has mischaracterized a story, or downplayed it, or used a headline that was mind-bogglingly incorrect,” Signorile said. “There are meetings and discussions, or the editor does a few interviews, but the larger problem, which appears to be systemic, doesn’t get corrected.”

Signorile also called on The Times to reinstate the position of public editor, which was eliminated in May 2017, saying that the paper has a responsibility to be more transparent with its readers and that this incident “only adds to others that erode the trust of readers and [the] public.”

“A mistake that happens once in a while, and which is properly addressed, is understandable at every news organization,” he concluded. “But these kind[s] of instances, frequent and addressed poorly, reflect something larger and have [a] lasting impact.”

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