The NYT Article on Tara Reade is a Masterclass on Journalistic Sleight of Hand
- Content warning: the following article contains mention and description of sexual assault.
Nearly three weeks ago, on March 24, the Intercept broke the story of Tara Reade, detailing her claims of being sexually assaulted by Joe Biden in 1993, and her struggle to get legal help in coming forward.
If you didn’t know about Reade, you’re not alone – the biggest media outlets stayed silent for weeks after the Intercept’s article. Now, the New York Times has published this evaluation of Reade’s claims: “Examining Tara Reade’s Sexual Assault Allegation Against Joe Biden.”
The examination has already received criticism on Twitter from a broad audience, for this reason:
The New York Times has since deleted that tweet, replying, “We’ve deleted a tweet in this thread that had some imprecise language that has been changed in the story.”
But, imprecise or not, the original tweet was an accurate reflection of the content of the article. That, if you ignore the pattern of sexual misconduct by Joe Biden, of course, there is no pattern of sexual misconduct by Biden.
The article by the New York Times is a rhetorical masterclass on how survivors get silenced, especially those that threaten the political establishment. Through subtle comparison, implied doubt, and double standards, NYT has published what reads as a “debunking” of Reade, though her claims remain largely credible and they were unable to prove that the assault never happened.
Journalism is a tricky field. Journalists are often asked to hold themselves to a standard of unbiased reporting that simply does not exist in practice. Every word of a headline, every parenthetical phrase or auxiliary detail, has an implication and perspective. But perspectives and implications can be more or less fair, more or less supported by the facts, and more or less correct. I’m not going to make the case that NYT should have, or even could have, published a fully unbiased evaluation of Tara Reade’s claims — my case is that their article purports itself to be unbiased, but is in fact a subtle condemnation of her story.
(This section is going to rely heavily on screenshots and quotes from the NYT article as of the afternoon of April 12 2020, and thus will not be able to reflect future edits or corrections.)
Reader, let’s go through, point by point, every part of this article where I can identify some rhetorical gymnastics at play. You’re welcome to read the article and play along yourself.
1. Reade’s are the only motivations questioned in the article.
“Ms. Reade made her new allegation public as Mr. Biden was closing in on the Democratic presidential nomination after winning a string of primaries against his chief rival, Senator Bernie Sanders. Ms. Reade, who describes herself as a “third-generation Democrat,” said she originally favored Marianne Williamson and Senator Elizabeth Warren in the race but voted for Mr. Sanders in the California primary last month. She said her decision to come forward had nothing to do with politics or helping Mr. Sanders, and said neither his campaign nor the Trump campaign had encouraged her to make her allegation.”
In this section of the article, NYT addresses the timing of Reade’s allegations, implying the strategic merit of coming forward at the time that she did. They then provide Reade’s political beliefs, which they report as in opposition to the man that she is accusing. They don’t explicitly ask if her accusation could be a political ploy to damage Biden, but they publish her denial of that suggestion, and thereby subtly insert it as a possibility.
It is objectively true that Bernie Sanders and his supporters, which apparently includes Reade, would have something to gain from a credible accusation of sexual assault against Joe Biden.
However, nowhere in the article is it implied that Joe Biden, a prominent politician and presumptive Democratic nominee for President, has significant material motivation to deny the accusation, and the Democratic establishment that has their hopes in him to defeat Trump has as much reason to cover up for him. That reality is just as objectively true as Reade’s potential motivation.
2. NYT explores the possibility of Reade being a liar, but not the ramifications of her telling the truth.
“Filing a false police report may be punishable by a fine and imprisonment.”
For me, this is one of the most damning sentences of the entire piece. There is, functionally, no reason for that sentence to be there. The illegality of filing a false police report is pretty widely known, so the NYT is not providing any new information by including it. Instead, its inclusion serves only the purpose of casting an expectation of falsehood on the report.
One could make the argument, instead, that the sentence actually provides evidence in Reade’s favor — why would she potentially risk legal trouble by filing the report if the motivation is simply to damage Biden politically? But in reality, the fact that Reade’s truthfulness is the only one in question sends the opposite message.
A fair re-write of the same point might say: “Filing a false police report may be punishable by a fine and imprisonment. In Washington D.C., being found guilty of sexual assault could incur fines and years of jail time, but the statute of limitations on first-degree sexual assault is 15 years.”
But it doesn’t. Reade is still the only one under question.
3. The article judges Biden against Trump’s standard.
The NYT article includes 3 paragraphs about President Trump’s various sexual assault and sexual misconduct allegations.
Someone naive might question why this section is even here. The article is not making a broader connection about the #MeToo movement or inquiring about the results of Trump’s sexual assault allegations and wondering if Biden may meet the same response. Why is it here?
Instead, the barely-germane section is revealed by saying that the allegations against Trump go “far beyond the accusations against Mr. Biden.”
In reality, if you take the article as a whole, the description of Trump’s treatment of women is described in more detail than Biden’s, and the article isn’t even about him.
This section, in effect, tacitly excuses Biden’s potential sexual assault by comparing him to the man he is running against in November.
4. The article ignores a very compelling public record of sexual misconduct by Joe Biden.
As much as we should talk about what’s in the article, we should also talk about what is not.
The article mentions, in only one small sentence, that last year Joe Biden was forced to make a public statement on his conduct towards women in which he promised to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”
What they do not mention is that this statement followed a long and storied public record of Biden inappropriately touching women, including a public essay written by a former Nevada assemblywoman detailing how Biden touched her and kissed her head without her consent.
This article written by Medium user Shannon Ashley has an extensive inclusion of links to places where, on camera, Biden inappropriately touched both women and girls. I dare you to read all of it, and watch all the clips. If the New York Times’ investigation of Tara Reade’s allegations missed them, then by God I fear for the future of journalism.
Now, it’s objectively true that Biden having inappropriate sexual conduct with women and girls does not necessarily make Reade’s account automatically truthful. But if Tara Reade’s political affiliations are considered germane to the conversation of whether or not she’s telling the truth, certainly Joe Biden’s capacity for sexual assault as demonstrated by his contact with other women should also be in the conversation.
5. NYT advertised the article as debunking Reade, when the story and their resulting article is far more complicated.
This brings me back to the original tweet that everyone was so up in arms about.
“No other allegation of sexual assault surfaced in the course of our reporting, nor did any former Biden staff corroborate Reade’s allegation. We found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Biden, beyond hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.”
If you simply read the tweet, you would come away thinking that Reade’s story had no evidence behind it. That’s simply not true.
The article admits that both Reade’s brother and a friend remember Reade telling them about an instance of sexual misconduct with Biden in the following months after it happened. The tweet, though, states that no former Biden staff corroborate her story.
No former Biden staff can back her up. But that doesn’t mean nobody is backing her up – the advertising of the article just conveniently ignores the people who are.
This is the expert “spin doctor” move, for those taking lessons at home. Why? Because no one ever really reads the article. Right now, you can view NYT articles for free because of their coronavirus coverage, but you still need to make an account on their website to get past what was previously a paywall. Most people will simply read the ‘short version’ put forward on NYT’s twitter or Facebook and move on — and all of those people will think that Tara Reade has no backup for her story, when she objectively does.
Ultimately, I’m not making the case that Joe Biden definitely sexually assaulted Tara Reade. That’s not my judgement to make. I am making the point that Reade’s allegation was treated incredibly unfairly by the New York Times, and has largely been ignored by the rest of the news media.
Remember #BelieveWomen? It was never about every woman automatically being honest by virtue of her womanhood, or trying potential abusers in the court of public opinion. It was about treating allegations of sexual assault as what they are — deeply personally difficult for the survivor, coming with immense personal risk and significant trauma, and treating the allegations accordingly. “Believe Women” is about the fact that Reade’s political affiliation shouldn’t be the first thing investigators look at. “Believe Women” means survivors are treated with humanity, and the person they accuse should be fairly investigated no matter how powerful. It’s despicable to me that the New York Times treats Tara Reade’s truthfulness as a question and Joe Biden’s as a definite.
I’ll lay my cards on the table — I believe Tara’s story. It rings true to me with what I know about Joe Biden, what I know about the political establishment, and what I know about the experiences of survivors. It makes sense to me that she would wait to file a report, and the report would subsequently be lost and Reade would never again get a job in DC. It makes sense to me that she would come forward in a limited way last year to corroborate the stories of other women Biden touched inappropriately, but hold back her story of assault until much later.
It even makes sense to me that she would put forward her story at the time that she did — because you watch, you wait, you hope that your abuser won’t be the one to win the nomination and potentially become President, and when it seems like he will, you speak out in hopes it can stop that from happening. You speak out and try to warn the world about a dangerous man.
We may never know for sure the veracity of Reade’s statement, but in the meantime it matters how we present what we do know. To me, the way the New York Times article and advertising were written is tantamount to a public coverup. It proves to me, again, that we only “Believe Women” when their accusations are politically convenient.
I won’t vote for Joe Biden, but I was never going to anyway. To Tara Reade, I wish for justice, and for the rest of us, I wish for a commitment to the truth that transcends what the Democratic establishment finds acceptable.