The New York Times took 19 days to report a sexual assault allegation against presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden made by former aide Tara Reade.
The newspaper then edited a paragraph to take out the problematic second half of this sentence, the part that existed beyond the first comma: “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.”
On Monday, Times executive editor Dean Baquet sat down for an interview with one of his own staff members to clear the air about the paper’s editing decisions — and inexplicably made things look worse.
Most of the interview, it must be said, was an uneventful farrago of dubious logic. Baquet’s take on why he decided to wait so long on the story is that, while it was being covered as breaking news at the time, almost no outlets (save for the Bernie-boosters over at The Intercept) were covering Reade’s claim that Biden had assaulted her in 1993 with any depth.
“I thought what The New York Times could do and bring to the story was the expertise we had developed over doing more than a dozen of these kinds of stories,” Baquet said.
This is all fine — except using such “expertise” is not mutually exclusive from covering the story as breaking news.
Baquet perhaps got a little closer to saying what he meant a few paragraphs down when he explained that “mainly I thought that what The New York Times could offer and should try to offer was the reporting to help people understand what to make of a fairly serious allegation against a guy who had been a vice president of the United States and was knocking on the door of being his party’s nominee.”
“Look, I get the argument. Just do a short, straightforward news story,” he added. “But I’m not sure that doing this sort of straightforward news story would have helped the reader understand. Have all the information he or she needs to think about what to make of this thing.”
In other words, without the full New York Times-style treatment, the paper’s executive editor thinks his readership would be unable to process or comprehend this story. I don’t know if Baquet fully comprehends what he’s saying here, or if he’s aware that he’s painting his readers as baby eaglets unable to leave the Gray Lady’s nest or consume information without little bits torn off for them by The Times’ editors. It’s worse if he does.
As for the rest, I don’t know whether to compliment Baquet for his honesty in the interview or be genuinely troubled by what honesty consisted of in a conversation not so much plagued by conflicts of interest as comprised of them.
The executive editor of the nation’s so-called “newspaper of record” went on to say it didn’t disclose it was working on the story because, “Let’s say for some reason we found out something that made us not want to write a story. Then what do we say to readers? ‘We looked at this hard and we found a reason. We found out something that made us not want to write. But we’re not going to tell you about it.'”
I’m not in Baquet’s lofty position and I haven’t seen everything there is to see, but I’d be curious about what contingency he could imagine that could cause the newspaper to just spike a sexual assault allegation against the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee and act as if nothing would happen.
That kind of attitude is critical to keep in mind when you consider what’ll be the most parsed response uttered by Baquet.
When asked why The Times changed that sentence — “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable” — the executive editor of the United States’ most influential newspaper said it was because the campaign of the man being accused of sexual assault thought it looked bad.
“Even though a lot of us, including me, had looked at it before the story went into the paper, I think that the campaign thought that the phrasing was awkward and made it look like there were other instances in which he had been accused of sexual misconduct,” Baquet said [emphasis ours]. “And that’s not what the sentence was intended to say.”
Let’s leave aside the fact Biden has been accused of wildly inappropriate violations of personal space by a cluster of people who were exclusively female — something that sounds an awful lot like it’s at least adjacent to sexual misconduct, albeit not rising to the level of what he’s accused of in the Reade case.
Baquet is admitting 1) The Biden campaign talked to The Times, 2) The Biden campaign disapproved of the way Biden was portrayed in The Times’ report and 3) that was apparently sufficient for The Times to rewrite a key sentence. This isn’t an editorial profile in courage.
We can dispense with the excuse given, too, since there’s not a hint of awkward phraseology involved.
The original sentence said what it did and did so effectively. Biden has never been accused of sexual assault beyond the allegation made by Tara Reade. After The Times investigation, that remains the only such allegation. That said, Biden’s behavior around women leaves something to be desired, which isn’t necessarily a point in his favor if you’re keeping a scorecard.
By deleting the second half, The Times didn’t so much move thoughts around to make a point more effectively — which is what Baquet is arguing — so much as extirpate a thought entirely.
If clumsy phrasing isn’t the reason The Times changed the story after the Biden campaign contacted it, I have a problem coming to a conclusion that doesn’t assume Baquet and The Times have quietly abdicated journalistic integrity.
This isn’t merely finding the lowest possible motive The Times might have and concluding it’s the only real one. There’s a very limited subset of excuses for the change that could be inferred from Baquet’s answer. Logic eliminates all alternatives but that.
And it wasn’t as if the article was unfair to the presumptive Democratic nominee. The authors already provided lenient treatment to Biden, examining Reade’s claims in a clinical, just-the-facts manner the paper hasn’t given to other political figures accused of sexual misconduct, in particular Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings or President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.
Oh, and speaking of the Trump campaign, the authors of the Times’ article about Reade’s accusation against Biden also made sure to mention that Trump “has been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by more than a dozen women, who have described a pattern of behavior that went far beyond the accusations against Mr. Biden.”
The article further contextualized the Reade allegations by reminding readers of Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, which had nothing to do with whether or not Joe Biden committed sexual assault in 1993.
Remember, Baquet was “not sure that doing this sort of straightforward news story would have helped the reader understand” — and apparently Times’ readers couldn’t understand Reade’s allegation on their own without also understanding that Trump has been accused of doing bad things, too, and more times.
No word on whether the Trump campaign contacted The Times on whether or not those few paragraphs were phrased awkwardly, but The Times doubtlessly would have changed the piece in response.
Alas, dear reader, the question of why Trump’s sexual misconduct allegations were necessary in a piece about sexual misconduct allegations against Joe Biden remained unasked during this hard-hitting New York Times “interview” by a New York Times media columnist of The New York Times’ executive editor.
There are plenty of questions as to why The Times didn’t report on the Reade allegations earlier, and Baquet’s interview didn’t answer a whole lot of them. But don’t worry: He assured readers neither he nor his paper have their thumbs on the electoral scales.
Q: Do you think that, in your heart, you’re reluctant to promote a story that would hurt Joe Biden and get Donald Trump re-elected?
A: I can’t make that calculation. I won’t. I won’t let my head or my heart go there. I think once you start making those kinds of calculations, you are not a journalist anymore. You’re some sort of political actor.
The interviewer didn’t, unfortunately, inform us whether or not Dean Baquet said all that with a straight face.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.