Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on her alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee to the Supreme Court, which she is giving now before the Senate Judiciary Committee, is impressive and upsetting. In her opening statement this morning, she had an important message for reporters: the media had intimidated her into coming forward.
“I’m terrified,” Ford said at the start. After recounting the details of her assault, Ford talked about her decision to send a letter to Dianne Feinstein—a senator from California, where Ford lives, and the ranking Democrat on the committee—and, anonymously, to The Washington Post. Ford’s intention was to notify the committee of her experience, in the hope, she said, that it would inform their decision. She aimed to be “helpful.” Much of what happened next was the product of the media.
“Reporters appeared at my home and at my job demanding information about this letter, including in the presence of my graduate students,” Ford said. “They called my boss and coworkers and left me many messages, making it clear that my name would inevitably be released to the media.” It was unclear how journalists had identified her. According to the Washington Post story that outed Ford, on September 16, one of them was from BuzzFeed. “I didn’t want to go the media route,” Ford said in the afternoon—in response to a question demanding why she didn’t give her story to The New York Times—but the mounting pressure forced her hand.
On Twitter, Irin Carmon, a writer for New York magazine, pointed out that this is entirely ordinary practice in journalism. Indeed, reporters commonly infringe on the privacy of people who have experienced trauma. How many young journalists, having just arrived in their newsrooms, are told that knocking on the doors of shooting victims’ families and staking out the homes of people in crisis, however uncomfortable, is an essential part the job—even a moment of professional passage? We are taught to push past the inevitable discomfort, to ignore the triggering of our internal barometers of empathy, and then to wear that feat as badge of honor. This, we are told, is part of what makes journalism not merely a job but a calling.
Reporters tracking down Christine Blasey Ford at work and home were doing their job in an ordinary way, and yet when it comes to a sexual assault survivor, it's hard not to question whether ordinary is acceptable.
— Irin Carmon (@irin) September 27, 2018
In the case of Ford, that approach contributed significantly to a campaign that pushed a victim of sexual assault to come forward in the most high stakes and public way possible. The impact of normal reporting tactics, twisted by those who wished to discredit her, became too much for Ford to bear. During the hearing, she said that the past two months have been the worst period of her life since she suffered the assault itself. After her name was revealed in the press, Ford found herself at the receiving end of harassment and death threats that came by email and phone. She was called vulgar names. Strangers posted her personal information on the internet. Just two days ago, Ford said, her work email was hacked, and messages were erroneously sent on her behalf recanting her description of assault. Her family—Ford is a mother of two boys—was forced to leave their home in the company of security guards.
The media is complicit in that response. Today, Ford described the replay of trauma she experienced as she watched her life picked apart on television news programs. As pundits speculated about her motives, they did harm not only to her, but, in their willful ignorance of research that tells why assaulted women do not speak up, an entire population. In particularly bad taste was an avalanche of coverage from right-wing outlets questioning her story before the testimony: everything from “A Spectral Witness Materializes” from The Wall Street Journal to a Fox News piece that called Ford’s story an “ambush” on Kavanaugh. “While young women are standing up and saying, ‘No more,’ our institutions have not progressed on how they treat women when they come forward,” Feinstein said in her opening remarks. “In essence, they are put on trial and forced to defend themselves, and often re-victimized in the process.”
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Despite the committee’s insistence that Thursday’s hearing is merely a job interview for Kavanaugh, not a trial, it certainly feels like one: Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor from Arizona, who was introduced by Senator Charles Grassley, the chairman of the committee, as an award-winning advocate of sex crime victims, was brought in to address both Ford and Kavanaugh. Mitchell’s handling of the senators’ questions—pursuing answers in such extreme detail as to be designed to trip up the respondent—feels distinctly legal. Though she has been repeatedly interrupted—Grassley has been a stickler for time limits—she has managed to deploy classic deposition-style strategies.
I have examined many witnesses, deposition style, as this prosecutor is doing now. These ground rules (don't guess, ask me to clarify if necessary) are not to reduce her stress. It's to pin her down. #ChristineBlaseyFord
— Lisa Bloom (@LisaBloom) September 27, 2018
I’d hoped Rachel Mitchell would act like a prosecutor, but she is 100% acting as the Republicans’ defense attorney. #KavanaghHearing
— Allison Leotta (@AllisonLeotta) September 27, 2018
This is the same non-trial trial used by some in the media, formal or not. Early Thursday, for instance, the Times deleted a tweet polling its readers about how they perceived Ford, asking, “Do you find her testimony credible?”
We're sorry for this tweet. In retrospect, a Twitter poll is insensitive in light of the gravity of this hearing. We've deleted it. pic.twitter.com/4CqRhkuCat
— NYT Opinion (@nytopinion) September 27, 2018
Journalists spend much of our professional lives wading through the justifications for our subjects’ behavior and asking when has it crossed an ethical line. This hearing shows the urgent need for us to examine our own.
For journalists, now central characters in the American political drama, those justifications often arise out of a public misunderstanding—or rejection—of our professional practices. But journalists are citizens, too. We ought to be able to explain the how and why of our work—not with a knee jerk defiant response about necessary evils, but with a measure of human decency that we’d apply in any other facet of our lives.
Ford, though visibly shaken and struggling to recount the details of a violent assault, powered through her opening statement, poised despite her duress. (The request for caffeine as she wrapped her statement, eliciting a nervous chuckle in the chambers, suggested that Ford felt responsible for softening the mood.) And of this, can we be surprised? Women are constantly made to perform, especially when detailing the facts of their trauma; the trials of being a woman make for excellent media training.