The Media Today

Ford, Kavanaugh, and America divided

September 28, 2018

It was a he-said-she-said exchange, #MeToo in microcosm, broadcast around the world. A gut-wrenching retelling of a woman’s trauma gave way to tribal belligerence amid unprecedented partisan criticism from a Supreme Court nominee. It was, by any measure, a terrible day for the country, as what was billed as a search for truth descended into a partisan brawl.

Thursday began with Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when both were in high school, telling senators, and the audience glued to her words, “I am terrified.” She spent nearly four hours recounting her experience, delivering, in the words of the NYT’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “a harrowing tale of casual teenage violence that put a human face on an allegation that has threatened a Supreme Court nomination and captured the attention of the nation in the throes of a profound reckoning with the realities of sexual assault.”

When Ford was finished, cable analysts overwhelmingly found her compelling. “This was extremely emotional, extremely raw and extremely credible,” Fox News’s Chris Wallace said. “Nobody could listen to her deliver those words and talk about the assault and the impact it had on her life and not have your heart go out to her.” Ford’s appearance, Wallace said, “is a disaster for Republicans.”

RELATED: For reporters covering the Kavanaugh hearing, lessons from 1991

After a halftime style stock-taking reminiscent of sports coverage—with pundits analyzing Kavanaugh’s chances, speculating on adjustments to strategy, and predicting what each side needed to do to win—Kavanaugh finally arrived in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Attacking the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and alluding to “revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” Kavanaugh’s strident tone and aggressive defense immediately set up an afternoon of partisan bickering.

“This was a speech that Sean Hannity could have given,” said Jeffrey Toobin on CNN shortly after Kavanaugh’s hearing ended. And indeed, the Fox News host praised Kavanaugh for taking on “the left’s smear machine” during his evening program. Kavanaugh’s opening statement set a belligerent tone that was picked up by Republican committee members after they decided to abandon the strategy of ceding their time to Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell.

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Michael M. Grynbaum of The New York Times compared the nine-hour hearing to a prestige television mini-series, writing that it “contained multitudes. It was a political drama that doubled as a reality show. It was an interrogation of gender, class and power in #MeToo America. It was a duel of clashing narrators. And it had elements of a major sports broadcast, a showdown between rival squads complete with halftime commentary.”

“The hearing was not only a referendum of sorts on #MeToo but also on public trust in institutions—including the news media and Congress—and on truth itself,” writes the Post’s Margaret Sullivan. She argues that the flawed process, and the Republican majority’s unwillingness to fully investigate the claims means that absolute certainty will be impossible to reach. “That will be a lasting shame. Truth is available—just as it has been throughout the past two tumultuous years. But whether, in tribal America, truth is desirable is another matter.

As the day wrapped up, conservative media’s analysis of Kavanaugh’s prospects grew more optimistic, reports Politico’s Jason Schwartz, and Republicans on the committee appeared fully in support of the nominee. (When Ford first spoke publicly, to the Post’s Emma Brown, she said she hesitated to come forward because, “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?”) The committee is scheduled to vote on Friday on whether to bring the nomination to the full Senate, and no Republicans have yet come forth to oppose Kavanaugh. Ford’s testimony may not matter in the outcome of the nomination, but her appearance on a historic day in Washington that captivated the nation’s attention will resonate long after the ninth seat on the nation’s highest court has been filled.

Below, the best writing on Thursday’s testimony.

  • The media and Christine Blasey Ford: CJR’s Alexandria Neason and Nausicaa Renner write that the media bears responsibility for bullying Ford into going public. “Journalists spend much of our professional lives wading through the justifications for our subjects’ behavior and asking when has it crossed an ethical line,” they write. “This hearing shows the urgent need for us to examine our own.
  • Ford’s impact: The Cut’s Rebecca Traister writes that “there is no denying that Blasey-Ford is a hero, and the very raising of her voice—as in the literal moment at which we first heard her speak—was a moment so powerful that it prompted furious, admiring tears.
  • Ford’s impact II: RAINN, the national sexual assault hotline, said call volume to the was up 147 percent on Thursday, according to David Fahrenthold. Meanwhile, C-SPAN was flooded with calls from viewers sharing their own experiences with sexual abuse.
  • Everyone stays in character: For CJR, David Uberti writes that “the pundits on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC staked out their expected positions, as the day became a distillation of how deeply entangled their interests are with the politics they cover.”
  • Ford and Hill: The comparisons of Ford’s words to Anita Hill’s 1991 appearance in a similar situation were inevitable, but also fraught with racial implications. NPR’s Gene Demby called out a CNN commentator who described Ford’s testimony as “more resonant [because]—unlike Anita Hill who projected strength and poise—Blasey-Ford projected vulnerability.” As Demby wrote, “Soo much to unpack there.
  • A divided nation: The New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser describes Thursday’s events as “a searing, infuriating reminder of what we already knew: there are two Americas, getting angrier by the minute, and they are not listening to each other. Truth was not the goal, nor will it be the outcome.”
  • Fox fires contributor: “Fox News fired Kevin Jackson on Thursday, hours after the contributor called Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers ‘lying skanks’ in a Twitter tirade,” reports Mediate.


Other notable stories:

  • The Oklahoman was sold to GateHouse Media, and 37 staffers were immediately laid off, reports Poynter’s Barbara Allen. Employees sat through a mandatory meeting about the sale before being told at the end of it about the cuts. “Publisher Chris Reen addressed the staffers and said those who’d been laid off had just been notified via email, and their firings were effective immediately,” Allen writes. “The entire room then checked their phones, as the meeting disintegrated.”
  • The SEC has sued Elon Musk for fraud, “charging the Tesla chief with making ‘false and misleading tweets,’ and for failing to properly notify regulators of material company events,” reports CNBC’s Saheli Roy Choudhury.
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Suzanne Vranica and Nicole Hong report that federal prosecutors are probing media-buying practices in the advertising industry. “The investigation is looking at, among other things, nontransparent ad-buying practices, including agencies receiving rebates from media outlets,” they write.
  • The Guardian published the first excerpt from Michael Lewis’s upcoming book, The Fifth Risk, which comes out next week. In the piece, Lewis reports on “the inside story of Trump’s shambolic transition team.”

  • The BBC reports that the chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation resigned on Thursday, “amid allegations he tried to fire journalists who were ‘hated’ by the Australian government.”

ICYMI: Brett Kavanaugh and where #MeToo reporting goes next

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.