The Media Today

Joe Biden finally addresses Tara Reade’s assault claim

May 1, 2020

In late March, Ryan Grim, of The Intercept, published a story on Tara Reade, a former staffer in Joe Biden’s Senate office. She was one of several women who had come forward to say that Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had, in past encounters, touched them inappropriately. Grim reported that Reade’s case had been dropped by Time’s Up, a nonprofit #MeToo advocacy group, because the group viewed Reade’s allegation against Biden as perilously political. The day after Grim’s story appeared, Reade granted an interview to Katie Halper, a progressive podcaster, and dropped a bombshell. Biden, Reade said, hadn’t just touched her inappropriately, he had sexually assaulted her: in 1993, he’d pushed her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers. “It happened all at once,” Reade told Halper. “His hands were on me and underneath my clothes.” The Biden campaign denied that this occurred. Until this morning, Biden had not addressed Reade or her statements.

For a long while, the press—otherwise preoccupied with horse race election coverage, then covid-19—didn’t do much to advance the Reade story, making it easy for Biden to avoid the subject. For weeks, mainstream outlets met it with silence. On April 12—nineteen days after Reade spoke with Halper—the New York Times published a piece on Reade’s allegation, in which the reporters, Lisa Lerer and Sydney Ember, found no further allegations against Biden (aside from those made public last year) and did not speak to anyone from Biden’s old Senate office who corroborated Reade’s account. Two friends of Reade’s said they did recall hearing about the alleged assault—in detail, at the time it happened, and in more general terms years later—but neither friend was willing to be quoted on the record. The Times’ story was criticized online: some progressives said that its delayed publication was suspicious—Bernie Sanders was still running against Biden when Reade made her allegation, but had ended his campaign by the time the story came out—and others said that the assignment should have been handled by specialist investigative reporters. (Lerer and Ember primarily cover politics.)

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Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, told Ben Smith, its media columnist, that there was nothing nefarious going on. He wanted his reporters to do their due diligence in researching Reade’s claim. Yet their article was inconclusive, as were similar pieces that appeared, around the same time, in the Washington Post and the Associated Press. Critics on the left continued to insist that the coverage had not given Reade a fair hearing. Others, including a few progressives, concluded that it was time to move on. “To those who hectored the media to investigate the allegations about Biden…the old adage applies: Be careful what you wish for,” Joan Walsh, a columnist for The Nation, wrote on April 15. “[Reade’s] allegation against Biden doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. And bullying by the left or right won’t change that.”

More reporting, however, could change that. In recent days, the story leaped forward. Last week, Grim mentioned, on Halper’s podcast, that Reade had told him that her mother had—anonymously, and in general terms—referenced the alleged experience with Biden shortly after it happened, during a call-in segment on Larry King’s CNN show. Grim hadn’t included that in his piece, he said, because he’d been unable to find a recording. A listener to Halper’s podcast subsequently found what appeared to have been Reade’s mother’s exchange with King; Grim published a transcript. The next week, Business Insider published a story, by Rich McHugh, in which Lynda LaCasse, a friend of Reade’s, confirmed, on the record, that Reade had told her the details of her alleged assault in the mid-nineties, when she lived next door to LaCasse, in California. (LaCasse said that she still intends to vote for Biden in the fall.) A second source, Lorraine Sanchez, who worked with Reade in a different office, told McHugh that Reade told her, around the same time, of being “sexually harassed” by her former boss.

McHugh’s story, in particular, finally gave Reade’s allegation momentum in the mainstream press. (Smith, at the Times, reported yesterday that McHugh first took his findings to Vanity Fair, but was turned away.) As the week progressed, calls for Biden to address the allegation intensified. His campaign continued to deny Reade’s allegation strongly, but Biden wouldn’t personally address it, and journalists who interviewed him failed to bring it up. There were increasing calls, too, for cable news to take the story seriously. Yesterday, in a column titled “Why won’t TV news book Tara Reade?” Smith reported that so far, Reade only had interview offers from Fox News shows, including Sean Hannity’s. Reade told Smith that she’d rejected those offers and was waiting to hear from hosts with a less partisan orientation.

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This morning, we finally heard from Biden, when he appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. To set him up, Mika Brzezinski, the cohost, outlined Reade’s allegation and addressed critiques that the press had botched coverage of it. She focused on the criticism that the immediate, vociferous coverage of assault claims against Brett Kavanaugh, when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, was evidence of a double standard, compared to the recent reporting on Biden. Brzezinski then played a lengthy reel of the show’s hosts insisting, in past episodes, that Kavanaugh was denied due process by the media. “We were strong on this,” she said afterward. “And honestly, very few others were.” Brzezinski also spent several minutes recounting, in detail, the many sexual-misconduct allegations against Trump.

Shortly before coming on, Biden released a statement strongly refuting Reade’s allegation. “This never happened,” he said. He appeared on air shortly after 8am Eastern. “Did you sexually assault Tara Reade?” Brzezinski asked. Biden reiterated his strong denial. Brzezinski then asked Biden whether any other staffer had ever complained about his behavior, and whether any such complaint had been hidden by a nondisclosure agreement. Biden said no on both counts. Brzezinski also pressed him repeatedly on remarks he made, during the Kavanaugh hearings, that women’s voices should be taken seriously. “Women have a right to be heard, and the press should rigorously investigate,” he replied. “Why is it real for Dr. Ford and not for Tara Reade?” Brzezinski asked, referring to Christine Blasey Ford, a survivor of one of Kavanaugh’s alleged attacks. Biden said that he wouldn’t question an accuser’s motives, but that the facts were on his side. When Brzezinski pushed him on what the facts were—and where they might be found—he spoke over her, then apologized. “The truth matters,” Biden said.

What about Reade’s side of the story? We can expect to hear from her on TV soon; BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray and Ruby Cramer reported yesterday that she’s been contacted by every major network. As far as Reade is concerned, though, the damage is already done. “I used to think that a Republican talking point was to call the mainstream media biased. So I used to think, Oh, that’s just a talking point for them,” Reade told BuzzFeed. “But now I’m living it [in] real time, and I see it—like, I see it for what it is.”

Below, more on Joe Biden and Tara Reade:

  • Papers, please: As the pressure mounted on Biden this week, he faced calls to open up his old Senate papers, which are housed at the University of Delaware, in the hope that they might shed light on Reade’s allegation. Yesterday, university officials told CNN’s Ellie Kaufman and MJ Lee that they are still sifting through the papers, and have no plans to release any of them to the public. In the statement issued before he appeared on Morning Joe, Biden said his Senate papers do not contain personnel records, and that he would authorize the secretary of the Senate to search the National Archives for records of the complaint Reade said she lodged at the time. On air, Brzezinski repeatedly pressed Biden to authorize an investigation of his University of Delaware papers, too.
  • “The Biden trap”: Early this week, Rebecca Traister wrote, in a widely shared piece for New York’s The Cut, that the allegation against Biden represents a “poisoned chalice” for Democratic women who are sticking by him. On Wednesday, Traister told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that Reade’s story has taken a “reverse course” compared to recent reporting on sexual assault claims against other powerful figures, such as Harvey Weinstein. “It didn’t start out as a massive investigative report,” Traister said, noting that Reade first spoke out via a podcast. “Initially, it didn’t have the full, We’ve talked to 100 people; we’ve gone through all these documents.”
  • History repeats itself: For yesterday’s column on Reade, Smith, of the Times, spoke with Juanita Broaddrick, who has alleged that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978. “The handling of Ms. Broaddrick’s story was one of the most damaging media mistakes of the Clinton years,” Smith argues. “And the treatment of Mr. Clinton’s accusers by the Democratic Party and the media alike is one of the original sins that led to today’s divided, partisan news environment.”

Other notable stories: 

  • Senior administration officials have pushed US intelligence agencies to try to substantiate a claim that the novel coronavirus may have escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China—even though, as the Times reports, “most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found,” and most scientists reject the notion, too. An official who has pushed the lab line of inquiry is Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, who, in a past life, covered China as a journalist for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. This week, the Post profiled Pottinger’s career change. Elsewhere in Washington, the office of Vice President Mike Pence is threatening to punish Steve Herman, a reporter with Voice of America, after Herman suggested that Pence knew he was breaking the rules when he failed to wear a mask on a visit this week to the Mayo Clinic. (Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, told Fox News that her husband made an innocent mistake.) And Kayleigh McEnany will hold her first briefing as White House press secretary at 2pm Easternthe first such briefing in over a year.
  • In other coronavirus news, the Post compiled a database of confirmed cases in nursing homes in the absence of any relevant comprehensive official statistics. There is at least one confirmed case, reporters found, in one of every six nursing facilities nationwide. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, blamed the editorial board of the Times for failing to see the virus coming. (As the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani puts it, “Either Cuomo didn’t actually read the Times’s coverage, or he has selective amnesia about the paper’s articles.”) And Charlie Plowman, a local news publisher in California, has acquired the Burbank Leader, the Glendale News-Press, and the La Cañada Valley Sun. Plowman is saving the papers from extinction after their previous owner, the parent company of the LA Times, shut them down, citing the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.
  • In January, the Times reported, at the height of Trump’s impeachment trial, that a forthcoming book by John Bolton, the former national security adviser, would contain an explosive, firsthand account of Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine. The book was set to appear in mid-March, but its release was postponed until May to give the White House more time to review its contents. Publication has now been pushed back again, to June 23. Bolton’s lawyer has accused officials of abusing the review process.
  • In December, Congress passed legislation that exempted some independently owned newspapers—including the Seattle Times, the Tampa Bay Times, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune—from certain financial obligations under federal pension law. Now, Roll Call’s Doug Sword reports, House Democrats want to make similar relief available to bigger publishers, including McClatchy and Newspapers of New England Inc.
  • Unions representing journalists at Gannett papers in Florida and Delaware told CNN’s Kerry Flynn that executives are blocking them from holding mail-in union elections. (The National Labor Relations Board responded to the pandemic by suspending in-person voting.) A Gannett spokesperson suggested to Flynn that the NLRB is at fault for the delay.
  • In a new report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Jennifer R. Henrichsen explores information warfare—both as a coverage topic for newsrooms and as it pertains to their information security. In a summary for CJR, she writes that interest in information security peaked in 2016, following the hack of the Democratic National Committee.
  • Last month, Matthew Belloni quit as editorial director of the Hollywood Reporter, amid reported tensions with the magazine’s owners over interference with coverage. Yesterday, THR named Nekesa Mumbi Moody, an entertainment editor at the Associated Press, as his replacement. The Daily Beast’s Tani and Lachlan Cartwright have more.
  • The Times’ flagship daily newsletter is getting a makeover. Starting next week, David Leonhardt, currently a columnist at the paper, will take over as its “host and anchor.” Leonhardt’s TV-esque title, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton notes, is indicative of a shift in major newsrooms, which are elevating individual personalities more than in the past.
  • And for Nieman Reports, Matt Tullis asked writers where they’ve been going to write since their regular haunts—cafés and libraries, for instance—closed due to the pandemic. Tom Junod (who recently spoke to CJR about his friendship with Mister Rogers) says he started writing in his car in the empty lot of a Baptist megachurch.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.