The Media Today

Christine Blasey Ford, Brett Kavanaugh, and a nomination in limbo

September 18, 2018

Over the course of 48 hours, Brett Kavanaugh’s smooth path to confirmation to the Supreme Court has veered onto rocky ground. A committee vote scheduled for Thursday is off. Instead, both Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychology professor who has accused him of sexual assault when they were both high school students, will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Ford first reached out to Democratic lawmakers in July, when it became clear that Kavanaugh was on the shortlist for a SCOTUS nomination. When she spoke with The Washington Post over the weekend, Ford explained that she had not come forward publicly earlier because she feared “doing so would upend her life and probably would not affect Kavanaugh’s confirmation.” While her second concern is still up in the air, Ford’s dread over her life being turned upside down has proven prescient.

The liberal watchdog group Media Matters catalogued the reaction from some in conservative and pro-Trump media circles who dismissed the claims as politically motivated or downplayed the severity of what Ford alleges took place. In Congress, the Kavanaugh nomination has become a partisan football, with Democrats demanding (at least) a delay in the proceedings and some Republicans standing behind the nominee, accusing their opponents of an 11th-hour maneuver.

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The idea that the allegations against Kavanaugh are some sort of plot by the media and Democrats to halt the nomination has taken hold among some on the right. But as the Post’s Margaret Sullivan argues, “This isn’t the 11th hour, because the clock isn’t running out; in fact, there is no clock.” The decision to allow Ford and Kavanaugh—who has categorically denied the allegations—to testify allows both people to tell their stories and provides more time for reporters to do their work.

Searching for a historical comparison to the current moment, many journalists have turned to Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation battle, which featured testimony from Anita Hill that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together in the 1980s. Thomas was confirmed by a narrow majority, but as many of the articles point out, Kavanaugh and Ford’s testimony will come against a very different cultural backdrop.

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“Washington now faces a test of what, if anything, was learned from the Thomas-Hill hearings that riveted a nation for a fall weekend almost exactly 27 years ago,” write Peter Baker and Carl Hulse of The New York Times. “Neither side emerged from that confirmation crucible happy about the process, and for some, the scar tissue remains deep.” Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Janie Velencia notes that the public largely didn’t believe Hill’s claims, but that views on sexual harassment changed in the aftermath of Thomas’s appointment to the court.

Packing the Supreme Court with conservative justices has been one of President Trump’s primary goals since taking office. Democrats, holding a minority of seats in the Senate, are powerless to block any nominee unless they vote as a block and convince two Republicans to vote with them. With a lifetime appointment on the line and midterm elections looming, the stakes going into next week’s hearings couldn’t be higher, and there little doubt that media coverage will be overwhelming.

Below, more on Ford, Kavanaugh, and a nomination in limbo.

  • Ford’s decision: The Mercury-News’s Julia Prodis Sulek provides background on Ford’s life and speaks with friends to whom Ford confided earlier this summer about her decision to reach out to lawmakers.
  • Right-wing smears: NBC’s Ben Collins explains how several far-right news sites spread a false story about negative reviews of Ford’s teaching. The problem: the articles identified the wrong Christine Ford. The erroneous claims were amplified by the Drudge Report.
  • How the story happened: CNN’s Brian Stelter spoke with the Post’s Emma Brown, who broke the story on Sunday. Brown says that Ford struggled mightily with the decision to go public, knowing that doing so would have consequences for her own life.
  • Making their case in the media: The Washington Post reports on the battle lines being drawn by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle through statements to the press. Focus is on Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who are seen as the most likely Republicans to vote against Kavanaugh.


Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s Nausicaa Renner tackles the wave of pieces offering redemption, or at least the space to pontificate, to men who have been accused of sexual assault and harassment. “The confession, when made by men showing a sensitive side, is a literary device to display a newly whole, unified character who is stronger thanks to introspection,” Renner writes. “Women, however, have the reverse experience: to ensure that their accounts are bulletproof, they are quoted, rather than given space to describe their experience in their own words. Their abuse is not entitled to be literary, only their abusers.
  • Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm revealed Monday the Justice Department’s rules for targeting journalists with secret FISA court orders. In 2015, the DOJ imposed strengthened “media guidelines” detailing the lengths that authorities must go before obtaining subpoenas, court orders, and warrants against journalists. But documents obtained through a FOIA request show that government officials have a less stringent option for targeting reporters. The question now, Timm writes, is “how many times have FISA court orders been used to target journalists?”
  • For CJR, Howard R. Gold marks the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis by noting that business journalism is still awaiting its reckoning. “Questions about how the press missed the crisis—and, in fact, continued to lionize financial executives even as it was beginning to unfold—echo in our current politics,” Gold writes.
  • CNN’s Anderson Cooper decided to take on trolls—including Donald Trump Jr.—who have been sharing an outdated photograph of the CNN anchor standing in floodwaters. The clip is a master class in aggressively addressing and debunking false claims.
  • Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro will host a four-episode midterm election series on Fox News Channel. There is speculation in media circles that the series could serve as a tryout for a more permanent position for Shapiro.

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