The Slatest

Why You’re Not Hearing That Ralph Northam Was Smeared by His Enemies and Destroyed by Social Media Polarization

Northam, standing in front of an American flag on a flagpole, looks downward.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in Richmond on Saturday.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

When mainstream media outlets reported on sexual assault allegations against then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Republican politicians and conservative media outlets said he’d been the victim of a left-wing “smear job.” When the same outlets covered a viral video of Covington, Kentucky, high school students facing off with a Native American protester near the Lincoln Memorial, Republican politicians and conservative media outlets said the same thing—that the students had been victimized by left-wing Fake News. Some centrist pundits listened to the criticism and, though not entirely crediting its conspiratorial conclusions, wondered whether the real problem at issue wasn’t Kavanaugh or the Covington students’ behavior as much as it was tribalization or social media.

In both cases, there was a grain of truth in the right-wing critique. Some of the allegations made against Kavanaugh during his confirmation process do not appear to have been on firm factual ground. Some initial accounts of the Covington incident suggested incorrectly that the students had surrounded the protester when, in fact, he approached them.

There are similar open questions about some aspects of the scandal into which Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has gotten himself. Last Friday, news broke that a photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page showed two individuals at a costume party, one in blackface and one dressed as a member of the KKK. Many Democratic politicians and left-wing commentators called on him to resign. Subsequently, though, some of Northam’s medical school classmates have said they don’t remember Northam in those get-ups, and that it’s technically possible the picture could have been put on his page by mistake.

And yet, we’re not hearing much about a “smear job” when it comes to Northam. The caveats about who exactly appears in the picture, after all, don’t change other facts and realities: that a picture on Northam’s yearbook page that he’d gone three decades without objecting to was probably one that he at the very least approved of; that there’s something off about his claim that he only realized a day after the picture came to light that he might not have been in it; and that he has admitted to dressing in blackface on another occasion. Most of the media and political reaction to the story as a whole has thus held firm to the common sense position that he should resign his position for having indulged in offensive racist “humor.”

Similarly, a big-picture view of the Kavanaugh and Covington stories does not support the claim of an unfair “smear.” The two most prominent allegations against Kavanaugh were made by women who don’t work in politics and who have plausible and/or verifiable explanations for how they came to interact with Kavanaugh at the times and places described. Those women’s accounts were corroborated to the extent possible by acquaintances who said they’d heard about the incidents in question years before Kavanaugh was nominated for the Supreme Court. Video of the Covington students, meanwhile, showed that they had mockingly serenaded the Native American protester involved in the confrontation with a “Tomahawk Chop” chant/gesture. Kavanaugh and the teenagers were not railroaded on completely fabricated and slanderous charges, but rather called to account for real or plausibly alleged misbehavior. That every single thing alleged about them anywhere by anyone did not turn out to be true does not exonerate them, it doesn’t make them heroes, and it doesn’t mean that the real villain of the story is some larger social trend.

The difference between the reaction to Northam and the reactions to Kavanaugh and Covington is pretty easy to spot: Northam is a Democrat. Despite not every detail of his situation being locked down, we’re not hearing about this story as a smear job because, for reasons including identity, ideology, and coalition-building necessity, Democrats and pundits on the left aren’t looking for ways to worm out of confronting racist and sexist behavior. Northam’s peers in his party and his movement aren’t invested in proving that all such accusations are fraudulent, and centrist media figures haven’t been made self-conscious about criticizing people like him by years of bias accusations. (Even the minority of Democrats who believe former Sen. Al Franken was forced to resign prematurely tend to say they believe his punishment was excessively harsh or that he didn’t receive due process, not that he’s a hero or a victim who couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong.) As far as I can tell, no one is publicly questioning him or herself for coming to the reasonable conclusion, based on the totality of the facts available, that Northam very likely made a serious mistake and should face repercussions for doing so. (Even those who I’ve seen suggesting that he shouldn’t have to resign aren’t disputing the inappropriateness of his yearbook entry.)

Not all hand-wringing is bad. It is good to encourage intellectual humility and fairness in the public sphere. But enforcing accountability and decency in that sphere also often requires weighing conflicting information in order to make judgments and take action. Everyone seems to have done a decent job of that with Ralph Northam. Might it be true that some of us in the social media mob did the same with Brett Kavanaugh and the MAGA teens as well?