Politics

Joe Biden Sails Under the New York Times’ Bar for Sexual Abuse

The Times has made “a pattern of behavior” its standard. What happens when an important figure doesn’t clear it?

Joe Biden stands in front of four American flags.
Joe Biden delivers remarks about the coronavirus outbreak at the Hotel Du Pont on March 12 in Wilmington, Delaware. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Sunday, the New York Times published its first piece on Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The article includes an unusually frank explanation of the reporting process that went into it. Lisa Lerer and Sydney Ember, who wrote the piece with support from three other colleagues, explain that their reporting began “soon after” Reade told her full story on Katie Halper’s podcast, which was released on March 25. It took nearly three weeks to get a piece to print—Sunday’s NYTimes.com article also ran on Page 20 of Monday’s New York edition of the paper.

Reade was one of several women who accused Biden last year of giving them unwanted and inappropriate kisses, hugs, and touches. In late March, she told Halper he also digitally penetrated her without her consent when she was a staff assistant in his Senate office in 1993. Biden denies the allegation. The Times reporters spent the weeks since the release of Halper’s podcast interviewing “nearly two dozen” Biden employees from the early 1990s and two of Reade’s friends: One said Reade told her about the alleged assault soon after it happened; the other said Reade shared her story in 2008. Reade’s brother has also confirmed to journalists at Current Affairs and the Intercept that Reade confided in him at the time of the alleged assault, though he didn’t speak to the Times.

Despite this corroboration of contemporaneous disclosure from Reade, the Times article registers some notes of skepticism. “No other allegation about sexual assault surfaced in the course of reporting, nor did any former Biden staff members corroborate any details of Ms. Reade’s allegation,” the piece reads. “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden.” Lerer and Ember’s unusually detailed description of their reporting timeline reads as slightly defensive but is perhaps a response to the criticism the paper has drawn from both ends of the political spectrum for the lapse between Reade’s public airing of her claim and the Times’ first acknowledgment of it.

From a certain perspective, the framing of Reade’s allegation makes sense in the context of the Times’ own role in the #MeToo movement and the broader landscape of contemporary reporting on sexual assault. Each of the paper’s major investigations, which have led to a rapist’s conviction and the end of a serial harasser’s career, turned up several related stories of sexual violence or inappropriate sexual behavior. A “pattern of sexual misconduct”—plus documentation of monetary settlements—helped justify the Times’ reporting on allegations that hadn’t been evaluated in courts of law. Perhaps this helps explain why, instead of reporting on Reade’s allegation on its own terms, Lerer and Ember made a point of indicating the pattern they didn’t find. On the other hand, is that really necessary? If they’d left that qualification out, readers still would have assumed as much: that if the journalists had discovered a pattern of alleged misconduct, they would have reported it. The absence of such reporting indicates a lack of such findings.

Whether they intend to or not, the explicit framing around the lack of pattern ends up making a statement about Reade’s believability. Not every sexual abuser makes a habit of committing multiple similar assaults in a span of a few years, but in recent years, both readers and reporters have become accustomed to gauging accusers’ credibility by counting their numbers. If an abuser leaves a trail of survivors in his wake, we demand they all make their allegations known to the press if any one of them is to be believed, in defiance of the personal and professional risks. (Reade says she didn’t tell her full story sooner because she was doxed after merely alleging that Biden had harassed her.) We’ve been spoiled, in the worst possible sense of the word, by the proliferation of stories detailing yearslong patterns of sexual violations committed by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Matt Lauer, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, and Donald Trump. We’ve come to expect every abuser to come with an entire fleet of women giving the same details.

Lerer and Ember, as they take pains to make clear, have not exposed Biden as a serial sexual abuser. That doesn’t mean there’s no troubling pattern there. In addition to Reade, several women have accused Biden of treating their bodies as if they were his to touch and acting with complete disregard for their comfort or consent. How might a person who does these things make a sexual advance on a subordinate? With deference and care, or with reckless entitlement? Generally speaking, a man with a healthy regard for women’s bodily autonomy does not make a habit of manhandling and infantilizing them in the course of his job duties. When confronted with his accusers’ versions of events last year, Biden responded by mocking the concept of consent and admitting to nothing more than being a pathologically friendly old-timer. He also tried to erase the gendered aspect of his behavior: “Whether they’re women, men, young, old, it’s the way I’ve always been,” he said in a video response to the initial allegations. (For the record, no men have accused Biden of inappropriate kisses or squeezes.)

At any rate, anyone else who professes certainty about the alleged incident is lying—nobody but Biden and Reade know whether her story is true. This includes deputy Biden campaign manager Kate Bedingfield, who told the Times in a statement, “What is clear about this claim: It is untrue. This absolutely did not happen,” and the interns, whom Reade supervised in Biden’s office, who the Times takes pains to note did not know about the alleged incident. (Imagine confiding in the interns you manage that your boss just sexually abused you.)

If the backdrop of how the journalists reported the story is bizarrely present in the piece, so too is their assessment of why it matters. The Times article attempts to address the inevitable calculus voters will have to make in November by providing a thorough accounting of the “pattern of behavior” laid out by the more than 20 women who’ve accused Trump of sexual harassment or assault. Indeed, before they describe Reade’s allegation in any detail, Lerer and Ember write that the allegations against Trump go “far beyond the accusations against Mr. Biden.”

It’s not wrong to consider how a sexual assault allegation might affect a political candidate’s chances. But Lerer and Ember chose to forgo any informed political analysis in favor of a simpler comparison: Whose sexual assault allegations are worse? It’s a crude calculation that bears little relationship to the way actual voters think or behave. It also suggests that the allegation against Biden primarily matters because he’s the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Why else would completely unrelated allegations against a completely different politician have a place in a story about Reade?

Sexual assault allegations against public figures matter, full stop; their effects on political candidacies should be ancillary concerns. Immediately comparing the sexual assault allegations against one politician with those raised against his competitor is no way to evaluate claims of sexual misconduct, which should be considered on their own terms. One assault allegation from 1993 doesn’t seem so bad when it’s held up against decades of alleged groping, forced kisses, and rape, but is that how we should be assessing the consequences of sexual violence?

There’s a reason why Trump brought Bill Clinton’s accusers to a 2016 presidential debate. By reminding voters of another set of sexual abuse allegations, Trump sought to minimize and deflect from his own. There may well be voters who’ll choose their vote for president based on who has drawn a longer list of sexual assault allegations, and they should feel free to compare Biden and Trump by that measure. But journalists should know better than to engage in this obfuscating exercise of relativity.

For more discussion of the Biden allegation, listen to the latest episode of the Waves.