The Witness Who Saw Nothing

Reporting on sexual assault too often relies on testimony from people who weren’t there.

Joe Biden walks through a gap in a wall of curtains, carrying a binder, next to three American flags.
Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 12. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Over the past few days, multiple new reports have corroborated Tara Reade’s claim that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her when she worked in his Senate office in the 1990s. This corroboration has come in the form of increased evidence that Reade told people about the alleged incident soon after it happened. At the Intercept, Ryan Grim reported that a woman called into a 1993 Larry King Live show seeking advice about a daughter who had “problems” with her former employer, a “prominent senator,” but chose not to go public “out of respect for him.” King identified the caller as a woman from San Luis Obispo, California, where Reade’s mother was living at the time, and Reade identified the woman’s voice as her mother’s. On Monday, Business Insider published accounts from one former colleague of Reade’s and one former neighbor, both of whom recall Reade telling them of Biden’s alleged sexual misconduct in the mid-1990s. The former co-worker remembers Reade saying she’d been sexually harassed; the neighbor remembers Reade’s full story of sexual assault. These women join Reade’s brother, who has also said that Reade confided in him around the time of Biden’s alleged assault.

The Business Insider piece also quotes several people who confidently refute Reade’s claims. The first is unsurprising: “These accusations are false,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, in a statement she’s regurgitated in just about every report on Reade’s allegation. The others are worth lingering on: Marianne Baker, Biden’s former longtime executive assistant who was serving in that role at the time of Reade’s alleged assault, said she has “absolutely no knowledge or memory of Ms. Reade’s accounting of events, which would have left a searing impression on me as a woman professional, and as a manager”—a statement she’s previously given to other reporters. And Melissa Lefko, Reade’s fellow staff assistant in Biden’s office in 1993, said she doesn’t remember Reade at all but asserted that she would’ve remembered any allegations of sexual misconduct. “Had there been anything, I would have heard about it,” Lefko told Business Insider.

Baker’s quote makes sense in an investigation of Reade’s claims, since Reade says she told Baker—and two other Biden staffers, both of whom say they don’t remember Reade—that Biden had harassed her. But Lefko’s statement is an excellent example of a frustrating trend in reporting on sexual assault and harassment allegations: the witness who saw nothing. She can’t remember a colleague who verifiably worked with her in 1993, yet wants her inability to remember any sexual misconduct allegations from that time to be taken as an affirmative defense of Biden, and affirmative proof that it couldn’t have happened. Lefko expects that she would have heard about an accusation of sexual misconduct in the office, even if Lefko wasn’t close enough to the accusing colleague to so much as recall her existence.

This type of source has featured in a great deal of reporting since the #MeToo movement began. (It showed up before the #MeToo movement, too, but there were much fewer investigations of sexual misconduct allegations in previous years.) Reporters interview people—especially women—who’ve interacted with the alleged perpetrator to see if they experienced or observed a pattern of inappropriate behavior. Sometimes, as in the cases of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and a few other high-profile alleged abusers, a pattern emerges. But sometimes, as in Jane Mayer’s piece on the allegations against Al Franken, many of these other women have nothing but fond, nonsexual memories of the subject of the investigation. The reporter and her editor must then decide whether and how to quote or paraphrase those sources on their lack of knowledge of any sexual misconduct.

The New York Times’ piece on Reade’s allegation, which ran on April 12, includes a quote from Lefko, too. Biden’s Senate office was a “very supportive environment for women,” she said. “When you work on the Hill, everyone knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and Biden was a good guy.” It is a testament to our culture’s deep-seated suspicion of people who allege sexual misconduct that the recollections of people who say they weren’t assaulted are so frequently presented as equally valuable to an investigation as those of the person who says she was. Granted, it’s almost impossible to prove a negative, which is why the burden of proof lies with the prosecution in a court of law. But if a reporter were investigating a bike theft, for example, would she employ the testimony of an associate who said, “I worked with him for years and I’ve never seen him steal a bike,” as a means of assessing the verity of one particular theft accusation? In Biden’s case, there are already several women who have publicly accused Biden of inappropriate workplace physical contact. Who the “good guys” are depends on the eye of the beholder.

It does no service to the truth to quote people who say their failure to witness abuse is evidence of the absence of abuse, unless the alleged victim claims those specific people witnessed her abuse. Writers might want to show they did due diligence in their reporting, but sources that don’t offer new information go unmentioned in final drafts all the time. (There’s also a big difference between quoting someone who solely speaks to her own experience and someone who makes a broad assumption of innocence based on that limited perspective.) An allegation of a sexual violation that involves two people doesn’t demand clueless character witnesses. Only an exhaustive search through Biden’s Senate papers, which the University of Delaware will not release until two years after Biden exits public life, could help prove or disprove the existence of the sexual harassment complaint Reade said she filed—not the testimonies of a self-selecting group of people who agree to say on the record that they never saw it.

Some people who harass and rape are brazen in their abuse; their associates can’t help but witness it, and word of their misconduct gets around. Others are charismatic leaders, excellent bosses, devoted fathers, and caring boyfriends. Some commit just one act of sexual violence in a lifetime. An easily identifiable pattern and a slew of damning rumors might make for a cleaner narrative, but a lack thereof doesn’t make an allegation any less likely to be true.