The Slatest

Here’s How Not to Publish Your Opinions About Joe Biden and Tara Reade

Biden steps out from behind a curtain
Joe Biden at a press event in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 12. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier today, a piece by Kevin Drum titled “So, Tara Reade … ” existed on the Mother Jones website for less than an hour (you can read the archived version here). In it, Drum imagined a scenario in which Tara Reade, who has accused Biden of sexually assaulting her in 1993, might have simply taken a “Bidenesque” shoulder squeeze or head pat the wrong way, ultimately blowing the incident up in her mind in the years that followed. As far as I can tell, this fantasy of Drum’s seems to be based almost exclusively on his own gut instincts. It was not hard to see why Mother Jones took the post down.

In a statement to Slate, Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery acknowledged some of the post’s shortcomings:

This opinion blog post omitted some of the research and reporting—including our own—that need to be included in coverage of a sensitive issue like this. Kevin is rethinking it and we unpublished the post in the meantime. We’re working on broader guidance on how to address sensitive topics in fast-moving blogs as thoughtfully as our reporters do in deeper pieces, like this one.

It’s certainly true that the post lacked any identifiable basis in reporting or research. At one point, as he’s describing how one might simply dream up a sexual assault, Drum writes, “Along the way [Reade] told various friends and family about the incident, but without including much in the way of particulars.” Just this week, a former neighbor of Reade’s explicitly told Business Insider that she had been informed of the details in the mid-’90s, saying, “And he kind of put her up against a wall. And he put his hand up her skirt and he put his fingers inside her.” This would match Reade’s own, most recent description of her encounter with Biden.

Later, Drum writes that Reade has “always been vague about some of the details of the assault, which is unusual for something so traumatizing.” That is the exact opposite of the widespread understanding of the subject, as it’s incredibly common for sexual assault survivors not to be able to recall certain details of their trauma.

More than just being poorly researched, though, the piece highlighted something that’s become increasingly clear as evidence supporting Reade’s accusation mounts: The liberal arguments for believing Biden over Reade are repeating conservatives’ arguments for believing Brett Kavanaugh over Christine Blasey Ford.

In October of 2018, after Kavanaugh and Ford both testified in front of the Senate, Republican Sen. Susan Collins went on 60 Minutes and said the following:

She was clearly terrified, traumatized, and I believed that a sexual assault had happened to her. What I think she is mistaken about is who the perpetrator was. I do not believe her assailant was Brett Kavanaugh.

Here’s Drum from earlier today:

Generally speaking, I’m not interested in defenses like “it was a small thing and it happened a long time ago.” I’m interested in actual guilt and actual innocence. And all I can say is that my best guess right now is that Biden is actually innocent.

But that doesn’t mean Reade is lying. Again, this is just my best guess, but the totality of what I’ve read about Reade leads me to believe that Biden perhaps treated her in a typically Bidenesque way once: that is, he put his arm around her shoulder, kissed her head, or something similar. This bothered Reade, but it wasn’t sexual assault and she didn’t report it that way when it happened. But over the years the incident grew in her mind until eventually her story gelled into what she says today: that Biden pushed her against a wall and stuck his hand up her dress. Along the way she told various friends and family about the incident, but without including much in the way of particulars.

Both Drum and Collins emphasize that perhaps the woman in question believes she’s telling the truth, the poor thing—but they know better.

Or take the New York Times’ Bret Stephens, who wrote this in September of 2018:

I believe that Blasey has yet to offer definitive evidence of what she alleges. Notes taken by her therapist that an unnamed man loosely fitting Kavanaugh’s description are marginally corroborative but not dispositive. The same goes for polygraph exams, which is why they are rarely admissible as evidence in court.

I believe human memory is imperfect. I believe it deteriorates over time. I believe most of us have had the experience of thinking we remember something clearly, only to discover we got important details wrong.

These arguments essentially boil down to: She remembers it this way, and he says it never happened. Memory sure is a funny thing! And just like aspiring vice presidential candidate Stacey Abrams’ defense of Biden this week, in which she falsely claimed that “the New York Times did a deep investigation, and they found that the accusations were not credible,” all these arguments refuse to grapple with the available corroborating evidence. They bemoan the lack of hard evidence (though it’s unclear what could possibly satisfy that requirement apart from video miraculously taken at the moment of the alleged assault) while refusing to grapple with the corroboration that does exist. They very much want to believe that this man they’ve staked their hopes on is innocent, and so that’s precisely what they do.

It’s not clear whether the “rethinking” Jeffery promised means Drum’s piece will reappear at some point in the future in a different form. It’s hard to picture even an altered version of the argument that went up today lasting under any sort of scrutiny. I asked Mother Jones if Drum’s original article had undergone any editing before going live, to which a spokesperson said, “The piece was not looked at by an editor beforehand, which is usually typical with our opinion posts.”

Update 4/30, 8:45 p.m.: While the URL for the original post is once again live, the piece itself has been replaced with the following paragraph:

After getting some pushback on this post about the Tara Reade accusations—both internally and externally, including from colleagues who report on sexual violence—I realized that it didn’t fully acknowledge all of the latest reporting or the science of trauma, and this gave it a tone I didn’t really intend. I may write again on this subject, but for now I think it’s best to take this one down. I apologize, and in the future I’ll take more time to work through posts on such sensitive topics.

For more on the allegation against Biden, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.