“One year after Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s tumultuous confirmation hearing that led to a 50-48 confirmation vote in the Senate, the accuser whose claims led to the media-frenzied hearings has accepted an award for her purported ‘courage’ throughout the ordeal,” the Federalist reports. “The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California last Sunday presented Christine Blasey Ford with its courage award.” The distorted and agenda-driven news reporting of Dr. Ford’s allegations during the Kavanaugh hearings divided the nation and nearly derailed the confirmation of a Justice with an impeccable reputation and legal track record. But the misleading and false news reports did not stop with Kavanaugh’s confirmation, nor have the real-world consequences of such fake news.
Following a now debunked New York Times report in September detailing a new sexual misconduct allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh from his college years, Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MN) filed an impeachment resolution pressing the House Judiciary Committee to investigate Justice Kavanaugh. She was supported by public calls for impeachment from several Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator Kamala Harris who wrote a letter urging House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to begin impeachment inquiries by establishing an investigative task force. These events remind us that fake news is serious and often produces real-world consequences.
“Fake news” is a controversial term with an assortment of definitions depending upon whom one asks. Despite the confusion and occasional abuse of the term, I argue in my new book Culture of Lies that “‘fake news’ to the average person today primarily means: 1) Wrong information reported as accurate news 2) ‘Deliberately constructed lies [and innuendos], in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public.’” The recent New York Times debacle absolutely fits this definition of fake news.
Under the banner “news analysis,” The New York Times Sunday Review published a salacious allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh based solely upon an uncorroborated second-hand account of a charge made by a former Bill Clinton defense lawyer who was pitted against Brett Kavanaugh during the Whitewater investigation. Moreover, the alleged victim declined to be interviewed, and her friends say she has no memory of the incident—something that was not mentioned in the original article.
So, the New York Times published an unverified accusation against a Supreme Court Justice without a direct testimony from a witness, and with a victim who doesn’t recall the incident, based solely upon two anonymous second-hand sources. Not surprisingly, the article was almost universally repudiated, and the Times was compelled to walk back the story in an editor’s note. Co-host Abby Huntsman even declared on The View, “We’re in this place where there isn’t a difference many times between tabloid news and a New York Times article.”
What do we know?
- This “bombshell” allegation was not new; it was simply previously unreported. It turns out the Washington Post was aware of the accusation a year ago but refused to report it because the allegation was coming from two intermediaries who “declined to identify the alleged witness and because the woman who was said to be involved declined to comment.” In other words, the allegations failed to meet minimum journalistic standards for publication.
- The New York Times news editors refused to publish the accusation as a news story due to a lack of evidence. Instead, the Times’ Sunday Review ran an adaptation from the upcoming book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, written by Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. It ran as a quasi-opinion piece under the label “news analysis”—a label attached to Times news reporters “to underscore that they are not part of the Opinion section.” The Times then published an official news story regarding the reaction to the allegation made in their Sunday Review.
- Pogrebin and Kelly wrote that the alleged witnesses to Deborah Ramirez’ allegation have remained “mum.” However, Ronan Farrow’s original report in the New Yorker which broke the story refutes this claim: “In a statement, two of those male classmates who Ramirez alleged were involved in the incident, the wife of a third male student she said was involved, and one other classmate, Dan Murphy, disputed Ramirez’s account of events. … ‘We can say with confidence that if the incident Debbie alleges ever occurred, we would have seen or heard about it—and we did not.’”
- The authors argue that Deborah Ramirez’ allegation of sexual misconduct by Brett Kavanaugh was “the talk of campus” because at least seven people had heard about the incident long before Mr. Kavanaugh was a federal judge. Ignoring for the moment that news outlets eager to validate Ramirez’ allegations a year ago were unable to corroborate her testimony after interviewing 75 classmates—suggesting that the incident was not the talk of the campus—it is irresponsible to suggest that seven people—not all of whom were even students at the time, and none of whom were first-hand witnesses—constitutes “talk of the campus.”
- The authors detailed a previously unreported allegation made by Max Stier that, at a drunken Yale dormitory party, he saw Brett Kavanaugh standing with his pants down while others put his genitalia in the hand of a classmate. They then wrote, “We corroborated the story with two officials who have communicated with Mr. Stier,” giving the impression that the officials have verified the accuracy of Stier’s allegation. In actuality, the officials merely corroborated that Max Stier had made the allegation—not the authenticity of the charge. Furthermore, Max Stier himself declined to be interviewed, meaning that it was the two unnamed officials who relayed Stier’s account to the reporters. Far from having corroboration of an eyewitness account, as the wording of the article suggests, the reporters have two anonymous second-hand accounts of an allegation that is lacking any corroboration.
- The report neglected to mention that the alleged victim in Stier’s account declined to be interviewed, and several of her friends say she has no memory of the event. To be fair, the reporters told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that it was originally part of their account, but the New York Times editors removed this critical piece of exculpatory information. However, the authors didn’t say anything until this omission was discovered. Eventually it was reinserted with an editor’s note—not a correction.
- Pogrebin and Kelly referred to Max Stier simply as a “thought leader” and neglected to mention his adversarial relationship with Brett Kavanaugh. They were “pitted” against each other in the 1990s when Max Stier served as President Bill Clinton’s defense attorney during the Whitewater investigation, and Brett Kavanaugh worked for Independent Counsel Ken Starr. Ironically, Clinton’s legal troubles began when a woman accused him of exposing himself to her in a hotel room. In an opinion piece for Mediaite, John Ziegler comments, “Think about it this way… what are the chances that during the Clinton/Lewinsky saga, Steir [sic] could possibly be working against a man that he witnessed doing exactly the same thing the president he was defending was accused of by Paula Jones, and him not at least mention it to every single one of his co-workers—even if for some reason he didn’t want to leak it to the press at the time?!”
- Max Stier also worked closely with David Kendall, who went on to defend Hillary Clinton against allegations of illegally handling classified information. At the very least, Max Stier is a partisan figure.
- During Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination process, two Democratic senators’ offices did not find Max Stier’s allegation to be of interest. This is particularly telling considering that these senators considered worthwhile other outlandish accusations, such as Julie Swetnick’s accusation that, at “well over ten house parties,” Kavanaugh supplied girls to be gang raped by his high school buddies before eventually raping Swetnick, an anonymous call saying that in 1985 a close acquaintance “was sexually assaulted by two heavily inebriated men” whom she identified as Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, and an anonymous letter claiming that a drunken Brett Kavanaugh shoved the author’s friend against a wall “very aggressively and sexually” at a bar in 1998.
Incredibly, the New York Times chose to run this hit piece on Justice Brett Kavanaugh instead of reporting on the legitimate news contained within Pogrebin and Kelly’s book. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s best friend who was said to be present at the party where Ford claimed to be sexually abused by Brett Kavanaugh—Leland Keyser—granted these authors her first public interview regarding Ford’s allegation. During that interview, she spoke about being pressured to provide testimony supporting Ford. She said, “I was told behind the scenes that certain things could be spread about me if I didn’t comply.”
Furthermore, Leland Keyser admitted that she doesn’t believe Ford’s testimony, saying, “I just really didn’t have confidence in the story.” She even noted, “It would be impossible for me to be the only girl at a get-together with three guys, have her leave and then not figure out how she’s going to get home.”
Rather than report this breaking news, which could help restore confidence in one of our Supreme Court Justices, the New York Times chose to further defame Justice Kavanaugh with a “sloppy” report that Mollie Hemingway calls nothing short of “journalistic malpractice.” Moreover, other news outlets followed suit. Over the course of three days, ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News spent 31 minutes, 47 seconds reporting on the new allegation of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh. Only one of these networks devoted any time to the news that Leland Keyser doesn’t believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations—and even then, only 36 seconds were devoted to the story.
In so doing, our nation’s news outlets needlessly reignited one of last year’s greatest controversies, fueling division within our country. Moreover, they provided the impetus for a U.S. Representative to introduce an impeachment resolution against Justice Kavanaugh—something championed in writing by a U.S. senator and presidential candidate.
Fake news has real-world consequences. In fact, the Bible warns of the fruit that fake news produces in a nation. If left unattended, it first destroys a nation from within before eventually provoking God to act in judgment (Isa. 59). We can no longer ignore fake news as an irrelevant partisan issue. Neither can we dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. Fake news is fundamentally changing the fabric of our society—something the Bible warns about. Perhaps it is time we give serious consideration to the issue of fake news within our country so that we can guard against its national and spiritual ramifications.
To learn more about the history and significance of fake news, read Timothy Zebell’s book Culture of Lies: Understanding Fake News and Its Spiritual Ramifications
1. Tantone, Frank. “One Year after Confirmation Battle, Kavanaugh Denounced While Christine Blasey Ford Accepts ‘Courage’ Award.” Federalist, November 22, 2019. https://thefederalist.com/2019/11/22/one-year-after-confirmation-battle-kavanaugh-denounced-while-christine-blasey-ford-accepts-courage-award/.
2. Zhou, Li. “Ayanna Pressley Just Filed an Impeachment Resolution Against Brett Kavanaugh in the House.” Vox, September 17, 2019, 4:10 p.m., EDT. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/9/17/20870581/ayanna-pressley-brett-kavanaugh-impeachment-resolution.
3. Wax-Thibodeaux, Emily, Cat Zakrzewski and Robert O’Harrow Jr. “Democratic Candidates Demand Kavanaugh’s Impeachment after New Allegation in Times Piece.” National. Washington Post, September 15, 2019, 9:11 p.m., EDT. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/democratic-candidates-demand-kavanaugh-impeachment-after-new-allegation-in-times-piece/2019/09/15/3bdc160e-d7ce-11e9-ac63-3016711543fe_story.html.
4. Burman, Max, Allan Smith, Heidi Przybyla and Leigh Ann Caldwell. “Some Democrats Call for Kavanaugh Impeachment over New Sexual Misconduct Claims.” Politics. NBC News, September 15, 2019, 10:41 a.m., EDT. Last updated September 15, 2019, 7:54 p.m., EDT. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/supreme-court/trump-defends-brett-kavanaugh-after-sexual-misconduct-allegations-resurface-n1054581.
5. Manchester, Julia. “Kamala Harris Calls for New Investigation into Kavanaugh Allegations.” News. The Hill, September 17, 2019, 11:24, a.m., EDT. https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/461736-kamala-harris-calls-for-new-investigation-into-kavanaugh-allegations.
6. Zebell, Timothy. Culture of Lies: Understanding Fake News and Its Spiritual Ramifications. Page 13. CreateSpace, 2019.
7. DePaolo, Joe. “The View’s Abby Huntsman Wrecks the NY Times’ ‘Sloppy’ Kavanaugh Story: ‘Congratulations!’ You’re Helping Re-Elect Trump.” Mediaite, September 16, 2019, 12:46 p.m. https://www.mediaite.com/tv/the-views-abby-huntsman-wrecks-the-ny-times-sloppy-kavanaugh-story-congratulations-youre-helping-re-elect-trump/.
8. Wax-Thibodeaux, “Democratic Candidates Demand Kavanaugh’s Impeachment after New Allegation in Times Piece.”
9. Bulletin Board. “Answers to Reader Questions on Our Brett Kavanaugh Essay.” Reader Center. New York Times, September 16, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/16/reader-center/brett-kavanaugh-accusation-yale.html.
10. Garcia, Sandra. “Calls for Kavanaugh’s Impeachment Come Amid New Misconduct Allegations.” US. New York Times, September 15, 2019. Last updated September 16, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/15/us/brett-kavanaugh-allegations-trump-impeach.html.
11. Farrow, Ronan and Jane Mayer. “Senate Democrats Investigate a New Allegation of Sexual Misconduct, from Brett Kavanaugh’s College Years.” New Yorker, September 23, 2018. Last updated, n.d. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/senate-democrats-investigate-a-new-allegation-of-sexual-misconduct-from-the-supreme-court-nominee-brett-kavanaughs-college-years-deborah-ramirez.
12. Pogrebin, Robin and Kate Kelly. “Brett Kavanaugh Fit in with the Privileged Kids. She Did Not.” News Analysis. New York Times, September 14, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/sunday-review/brett-kavanaugh-deborah-ramirez-yale.html.
14. Saavedra, Ryan. “New Detail Emerges in New York Times’ Smear of Brett Kavanaugh.” Daily Wire, September 16, 2019. https://www.dailywire.com/news/51856/new-detail-emerges-new-york-times-smear-brett-ryan-saavedra.
15. Ross, Chuck (@ChuckRossDC). “Plot thickens. Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly claim that the qualifier about the other alleged Kavanaugh accuser not remembering an incident at Yale was included in the initial NYT draft but removed.” Twitter, September 16, 2019, 8:43 p.m. https://twitter.com/ChuckRossDC/status/1173804572273512448.
16. Fuchs, Hailey, Britton O’Daley and Isabel Bysiewicz. “While Kavanaugh Was a Member, DKE Flew under the Radar.” Yale News, July 16, 2018, 8:47 p.m. https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2018/07/16/while-kavanaugh-was-a-member-dke-flew-under-the-radar/.
17. Hemingway, Mollie. “Alleged Victim in New York Times Kavanaugh Story Denies Any Recollection of Incident.” The Federalist, September 15, 2019. https://thefederalist.com/2019/09/15/alleged-victim-in-new-york-times-kavanaugh-story-doesnt-remember-incident/.
18. “Declaration of Julie Swetnick.” CNBC, September 26, 2018. https://sc.cnbcfm.com/applications/cnbc.com/resources/editorialfiles/2018/09/26/swetnickstatement.pdf.
19. Breuninger, Kevin. “Read the Full Sworn Statement from Julie Swetnick, the Third Woman to Accuse Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh of Sexual Misconduct.” CNBC, September 26, 2018, 12:26 p.m., EDT. Last updated September 26, 2018, 1:51 p.m., EDT. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/26/read-full-sworn-statement-from-brett-kavanaugh-accuser-julie-swetnick.html.
20. Carney, Jordain. “Kavanaugh Questioned about Rhode Island Sexual Assault Allegation.” The Hill, September 26, 2018, 8:13 p.m., EDT. Last updated September 26, 2018, 9:44 p.m. https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/408666-kavanaugh-questioned-about-rhode-island-sexual-assault-allegation.
21. “BMK Transcript, Redacted.” Senate Judiciary Committee, September 25, 2018. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/09.25.18%20BMK%20Interview%20Transcript%20(Redacted).pdf.
22. Hunt, Kasie, Leigh Caldwell, Heidi Przybyla and Frank Thorp V. “Senate Probe New Allegation of Misconduct Against Kavanaugh.” NBC News, September 26, 2018, 6:37 p.m., EDT. Last updated September 26, 2018, 8:47, p.m., EDT. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/supreme-court/senate-probing-new-allegation-misconduct-against-kavanaugh-n913581.
23. Hemingway, Mollie. “New Book: Christine Blasey Ford’s Friend Leland Keyser Doesn’t Believe Her.” The Federalist, September 15, 2019. https://thefederalist.com/2019/09/15/new-book-christine-blasey-fords-friend-leland-keyser-doesnt-believe/.
25. Blake, Aaron. “A Key Witness in the Brett Kavanaugh Saga Comes down on His Side.” The Fix. Washington Post, September 17, 2019, 9:28 a.m., EDT. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/17/key-witness-brett-kavanaugh-saga-comes-down-his-side/.
26. Brest, Mike. “‘It’s Sloppy and It’s Lazy’: The View Co-Host Attacks New York Times Kavanaugh Story.” Washington Examiner, September 16, 2019, 12:23 p.m. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/its-sloppy-and-its-lazy-the-view-co-host-attacks-new-york-times-kavanaugh-story.
27. Osburn, Madeline. “Mollie Hemingway: New York Times’ Kavanaugh Story Is Journalistic Malpractice.” The Federalist, September 17, 2019. https://thefederalist.com/2019/09/17/mollie-hemingway-new-york-times-kavanaugh-story-is-journalistic-malpractice/.
28. Houck, Curtis. “Blackout: ABC, NBC Ignore Pro-Kavanaugh Bombshell; CBS Gives Scant 36 Seconds.” Blog. Newsbusters, September 17, 2019, 5:37 p.m., EDT. https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/nb/curtis-houck/2019/09/17/blackout-abc-nbc-ignore-pro-kavanaugh-bombshell-cbs-gives-scant-36.