Although the story initially broke in March via The Intercept, sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden by Tara Reade have recently made headline news. For weeks leading up to the story finally being covered by mainstream news outlet The New York Times, the issue received considerable attention on left wing media like The Intercept, The Katie Halper Show, and Rising with Krystal Ball, with many Twitter figures and personalities also weighing in. Soon it was taken up by the right in Fox News, The Washington Examiner, and The Daily Wire, as well, with little word from sources like The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post.
It was suspect that the mainstream news media wouldn’t take up the allegations - especially sources like The Washington Post, which has made the #MeToo movement an extensive part of their coverage. This is one of the bigger points which makes the story riddled with issues: issues concerning how the media handles sexual assault allegations, how coverage is driven by partisans, and how due process is such an underrated and complicated part of it all.
First, let’s start with some verified facts:
There are discrepancies in Tara Reade’s accusations, ones which differ greatly between being made “uncomfortable” by Biden (as other women have with his close-and-personal mannerisms) and being sexually assaulted by him. Some people she claims to have told either claim they heard nothing about it, were only aware of the initial accusation of discomfort, or were revealed to have been coached on what to say.
It does take journalists time to thoroughly investigate and verify facts, especially concerning the investigation of a decades-old claim. There are inherent complications regarding due process in sexual assault cases from decades ago absent any supporting documents or medical records.
The accusation was covered initially by known partisans. Further, there have been attempts to gain politically by attempting to “expose” sex-based crimes and controversies in the past, most notably in the story regarding Project Veritas and The Washington Post.
When the accusation was first being pushed, both sides of the argument attempted to discredit either Biden or Reade because of assumed guilt before careful analysis, something the MeToo movement has been grappling with. Biden supporters, skeptical of the claims, were quick to point to discrepancies in Reade’s account, while many who aren’t fond of Biden to begin with were quick to minimize them.
Coverage of sexual assault allegations has been rocky in the past, which is a large reason the MeToo movement took hold.
Finally, all of these aspects, from disproportionate news coverage with a partisan angle to issues with corroboration, were true with the Kavanaugh/Blasey-Ford story.
Much of what is absent in sexual assault accusations in the MeToo era is strong journalistic principles and due process. The rationale that “a woman is always telling the truth” substituted the necessity of having multiple, reliable sources and corroborating evidence. Joe Biden himself has suggested he agrees with the “Believe Women” rationale, and he opens himself up to charges of hypocrisy because of it. There is nothing wrong with being skeptical of such weighty claims, and skepticism does not take away the need for compassion for the perceived victim when hearing such claims. On the same token, Biden deserves due process, but Tara Reade deserves to be heard and have her claims taken seriously.
But when the mainstream media sits on their hands and lets the story fester and be amplified by partisan voices, while not pushing Biden himself to combat these claims (which is completely contrary to their coverage of Justice Brett Kavanaugh), it doesn’t lend credibility to their news organizations. Their findings, while somewhat more involved, were inconclusive without extensive corroborating evidence on Reade’s part and necessary files and reports on the part of Biden and the U.S. Senate.
While the burden of proof being placed mostly on Reade can be unfair, it’s difficult to do much else with a decades-old, inconsistent accusation. The Times did the right thing in seeking to independently verify facts rather than going immediately to Twitter, but failed to communicate their reasoning and failed to meaningfully contribute to the conversation in a way partisans hadn’t already.
Biden himself formally addressed the situation on Morning Joe on the morning of Friday, May 1 in what Politico calls “a day of damage control.” In it, he called for the National Archives to release the official complaint claimed to exist by Reade. Previously, his team had circulated talking points which hinged the accusations being false on the inconclusive New York Times story. He has received praise for his handling from media types and fellow politicians alike, but his voice on the matter came rather late. Releasing all his files, as he is being called on to do, also may present a “Hillary’s Emails” situation, where his files bring up nothing substantive but remain the talk of the town.
Several things are clear, however: Those who parrot the MeToo rationale while suddenly being skeptical when it implicates someone they like are hypocritical (Yes - I’m looking at you, Kirsten Gillibrand). Those who suddenly want due process for Biden who didn’t afford the same to Kavanaugh are hypocritical. Those who suggest due process is overrated in an accusation of sexual assault are simply wrong. Those who say false accusations don’t happen are simply wrong.
However, none of that suggests whether Biden is innocent or guilty; it’s difficult to prove either. Biden’s history with being overly affectionate towards women, although it suggests a pattern of “making people uncomfortable,” is not indicative of whether he sexually assaulted Tara Reade.
At the same time, just because this partisan news coverage may be politically motivated, doesn’t mean it is verifiably untrue.
That said, once the claims are out there, regardless of how true or how false they are, they cast judgment on the character of the accused. The national political director of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Amanda Renteria, said “headlines matter no matter what the facts end up being.”
As the news media begins to cover topics other than COVID-19, this story needs to be treated with better journalistic standards regarding presumption of guilt and due process. It should not be politically weaponized (although I believe it already has been), it should be independently verified, and it should come from a place of humility and a desire to know the truth rather than eagerness to break a story and denigrate political opponents.
I cannot definitively say whether Joe Biden sexually assaulted Tara Reade in the 1990s, and it’s not my job to do so. But I will defend journalistic principles and due process regardless of how complicated a news story gets. Most of the major players - the media, Democratic politicians, the right wing media which claims to care about the allegations yet turned a blind eye to Kavanaugh, and those who “believe women” until it’s politically inconvenient - are hypocritical or acting in bad faith.