WASHINGTON – The decision by The New York Times to remove a key exculpatory fact from its recent article on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is such an incredible editing error that it raises the prospect that it might have been an ideological intervention.
What editor, looking to cut down an article containing a new allegation of collegiate penis exposure, would happen to remove the detail that the female object of said exposure has told friends she has no memory of it? Any sentient editor would realize that the section containing this accusation would attract intense scrutiny. Nearly every other sentence in the piece was a more likely candidate for excision.
But why would an ideologically motivated editor remove a fact that is contained in the book on which the article is based? This would be bias compounded by utter stupidity.
It has not helped that the Times responded to the controversy with all the transparency of an embezzling politician. At first, the Times said it was proud of the “well-reported and newsworthy” piece. Then the authors of the article, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, blamed their editors for the cut on national television. And that the whole thing was “just an oversight.” And that the sentence was removed because it contained the name of the supposed victim.
The last explanation assumes utter stupidity on the part of readers. If it is the policy of The New York Times not to reveal the names of possible sexual assault victims, why not just remove the name of the victim (who does not recall being a victim)? Why remove the whole sentence containing news about her not having any memory of the event?
Whether the result of bias or incompetence, this is journalistic malpractice of the first order. And its happiest critic is Donald Trump.
Whatever the initial plausibility of the case against Kavanaugh, it has grown weaker over time. The “previously unreported story” of exposure in the Times article is based on the accusations of one witness whom the authors did not interview and is disputed by the supposed victim herself. Support for Deborah Ramirez’s allegation of sexual exposure remains an unconvincing collection of partial memories and second-hand accounts.
And the reported portions of the book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” do little to make Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of attempted sexual assault more credible. Ford’s main character witness is her high school friend Leland Keyser. “We spoke multiple times to Keyser,” write Pogrebin and Kelly, “who also said that she didn’t recall that get-together or any others like it. In fact, she challenged Ford’s accuracy. ‘I don’t have any confidence in the story,’ she said.”
All of this leaves many of us in exactly the same place as before. We should take charges like these very seriously. But it should not be possible to destroy a person’s reputation on evidence so thin.
Why does the campaign to discredit Kavanaugh continue with such intensity? Some critics may be concerned about campaign finance reform or the unitary executive. But the matter that provokes the most passion is abortion.
“When he takes a scalpel to Roe v. Wade,” Ford’s lawyer Debra Katz has said, “we will know who he is, we know his character, and we know what motivates him, and that is important: it is important that we know, and that is part of what motivated Christine.” The goal, it seems, is to preemptively discredit an unfavorable court decision by putting what Katz describes as “an asterisk” next to Kavanaugh’s name.
This strategy is one indicator of the unhealthy focus of our entire political system on Roe v. Wade. Because it touches on the deepest issues of autonomy and human dignity, the legal status of abortion is crucial. The problem comes when we see all politics through the lens of one issue.
Many on the right justify support for Trump because his corruption and dehumanization are less important than saving lives from abortion. But it is a theory without a limiting principle. It would justify voting for some pro-life politician who is a child molester.
Many on the left rationalize using Trump-like tactics against someone like Kavanaugh on the theory that preserving Roe justifies any means. If you can’t control the Supreme Court, trash it. Call the legitimacy of rulings by the court into question. The politics of personal destruction has merged with the politics of institutional destruction.
But not all roads lead to Roe. And opposing it, or preserving it, does not justify every method.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.