The Tara Reade Saga Is a Failure of Journalism

Reporters haven’t done their due diligence, and Reade is paying 100% of the price. Tara Reade deserved better than The Katie Halper Show. Reade came forward in the spring of 2019 with a credible allegation of sexual harassment against her former employer, Joe Biden, and in 2020 with a claim of sexual assault.

Since that second allegation aired on Halper’s podcast in March, Reade’s account has been torn apart in the press, her private life has been invaded and dissected, and her reputation has been dragged through the mud. All of this could have been avoided. It’s happening, simply, because the outlets who initially reported her claims had more interest in promoting their own agenda than in protecting survivors.

Since her allegations came to light, Reade says she’s been inundated with harassment. Biden supporters have flooded social media with smears and conspiracy theories, like the claim that she’d been on a Dr. Phil episode for being “in love with Putin.” Late last week, Politico published an “expose” on Reade’s private life, interviewing disgruntled former landlords and employers. Its tone can be summed up in the first three words of the headline: “Manipulative, Deceitful, User.” New York’s Jonathan Chait used that report to declare that Reade’s account was “more likely to be false than true”; it wasn’t long before other online pundits were piling on too.

Reade’s personality has nothing to do with whether she was sexually assaulted, and her enemies’ assessment of her character cannot clear Biden’s name; only facts can do that. It’s incredibly common for critics to undermine rape accusers with inflammatory but ultimately irrelevant personal details, which is exactly why it has been traditional to offer them anonymity in the press, and this vilification is why many fear coming forward. Certainly, Reade feared it in the Halper interview, where she dwelled at length on the fallout from her 2019 harassment allegation: “I was just totally decimated online on social media, and my reputation was torn apart,” she said. “I was trying to do freelance work, and it’s a hard thing… when people Google [my] name, they would find all kinds of weird things said about me.”

It’s simply not clear whether the journalists who rushed to press with Reade’s story understood the risk she was taking or cared enough about her to do the painstaking work of backing up her story.

Reade was right to be scared. In any high-profile sexual assault or harassment case, it is a given that the accuser will be harassed, and, quite possibly, threatened with violence. Christine Blasey Ford received so many death threats after testifying against Justice Brett Kavanaugh that she had to move four times in the space of a few months. Anita Hill nearly lost her job at the University of Oklahoma after Justice Clarence Thomas’s supporters angrily barraged the university with demands that she be fired. E. Jean Carroll, who in 2019 accused President Donald Trump of rape, lost her job at Elle shortly afterward, and now claims to sleep “with a loaded gun.”

A woman who attaches her name to a high-profile sexual assault or harassment allegation is risking her peace, her livelihood, and her life. When someone puts her life on the line for the sake of a story, it is our moral duty as reporters to prepare the source for the risk she is taking, negotiate the level of anonymity she feels comfortable with, and, if she chooses to be visible, to protect her by doing comprehensive reporting to back up her claims — or else wait to publish them. It’s simply not clear whether the journalists who rushed to press with Reade’s story understood the risk she was taking or cared enough about her to do the painstaking work of backing up her story.

Halper aired Reade’s claims as a raw interview, with almost no additional reporting. She spoke to an anonymous friend of Reade, who corroborated her story, and her brother, Collin Moulton, who did the same. (Both witnesses would have their corroborations called into question by subsequent reporting.) Perhaps, if Halper had given Reade anonymity, the interview could have aired without putting her at risk. But Halper not only used Reade’s name, she promoted the episode by including Reade’s social media handle, directly exposing her to the very harassment Reade said she’d found so wounding. Imagine if every news station covering Christine Blasey Ford had put Ford’s personal phone number at the bottom of the screen.

I’ve admittedly disagreed with Halper in the past, and I expect her to take issue with this characterization, but her judgment was called into question by far more sympathetic sources. Emily Alford at Jezebel pointed out that Reade’s interview contained many details it would have been easy for a reporter to try to corroborate (a report Reade says she filed, the names of supervisors to whom she’d complained, a written record Reade says her mother urged her to keep) that Halper evidently hadn’t followed up on.

“Halper’s rush to publish the allegations without doing due diligence in her reporting demonstrates either a lack of concern for how Reade might be raked over the coals or a lack of knowledge around journalistic best practices for sexual assault investigations and reporting,” wrote Alford. She warned that “[Biden’s ] supporters will most likely cleave to the lack of corroboration as evidence that Reade is lying,” and “the gaps in reporting leave her defenseless.”

Do they ever. Nearly every subsequent report has turned into a fact check of or contradicted some aspect of the initial story, from the witnesses who changed and sometimes contradicted their own stories (at least one told Laura McGann of Vox that there had been no sexual assault and that all the harassment had taken place in front of witnesses) to the location of the assault (Reade says she was assaulted “in an alcove,” but the area she named has no alcoves). Journalists, who had been quietly tracking down evidence for months, had to explain why they hadn’t seen fit to publish the story, in ways that were inevitably damaging to Reade. Character assassination, like the Politico piece, was able to pass as “fact-checking,” simply because no facts had initially been checked, or even offered.

Yet Reade’s 2019 harassment allegation is heavily corroborated. In a 1996 court filing, Reade’s ex-husband stated that she frequently “related a problem that she was having at work regarding sexual harassment in U.S. Sen. Joe Biden’s office.” She says she was backbenched at work; the interns she supervised say they remember her being taken off duty. (Ben Savage, who worked at the desk next to Reade, told PBS that he began taking over her duties because he felt she was mishandling them, but this does not necessarily contradict Reade’s account. She told Halper she was frequently criticized at work after complaining about Biden: “[They] were finding fault with my work all the time, like every little thing. And it was almost to the point where three or four times a day there would be something, something, something wrong.”) Every corroborating witness seems to recall at least the part of Reade’s story that contained sexual harassment, though many of them are unclear or inconsistent on whether they remember hearing about anything beyond that.

As with many stories of the #MeToo era, Reade’s testimony fits a pattern. When Reade complained that Biden had made her uncomfortable by touching her neck and shoulders, her story echoed that of Lucy Flores, who wrote that Biden had kissed her on the back of the head without permission, and of the six other women who have said Biden touched them inappropriately. There is no good reason to doubt this element of her story.

Patient reporting might have found corroboration for the sexual assault allegation as well. Yes, there are snags, missing documents, details that don’t add up. McGann writes that she contacted or helped Reade contact two offices and a warehouse in search of the complaint Reade says she filed; it has yet to surface anywhere, and Reade herself admits the complaint only mentioned harassment. Still, witnesses continue to come forward, like Lynda LaCasse, whose testimony was uncovered by former NBC news producer Rich McHugh, who worked with Ronan Farrow to uncover the Harvey Weinstein story. A patient reporter might have been able to independently resolve the factual inconsistencies within Reade’s claim or summon all of the corroborating witnesses and documents into one persuasive story, instead of letting them trickle out haphazardly in a patchwork of different and conflicting accounts. They might even have been able to find other accusers, who, if they exist, have almost certainly been scared back into the woodwork by the treatment Reade has received. At worst, they might have passed on the story, as the Associated Press says it did when it wrote that it had “declined to publish details of [its] 2019 interviews [with Reade] at the time because reporters were unable to corroborate her allegations, and aspects of her story contradicted other reporting.”

There was no need for Reade ever to be trashed publicly or torn apart in the arena. There’s still no evidence that she wasn’t raped, only a lack of evidence that she was. And the darkest insinuation of many Biden supporters — that Reade may have escalated her claims from sexual harassment to rape, or been convinced to escalate them, in order to impact first the primary and then the general election — has not been proven by reporting, either. Yes, Reade’s politics are decidedly anti-Biden; she has called for him to drop out, and, in a troubling detail, says she was contacted by the Trump campaign, which her attorney now denies. Yes, Reade has made bad choices in her associations; her only major interview since Halper was with the conservative anchor Megyn Kelly on her YouTube channel. But if Reade is telling the truth, some antipathy for Biden or Democrats is to be expected. Most people would work to make sure their abusers did not become president. The same people currently demanding an overwhelming burden of documentation and evidence to prove Biden’s alleged misconduct seem to require almost no evidence at all to deem Reade a pathological liar or spy.

What we do know, though, is that the political actors around Reade seem to have undermined her by trying to fit her story to their agenda. Halper has been a fervent supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, and she aired the Reade interview in the final days of the Sanders campaign, when he was still in the race but losing badly. Given the calls for Biden to step down and give the nomination to Sanders that soon ensued in response to Reade’s charges, it seems reasonable to assume that Halper hoped the interview would impact the race. But investigations take longer than primaries; a story which could have been damning, given a few months or years of reporting, was given an artificial deadline, and its rollout was correspondingly sloppy.

Similarly, Nathan Robinson, who printed the transcript of Halper’s interview in his publication Current Affairs and beat the drum for Reade on social media, admits that he involved himself in witnesses’ relationship with the press, viewing reporters’ questions to Reade and telling her to “be cautious about” reporters he considered unfriendly. (This, again, seems to overlap with reporters who had criticized Sanders.) When Moulton told a reporter at the Washington Post about the sexual harassment, then texted days later to change his own story so that it included assault, Robinson seemed to claim credit on Twitter, saying he had a conversation with Moulton about what to tell the reporter, before deleting the tweets. Like advertising Reade’s Twitter handle, it was an amateur mistake. Robinson was so eager to “help” Reade that he didn’t realize he was making her and her witnesses appear coached, and thereby “helping” her right out of her best defense.

There is no way left to protect Tara Reade. The rollout of her account of abuse has been bungled to the point that it is likely irrecoverable. None of the people responsible will face consequences: Halper’s audience has skyrocketed. Robinson owns his publication. Reade assumed 100% of the risk in sharing her story, and she will pay 100% of the price. She will be picked apart, mocked, harassed, threatened, blown up into a grotesque portrait of a needy, damaged con artist, to the point that it is unlikely her life will ever be entirely peaceful again. Those who failed her have fame and influence. Reade has been left where sexual harassment and assault survivors are left too often; suffering, disbelieved, and alone.

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