Over the last month the campaign to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court received an assist from the major media, with many legacy outlets abandoning any pretense of objectivity to transparently attempt derailing the judge’s confirmation process.
Along the way, Americans have witnessed some of the most embarrassing media moments in recent memory.
Here are 13 of the worst, more or less in chronological order:
13 – Secret White Power Signal (Sept. 4, 2018). Just hours into Kavanaugh’s nomination, an aide to Kavanaugh seated behind him made an “OK” hand gesture that was caught on camera. On Twitter, a rumor began spreading that this was secretly a “white power” gesture, and that rumor soon made its way into the mainstream press. (CBS, The Daily News’ Shaun King, and prominent news personalities Tariq Nasheed and Tommy Christopher helped spread the myth.)
Only after the identity of the woman, Zina Bash, became known, did this conspiracy theory become clearly laughable; she is a Hispanic descendent of Holocaust survivors. (Later reporting would show she was signaling to bring water to Kavanaugh, and gesturing “OK” after it was delivered.) The Anti-Defamation League also disputes that this “OK” hand gesture has any racial significance.
12 – Kavanaugh Disses Parkland Survivor (Sept. 4, 2018). The same day, a father of a girl who died in the Parkland shooting, Fred Guttenberg, said he attempted to shake Kavanaugh’s hand after the hearing recessed, but Kavanaugh rebuffed him. This, he said, proved Kavanaugh didn’t care about taking school violence, or gun control, seriously.
The media ate the story up. Guttenberg was invited onto CNN to sound off on Kavanugh; the story was picked up on CBS, The Huffington Post, TIME, the Washington Post, and dozens of other media outlets. On NBC’s “Late Night,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo accused Kavanaugh of intentionally dissing Guttenberg.
Only later was it revealed: Guttenberg, a guest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), had told his Twitter followers before the hearing he planned to create a scene; and that Kavanaugh hadn’t rebuffed him at all. Footage from the hearing showed security removing Guttenberg before he reached Kavanaugh.
11 – In Naked Attempt at Destroying Kavanaugh, The New Yorker Torches Its Credibility (Sept. 14-Oct. 4, 2018). Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow partnered with his New Yorker colleague to publish a series of anti-Kavanaugh articles that failed any reasonable standard of journalistic fact-finding. As both Ford and the second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, first took their story to Farrow, it appeared they sought leveraging the credibility he earned in starting the #MeToo movement to compensate for their own lack of corroborating evidence. Farrow’s first article on the so-called “second accuser,” Deborah Ramirez, was widely panned for its elevation of an allegation that the accuser herself admitted only recalling a week before the article ran (more than 30 years after the night in question, a night during which she admits being extremely intoxicated and having only a hazy recollection of). When she first spoke to The New Yorker, she wasn’t even sure Kavanaugh was responsible. However, after “assessing” her memory for five days, she decided Kavanaugh had exposed himself during a drunken Yale dorm party their freshman year. The article, and another that came a week later, failed to find any eyewitness accounts to buttress her claim; in fact, those who would have been in the room of such a party all denied Ramirez’s account. The New York Times said it had also investigated the story, but after speaking with “dozens” of Kavanaugh’s Yale classmates and failing to find a single supporting witness – and, indeed, learning that Ramirez had reportedly been asking friends if Kavanaugh had done anything wrong – the Times passed on the story. But after The New Yorker published it anyway, Farrow and Mayer went on a media tour, elevating Ramirez’s unsupported claim further.
10 – Networks Letting Michael Avenatti Use Them to Spread Smears (Sept. 26, 2018). After celebrity TV attorney Michael Avenatti began claiming he had a secret client who would upend Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, the media effectively extended him an open invitation to spread his scurrilous smears. Once he unveiled his client, Julie Swetnick, and her bizarre claims of drugs, drinking, and gang rape, he was invited onto ABC, CNN, MSNBC, where he presented no evidence against Kavanaugh, but helped add to the circus atmosphere by challenging Kavanaugh to a lie detector text. NBC tried to corroborate the claims but could not, yet the network let the accuser spread them anyway. Avenatti did seem to encounter skepticism from network anchors than he has in the past, but the wiser journalistic decision would have been to present evidence before giving TV lawyer so much time on air.
9 – To Create Narrative of Multiple Accusers, NBC Invents ‘4th Accuser’ (Sept. 26, 2018) Soon after Avenatti inserted himself into the Kavanaugh Carnival, NBC helped pile on, publishing a report of a “fourth accuser.” The story came from an anonymous letter sent to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), which somehow leaked. The claim involved Kavanaugh allegedly attacking in a sexual manner a woman after leaving a bar in the 90s. Despite there being no corroboration or named witnesses, NBC published the accusation anyway. Almost immediately, the apparent victim came forward and called the accusation “both offensive and absurd” and further stated she was actually dating Kavanaugh at the time. Had NBC done the usual journalistic practice of checking the facts first, this embarrassing episode could have been avoided.
8 – CNN Publishes ‘Fifth Accuser’ Report AFTER It Was Already Debunked (Sept. 26, 2018). In one of the most embarrassing moments for CNN over the course of Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle, the network published an accusation from a so-called “fifth accuser” – after the accuser had admitted making it all up. A man from Rhode Island, who apparently suffers from mental illness, called Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and claimed Kavanaugh raped someone on a boat in Rhode Island in 1985. The man posted a tweet at 7:51 PM, September 26, acknowledging he made up the story and apologized:
Two hours later, CNN published an article about a “fifth Kavanaugh accuser.” It took the network another three hours before correcting its erroneous report.
7 – The Accumulation of Gossip Helps Prove the Gossip (Ongoing). That seemed to be the media’s credo over the last two weeks. Even as there were very real reasons to question Christine Ford’s account from the outset – and no reasons to take the claims of Deborah Ramirez or Julie Swetnick’s seriously – the media seemed to believe that the mere accumulation of unfounded accusations was itself evidence supporting the claims. See, as an example, the chyron below:
6 – The New York Times Turns Tabloid (Sept. 25, 2018). The Times published a story in which it claimed a reference in Kavanaugh’s yearbook to “Renate Alumnius,” was a coded boast of sexual conquest. The article accidentally published the source for the allegation, which turned out to be an anti-Kavanaugh politician named Richard Madaleno, who is a Democratic senator in Maryland and was a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Georgetown Prep. The Federalist reported that the Times had meant to keep their source secret, and quickly edited out Madaleno’s name from its article. Kavanaugh, and others who had the same inscription in their yearbook, said the “Renate Alumnius” reference had no sexual connotation. But when the Times approached Renate Schroeder Dolphin and told her these yearbook quotes were coded sexual references and asked if she would like to respond, she was understandably upset. Kavanaugh, in his hearing with Christine Ford, said the media’s quest to destroy his reputation ended up destroying a friendship of many decades.
5 – Kavanaugh Claims to Only Drank Legally (Sept. 28, 2018). During this confirmation battle, the media adopted the unfortunate habit of inaccurately paraphrasing Kavanaugh, then repeating that inaccuracy so frequently that it became conventional wisdom. This was the case with the bizarre claim that Kavanaugh said he had only ever drank legally. A sample Associated Press headline: “Kavanaugh wrongly claims he could drink legally in Md.” This same “fact check” ran in The Daily Mail, The Hill, Business Insider, and others. ABC’s Mark Murray also helped spread the fake fact check.
Only problem? He never said anything like this. If you read the Associated Press and Hill articles, Kavanaugh is quoted saying seniors could legally buy beer when he was in high school, so there was beer at high school parties. “The drinking age, as I noted, was 18, so the seniors were legal,” he said on Fox News. “Senior year in high school, people were legal to drink.” These articles never quoted him actually claiming to have only drank legally, because he never did.
4 – Kavanaugh Obviously Lied About Something (Ongoing). A talking point began during Kavanaugh’s initial hearings that he wasn’t truthfully answering questions; however, no actual lie was ever identified. Sen. Feinstein said he was lying because he said Roe v. Wade is established precedent and surely he’s just saying that and secretly plans to overturn it. It’s possible, but it requires mind-reading to verify. Others said he wasn’t being truthful about not being the recipient of Senate Democratic documents that were “stolen” by GOP Senate aide Manuel Miranda. (The left-wing outlet Vox debunked this one.) The media then seemed to settle on the idea that Kavanaugh was lying about his yearbook quote. Michael Avenatti claimed that “Devil’s Triangle” was a reference to sex act involving three men and one woman; FFFFFFFFourth of July referenced “find them, feel them, French them, f*ck them, forget them,” and others claimed “boof” likely had a sexual connotation. Each one of these charges have since been debunked. In the Christine Ford hearing, Kavanaugh explained all three: Devil’s Triangle is a drinking game, “Ffffffourth” was an inside joke referring to the way his friend used the “f word,” and “boof” referred to flatulence. In the intervening days, another yearbook passage from 1982 has emerged in which a student boasts of having invented the drinking game, Devil’s Triangle; other students from Georgetown Prep from that period told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it is a drinking game and explained how it was played. Likewise, students from Georgetown Prep have also since confirmed that “boof” is indeed slang for “fart.”
Typical is the TV talking head who casually says Kavanaugh has frequently lied during his confirmation process. John Heilemann said as such during an appearance on “Morning Joe.” When host Joe Scarborough asked him to list the lies, Heilemann clammed up and said he would find examples for later in the show:
3 – The New York Times Reports Kavanaugh … Threw Ice? (Oct. 1, 2018) In perhaps the most widely mocked article from the last two weeks, The New York Times credulously reported on a bar fight after a UB40 concert in 1985 in which it was rumored that Kavanaugh may have thrown ice at another patron. In journalism its customary to not report on a police response when no arrest was made, but the Times ignored this custom to ostensibly help feed the narrative of Kavanaugh being an out-of-control drunk prone to sexually abusing women.
2 – The New York Times Canvasses for Kavanaugh Opposition (Oct. 3, 2018). Over the last week, The New York Times began canvassing for law professors to sign an open letter opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination for the court. As the number of signatories have increased, the Times has triumphantly tweeted updates.
1 – Even if Kavanaugh’s Confirmed, He’ll Never Be a Legitimate Justice (Ongoing). As the confirmation of Kavanuagh appeared increasingly likely, a new talking point emerged: That even as a Supreme Court justice, Kavanaugh will forever be “stained” or “tainted” or carry an “asterisk.” MSNBC’s Donny Deutsch said that if Kavanaugh is confirmed, “you’re going to have a stained Supreme Court.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said: “To think about somebody like that sitting on the Supreme Court where there is never going to be a decision that he makes that isn’t tainted by partisanship.” His colleague, Willie Geist, said that if Kavanaugh is seated, “on the Supreme Court, there will be, as we’ve said last week, an asterisk next to his name as long as he’s there.”