An allegation of sexual assault against Joe Biden presents a challenge to the media

Joe Biden campaigning in Des Moines earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2020 by Phil Roeder.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

When a woman accuses a presidential candidate of sexual assault, her allegations deserve to be treated as something more than a political problem.

And so it is with Tara Reade, a former Senate staff member who claims that Joe Biden assaulted her in 1993. So let me stipulate up front that Reade may be telling the truth in saying that Biden stuck his hand up her skirt and penetrated her while she was pinned against a wall in a Senate office building.

There are problems with her account, which I’ll get to in a bit. But there are inevitably going to be problems with an alleged incident that took place 27 years ago. That doesn’t mean she’s making it up. It does mean that her accusation is unproven — and, in all likelihood, unprovable.

Given all that, it makes sense to examine how Tara Reade’s story made the leap from the backwaters of political chatter into the mainstream media — as it did over the past few days, as The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Associated Press and others all published detailed articles following her decision last week to file a complaint with the D.C. police.

Reade first made her allegations in late March, as WGBH News’ “Beat the Press” noted on April 3. At the time, the question was why the media were staying away from it. One likely answer: With COVID-19 smothering all other news stories, there just wasn’t the bandwidth to take on anything else.

But there was another possibility: Responsible news outlets wanted to take the time to investigate Reade’s claims thoroughly before publishing such incendiary news. The Times’ description of the lengths it went to is worth considering in full, as it shows how a first-class news organization goes about its business in a media world otherwise drowning in tweets, he-said/she-said stenography and cable-news speculation.

“Soon after Ms. Reade made the new allegation, in a podcast interview released on March 25, The Times began reporting on her account and seeking corroboration through interviews, documents and other sources,” according to the story. “The Times interviewed Ms. Reade on multiple days over hours, as well as those she told about Mr. Biden’s behavior and other friends. The Times has also interviewed lawyers who spoke to Ms. Reade about her allegation; nearly two dozen people who worked with Mr. Biden during the early 1990s, including many who worked with Ms. Reade; and the other seven women who criticized Mr. Biden last year, to discuss their experiences with him.”

The Post and The AP both reported taking similar steps before publishing.

Now, there are some problems with Reade’s claims, as all three articles point out. For one thing, she told a different story just a year ago when she was one of several women who talked about Biden’s habit of engaging in inappropriate but non-sexual touching. For another, although there is some evidence that she told others Biden had sexually assaulted her at the time it supposedly happened, that evidence is less than compelling — again, as might be expected in trying to reconstruct what took place between two people many years after the fact. Biden’s campaign has staunchly denied it happened, no other women have come forward, and the allegations don’t seem to fit what we know about him. Another complicating factor is Reade’s odd admiration at one time for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

To repeat: None of this disproves Reade’s claims. But in the absence of any evidence beyond what she is saying, it makes sense for news organizations to sift through what she has said previously as well as what others are saying.

So where does this leave the media? It’s clear that the Trump campaign will use Reade’s allegations to try to neutralize Democratic attacks on the president’s long, sordid, well-documented record of sexual assault against numerous women — a record that includes an ongoing civil case charging him with rape.

If Reade’s claims are proven to be true, they still fall far short of President Trump’s grotesque misconduct. Still, the story makes it harder for Biden and the Democrats to take the high road. Donald Trump Jr. can hardly contain his glee.

As with so many other issues involving coverage of Trump, the challenge for the media is to continue reporting on the allegations against Biden thoroughly and fairly without devolving into false equivalence. Tara Reade deserves to be treated with respect, and her allegations need to be taken seriously. But Trump’s record of sexual misconduct is much worse than Biden’s and must be seen in that perspective.

The outcome of the November election will almost certainly turn on other matters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and Trump’s conduct and misconduct during his chaotic presidency. If no new evidence emerges and if no other women step forward, Reade is likely to recede into the background. Her story will continue to resonate on Fox News, OAN and other media outposts within Trumpland, but that’s not going to change the outcome of the election.

Still, if this proves to be the beginning of something bigger, Democrats may regret settling on Biden as early as they did.

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