Five years ago this week, the media began their infamous campaign of innuendo and attacks against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which culminated in a showdown hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even after that explosive hearing, liberal journalists continued to clamor for the Senate to reject Kavanaugh, and were bitterly disappointed by his razor-thin (50-48) confirmation in early October.
President Trump had selected Kavanaugh back on July 9, 2018 to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, then seen as the swing vote on the Supreme Court. During the first week of September, the Republican-majority Senate Judiciary Committee conducted four days of hearings into Kavanaugh’s nomination, including two days interrogating the nominee himself.
As that round of hearings concluded, reporters saw Kavanaugh’s confirmation as assured. On Friday, September 7, ABC’s Terry Moran concluded that it was “unlikely” the hearings had “changed any votes, so Democrats are in an uphill battle.” The next day, Politico’s Anne Palmer, on CBS This Morning: Saturday, agreed: “Democrats didn’t have the knockout punch....They weren’t able to find the smoking gun that was going to tank his Supreme Court nomination.”
Five days later, the media eagerly pounced on a vague report that ranking Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein had asked the FBI to look into then-unspecified charges from a then-unnamed person. As NBC’s Lester Holt teased on that evening’s Nightly News: “Now to the secret information one top Democratic Senator claims to have about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.”
The next morning’s New York Times revealed Democrats had known of these allegations since July, and that they concerned Kavanaugh’s alleged conduct at a high school party when he was 17 years old. Even MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough thought it looked desperate. “This looks like a cheap last-minute trick by Democrats,” he opined the next day on Morning Joe.
Cheap trick or not, the sordid allegations from Christine Blasey Ford — who revealed herself to the Washington Post that weekend — were the hook journalists needed to launch a media rampage against Kavanaugh with the aim of destroying his Supreme Court nomination.
This media assault included removing any presumption that a federal judge with a dozen years of service might be innocent: “Kavanaugh was clearly a smarmy, smirking entitled and mercenary guy,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman smeared in a September 17 tweet. “The odds that he had some kind of skeleton in his closet were pretty good.”
Kavanaugh denied any wrongdoing, which also gave liberal pundits fits. Whether they knew anything about him or not, liberals felt free to denigrate Kavanaugh’s character. “He’s the type of person who can be so vile,” MSNBC legal contributor Cynthia Alksne sneered. “He’s a liar.”
“I don’t think Brett Kavanaugh takes women’s pain very seriously,” blogger Ana Marie Cox derided on MSNBC’s The Last Word.
The wave of attacks on Kavanaugh’s character was unrelenting. NewsBusters’s Bill D’Agostino compiled a sampling of the enraged commentary during the days leading up to the hearing, as the media 1) branded Kavanaugh a “liar” for defending himself; 2) insisted Ford was “credible” despite not knowing much about her, either; and 3) convicted Senate Republicans of the crime of being “eleven white men.”
Republicans were “protecting a man who is probably guilty,” The View’s Joy Behar loudly condemned to her daytime audience of nearly three million. Unlike Behar, most in the media didn’t come right out and declare Kavanaugh “guilty,” but chose to push their audiences to the identical conclusion by insisting only an ignorant sexist would doubt Ford’s account.
“You’re seeing on display a metaphor of what this [Republican] Party is and, just basically, just ignorant white men,” MSNBC’s Donny Deutsch condemned on Morning Joe on September 21.
“Women have dealt with this for hundreds and thousands of years, and the question is will they be believed when they actively accuse a powerful man?” ABC’s Matthew Dowd wondered on This Week on September 23.
Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson fretted on CNN September 18 about the Republican strategy to “save this nomination at all costs, [even] if that means destroying, destroying Dr. Ford.”
As they fretted about attacks on Ford’s good character, many in the media were using the ugliest language to destroy Kavanaugh’s reputation. Between September 16 and October 3, CNN’s on-air anchors reporters and contributors associated the word “rape” (including “attempted rape” and “gang rape”) with Kavanaugh 191 times — more than ten times per day. A sample of that, from NB’s D’Agostino:
In such a viciously anti-Kavanaugh media environment, it’s not a surprise that other accusers popped up. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow found a college classmate of Kavanaugh, Deborah Ramirez, who claimed a drunken Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party. Yet the New York Times had already passed on her story, after checking with classmates who relayed that Ramirez “told some of them that she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself.”
Then there was lawyer Michael Avenatti, who claimed he had evidence that Kavanaugh orchestrated gang rapes in the 1980s while in high school. (This is the same Avenatti who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for stealing from his clients, on top of earlier convictions for fraud and extortion.)
Preposterous and unproved as it was, this poisonous new claim was trumpeted on all of the major networks the night before the hearing. “Explosive new allegations against embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh,” NBC’s Holt teased at the top of the September 26 Nightly News. “Republicans reeled from the latest allegation about Kavanaugh being present at a gang rape,” CBS’s Nancy Cordes relayed over on the Evening News that same night.
A Media Research Center study of the broadcast networks’ morning and evening news programs prior to the hearing found a whopping 344 minutes of coverage to the various claims against Kavanaugh, but less than eight percent (just 27 minutes) included exonerating information.
Kavanaugh’s staunch denials were given just 14 minutes of coverage, or just four percent of the total airtime. Just two minutes was allotted to the dozens of women who came forward to vouch for Kavanaugh’s good character over the decades they’d known him. And only five minutes was spent on the fact that several supposed witnesses could not actually corroborate her account of the 1982 high school party.
On September 27, both Ford and Kavanaugh spoke for hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee. After Ford spoke in the morning, reporters once again touted her as “credible,” and declared that her testimony an “unmitigated disaster” for Kavanaugh.
Then, after Kavanaugh’s angry insistence that he was innocent, the media attempted to use his passion against him. “We have heard a woman who has no motive to lie... giving a vivid and dramatic and highly believable description of a sexual assault,” CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin tendentiously recapped. “We have then heard from a belligerent, angry, enraged Brett Kavanaugh....I think that actually is relevant to what the judgment is.”
“With him screaming and interrupting Senators, I could imagine him putting his hand over someone’s mouth,” the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin tweeted that afternoon.
“You get the feeling...that he could be an angry and belligerent drunk,” MSNBC’s Cynthia Alksne impugned after the hearing had adjourned.
“I can’t imagine the feeling of the millions and millions of women and others who found Dr. Ford very, very credible,” ABC’s Terry Moran interjected. “If, as seems likely, Republicans are able to get Judge Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court, they’re just going to feel annihilated inside.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation came down to three undecided Republican Senators — Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, and Maine’s Susan Collins — plus West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. To the media’s chagrin, Flake, Collins and Manchin joined the rest of the GOP in supporting Kavanaugh, while Murkowski announced she’d align with Democrats on the October 6 vote. The media onslaught had failed; Kavanaugh was confirmed.
“For most women and many men, it’s a bitter, devastating loss,” ex-CBS anchor Dan Rather mourned on Facebook. He tweeted: “A favorite saying reminds us that revenge is best served at the ballot box.”
When it was over, even CNN’s Brian Stelter had to admit there was an anti-Kavanaugh tilt in the media, although he claimed it was mostly among the “commentators.” He told CNN’s S. E. Cupp: “There are many, many commentators that were lining up against him. I think the weight of that commentary made it seem like there was a big chunk of the media out to get him, out to take down his nomination. I don’t think editors and bosses in newsrooms were trying to tank his nomination, but there were a lot of individual journalists who were really disturbed by the allegations.”
The viewing public was much more emphatic: by a greater than two-to-one margin (45% to 20%) they saw the media as slanted against Kavanaugh.
All in all, it was a shoddy excuse for journalism.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.