One of the country’s most powerful newspapers published an investigation of a sexual assault allegation against a top presidential candidate. When the candidate’s campaign complained about how the investigation worded detail of some of the candidate’s previously-known inappropriate behavior, the newspaper’s top editor agreed and deleted it.
This exchange between 2020 Democratic favorite Joe Biden’s campaign and the editorial leadership of the New York Times — as described by Times executive editor Dean Baquet — has raised questions about the paper's editorial independence and political bias. (AllSides rates the Times as having a Lean Left bias, based in part on blind bias surveys conducted by AllSides, editorial team reviews, and over 45,000 community feedback votes.)
So was this appropriate due diligence by the Times with the goal of making the story more effective? Was it an editorial miscalculation? Or worse, a move to protect their preferred presidential candidate?
Tara Reade, who worked on Biden’s Senate staff for nine months between 1992 and 1993, said in late March that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. The Times published its investigation of the allegation nearly three weeks later on Easter Sunday morning, a report that "found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden.”
That sentence, however, is not the original. At first, it read as follows: "The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.” Reade was one of eight women who previously said Biden had behaved or touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable; at the time, Biden responded to the claims by vowing to be more respectful of “personal space.”
The section following "Mr. Biden" was removed later in the morning without an explanation in the story itself. It was also deleted from a Times Twitter thread containing excerpts from the story; the Times tweeted that the deletion was made to remove “imprecise language,” but did not include a similar explanation on the actual story.
Ben Smith, the Times' recently hired media columnist, sat down with Baquet for an extensive interview published Monday about the investigation, titled "The Times Took 19 Days to Report an Accusation Against Biden. Here’s Why."
When Smith asked about the removal, Baquet said the edit was made because "[Biden's] campaign thought that the phrasing was awkward and made it look like there were other instances in which he had been accused of sexual misconduct. And that’s not what the sentence was intended to say."
In theory, the deletion could be justifiable. The Times editors could have sat down on their own accord and decided the sentence was unclear or imprecise, and they could have either decided to change it or remove it altogether. Or, the writers could have suggested the change after the story was published, and the editors could have complied.
But, as Baquet says, this was not the case. It was instead Joe Biden’s campaign complaining about “awkward” wording that led the paper to remove significant detail from their investigation on a sexual assault allegation — an allegation against none other than Biden himself.
While the section removed from the original report doesn’t necessarily describe sexual abuse, it does detail those previous allegations of inappropriate and purportedly sexually-charged behavior — claims that one could easily argue deserved to be somewhere in the Times' story, if for nothing other than context.
Journalists commonly check with sources or subjects of stories to ensure precise wording, particularly when it comes to direct quotes, and alterations are often made and explained after the story’s initial publishing in the interest of clarity. But the Times’ initial wording accurately described other allegations against Biden. Why exactly the Times heeded to the Biden campaign’s complaint is unclear.
What Biden’s campaign found “awkward” about the wording is unspecified. Baquet said he and other editors approved the story before it was published, but then agreed with the campaign’s complaint that “it was an awkward phrasing issue that could be read different ways.”
It’s bizarre that a third-party complaint over sentence structure — whether from a presidential candidate or anyone else — would overrule the judgement of supposedly gold-standard journalists in making an editorial decision about a major story. But, by Baquet’s own admission, that’s what happened.
Smith’s interview with Baquet also touched on the paper’s decision to wait nearly three weeks to cover Reade’s allegation, and explored comparisons to the paper’s coverage of sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Critics, as Smith noted, say the Times’ more skeptical coverage of this story is further evidence of a political slant in the paper’s newsroom.
However you look at it, a presidential candidate’s campaign influenced the Times’ decision to omit detail from an investigation that was 1.) into the candidate himself, 2.) regarding a sexual assault allegation, and 3.) published in the middle of an election cycle.
Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, progressive or conservative, #MAGA or #NeverTrump, that is — and should remain — unprecedented.
As the Times is known to set trends in newsmaking, the decision to allow Biden’s campaign to influence omitting or including certain details in the investigation is very concerning. Is this sort of collaboration the new normal, as Baquet’s nonchalance and the silence from many media critics is making it seem? Is this a special circumstance, or has it already been occurring throughout the media industry and is just now being so casually confirmed?
Of all reasons to remove the detail in question, doing so because Biden’s campaign complained is an insufficient one. It’s up to journalists, not political actors, to decide what detail is relevant in an investigation — especially when that investigation has the potential to shift the course of a presidential election.
Anything less than editorial independence immediately diminishes the report’s integrity, and can leave readers wondering: When it comes to what gets reported and what doesn’t, who's really calling the shots?
This piece was reviewed by John Gable (President, Lean Right bias) and Julie Mastrine (Director of Marketing, Lean Right bias).
Picture: New York Times Building by Ajay Suresh