After being studiously ignored for weeks, Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is finally breaking through in earnest into mainstream news coverage. On cable news, her accusation got one of its most extended and sympathetic airings last night thanks to MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes’s brave decision to cover it.
“There have been moments I think for many of us, all of us, where we have heard about accusations against someone that we find ourselves desperately wanting not to believe,” he said, opening the segment.
But part of the difficult lesson of the MeToo era is not that every accusation is true and everything should be believed on its face, but that you do have to fight yourself when you feel that impulse. You have to do that in order to take seriously what is being alleged and what the evidence is and to evaluate it. And that is the case with the accusation by a woman named Tara Reade against Joe Biden.
Hayes’s treatment wasn’t exhaustive. He left out that two people close to Reade had told reporters who broke her story that they recalled her telling them about it at the time; he didn’t mention the phone call her mother made to Larry King Live at the time about unnamed problems her daughter was having in a senator’s office; and he mentioned that Reade’s official paper complaint can’t be located, but didn’t explain that one potential location — Biden’s senatorial papers — will be locked to the public for years by the University of Delaware. (The Washington Post and others have called on Biden to release them).
Nonetheless, Hayes informed MSNBC viewers about a pivotal new development in the case: that Reade’s former neighbor, a Biden supporter, has come forward to say Reade told her about the allegation in the mid-1990s.
Hayes invited on journalist Rebecca Traister, the author of an important new piece on what the allegations mean, who affirmed the story’s rising credibility and called on Biden himself to personally address it. And he pushed viewers to move past their own unconscious biases and to take the story seriously. The segment is worth watching — though as MSNBC mystifyingly hasn’t put clips of it up on either its official website or YouTube channel and a transcript isn’t yet available, you’ll have to do so in pieces.
Why was this brave? After all, this is Hayes’s job. And if anything, coverage of Reade is still falling short of the woefully underplayed accusation last year against Trump by columnist E. Jean Carroll, who was quickly personally invited onto MSNBC then CNN in the days after her allegation went public. (At the time, Carroll’s allegation had the same level of corroboration as Reade’s; it now has far less. Reade has only appeared on TV on Hill.TV’s Rising and on Democracy Now!).
MSNBC’s Alternate Universe
The answer lies in the structure of MSNBC, which since Trump’s victory has constructed a ratings-chasing alternative universe for its mostly older viewers, where Trump is an unprecedentedly immoral and depraved political actor, the singular cause of everything that ails the United States (typically at the direction of one or another sinister foreign power), and must be vehemently opposed even on the rare occasions his actions line up with those of previous Democratic presidents, or even contradict older stances the network once opposed.
As part of this mission, the network has elevated and protected Biden’s candidacy from criticism since the primary race last year — Hayes’s show being a notable exception — and sold its largely Democratic-voting audience on the idea that he is the safest, least risky choice to go up against Trump.
Though we can’t know how Hayes’s segment was received by most viewers, his decision to lightly challenge some of the core precepts fed to the network’s viewers for the past four years ignited a minor rebellion. The hashtag #FireChrisHayes quickly started trending after the segment aired, with a host of Democrat-aligned Twitter users ripping Hayes for supposedly helping Trump’s reelection chances with this segment.
The backlash to Hayes’s segment is only the latest development in the 180-degree turn establishment Democrats have made on the matter of sexual assault, now that it stands to damage the current Democratic nominee. After adopting a maximalist stance on the issue in the wake of MeToo — arguing that any accuser’s word was sufficient evidence, and using such allegations to go after political opponents, but also allies in some cases — Democrats have suddenly become far more conservative on the issue now it’s their standard-bearer in question.
For more than a month, Democratic lawmakers simply ignored the allegation. Once it became impossible to avoid, they responded by closing ranks around Biden. The very day Reade’s Biden-supporting former neighbor backed up her story, Biden received the endorsements of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton.
A parade of Democrats who have called on the public to “believe women” when Republican sexual misconduct was the topic have either stayed mum on this latest news, or explicitly defended Biden, urging the public to believe the former vice president — with his own serious credibility problems — over an alleged survivor, and falsely claiming he had been exonerated by a New York Times investigation. This includes politicians who have built entire political identities on a hard-line stance on sexual assault allegations, such as Kirsten Gillibrand.
The reaction was much worse among Democrat-aligned media. A host of liberal and feminist columnists began drawing on the kinds of arguments typically used by Republicans and the Right more generally to dismiss sexual assault allegations.
Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum deployed a carbon-copy of the Republicans’ own case for dismissing Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford: I’m sure she’s not lying; she’s just confused. Laurence Tribe, one of the fiercest liberal critics of both Trump and Kavanaugh, approvingly shared a USA Today piece dismissing Reade’s story by heavily relying on just about every argument Democrats and liberals have correctly said for the past three years are inappropriate and insufficient to cast doubt on such an allegation. And the less said about the people convinced Reade is a Kremlin agent the better.
So Hayes deserves all the credit in the world for his work here, as do any other MSNBC anchors willing to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire over this. There is clearly little appetite within MSNBC and other establishment media to treat this story in the way they’ve covered accusations against Republicans, and at least some vocal segment of the network’s audience is unhappy that it’s being covered at all. Biden will reportedly address the allegation directly tomorrow morning on MNSBC; it’s an open question at this point if the network or CNN will give his accuser the same opportunity.
But it’s also important to note how Biden’s candidacy alone is already having a conservatizing effect on not just the Democratic Party, but liberal political culture. Less than three years after liberal commentators celebrated the way MeToo had changed the discourse around sexual misconduct and power relationships, some of those same commentators are now moonwalking in the opposite direction in a panic. At least some have even downplayed Biden’s disastrous decision to get advice on economic recovery from Larry Summers, even as it refutes Biden’s public pledge to govern as the “most progressive president since FDR.”
Should he become president, we can look forward to at least four years of these quarters justifying a host of conservative policy decisions by his administration, lest the party leader be damaged.
There is a conversation to be had about what standards exactly the media should use when reporting on high-profile sexual assault allegations after this. What level of corroboration is enough? Were the two witnesses Reade started out with sufficient to break the story there and then? Should media outlets have reported Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation when their sourcing consisted entirely of an anonymous letter they hadn’t even seen? These and others are fair questions that may not have easy answers.
But the decision by Democrats and some of their media allies to change their standards and flip-flop shamelessly on this issue depending on how it suits their partisan interests is not part of this conversation, and does no favors to either the Democratic Party or, more importantly, survivors themselves. Chris Hayes deserves credit for refusing to join their ranks.