Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, with endorsements from his primary competitor Senator Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama. But the fervor has been dulled by the continuing covid-19 crisis, voters’ tempered enthusiasm for Biden, and a new sexual assault allegation against the former vice president. And now, the New York Times’ handling of the allegations is on the receiving end of much-deserved flack, after a line about sexual misconduct was published and then removed because, as Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said in an interview, “the [Biden] campaign thought that the phrasing was awkward.”
On Sunday, the Times published a piece investigating the allegations made by former Senate aide Tara Reade. This came 19 days after The Intercept first reported about Reade’s allegations, time that the Times used to report out corroboration from two sources who said Reade told them about the Biden incident at the time.
The following is a portion of the original write up by the Times (emphasis mine):
No other allegation about sexual assault surfaced in the course of reporting, nor did any former Biden staff members corroborate any details of Ms. Reade’s allegation. The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.
This is part of a well-documented pattern of allegations by eight women that has been covered extensively by several outlets, including Jezebel. And it’s ice-cold comfort to those concerned about Biden’s history of unwanted physical contact towards women. But in the days since the article published, the bolded portion of the above paragraph has been removed so that the second sentence simply reads, “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden.”
Why did the Times retroactively edit that sentence? Baquet says it was removed for the sake of clarity. In an in-house interview with Baquet about how the Times approached its reporting on the Reade case, he explained the process behind the Times’ piece, addressed the differences between reporting Reade’s Biden accusation versus the Times’ reporting on allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, and insisted that politics had nothing to do with the timing. But when Baquet elaborated on the decision to remove the sentence, it became clear that “clarity” had another purpose: Appeasing the Biden campaign.
From the Times:
Do you think that, in your heart, you’re reluctant to promote a story that would hurt Joe Biden and get Donald Trump re-elected?
I can’t make that calculation. I won’t. I won’t let my head or my heart go there. I think once you start making those kinds of calculations, you are not a journalist anymore. You’re some sort of political actor.
I want to ask about some edits that were made after publication, the deletion of the second half of the sentence: “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.” Why did you do that?
Even though a lot of us, including me, had looked at it before the story went into the paper, I think that the 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.
And why not explain that?
We didn’t think it was a factual mistake. I thought it was an awkward phrasing issue that could be read different ways and that it wasn’t something factual we were correcting. So I didn’t think that was necessary.
Both the initial, hamhanded line and its subsequent removal emphasize how little gravity the accusations of unwanted touching have been given throughout Biden’s campaign. The “beyond hugs, kisses and touching” clause was dismissive and made a mockery of the range of sexual misconduct; it was an insult to survivors of sexual assault and harassment. The word “beyond” alone was working overtime to render allegations against Biden into pesky afterthoughts. Additionally, though the Biden campaign adamantly denies the veracity of Reade’s claim, the now-deleted sentence did little to quell long-running concerns about Biden’s creep factor, for lack of a better phrase.
But the Biden campaign’s concerns post-publication, by Baquet’s own statement, clearly influenced the Times’ decision to edit out mention of the unwanted hugs, kisses, and touches. As dubious as the original wording was, it was likely the result of numerous edits and legal review. The so-called paper of record stood by their description enough to publish the piece. And yet, Baquet cited the Biden campaign’s discomfort in his justification for removing the controversial clause.
Writers and editors are used to campaigning managers and public relations teams popping up in their inbox with tersely worded emails outlining their every concern about how a report was framed, even when it’s in their favor. Their goal is to make their boss or client look good, point blank; capitulating to their demands without a correction, factual mistake, or update with new information is out of the question. But the New York Times was evidently willing to let the opinions of the Biden team—not concerned readers, just Team Biden—influence the editing process. That’s the work of PR, not journalism. One would think the Times would know the difference.