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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

New Kavanaugh reporting creates a media mess

Then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate

Then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation hearing on Sept. 27, 2018. Credit: Win McNamee via EPA

Over the weekend, American public conversation was rocked by claims of explosive new revelations about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed last year despite allegations of sexual misconduct in high school and college.

A New York Times news analysis by reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, adapted from their book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh” — which is being published this week — focused on Deborah Ramirez, Kavanaugh’s former Yale University classmate who charged that he exposed himself to her at a drunken dorm party in 1983. The piece claimed not only that Ramirez’s account had extensive corroboration which the Senate Judiciary Committee and the FBI investigation ignored, but also that Kavanaugh had been accused of similar misconduct against another woman at Yale.

Left-of-center opinion and social media erupted in outrage, including demands for Kavanaugh’s impeachment.

But a closer look shows the bombshell is largely a dud — and, with a Times update that largely negates the so-called new accusation, this controversy is likely to prove more damaging to the media than to Kavanaugh or to Republicans.

When Ramirez came forward, an account of her story in The New Yorker noted that she spent about a week “carefully assessing her memories” before she felt comfortable going on the record. The magazine reported that another Yale alumnus, Kenneth Appold, was “certain” that he had been told by an eyewitness about Kavanaugh exposing himself to Ramirez — but the classmate from whom he had supposedly heard the story had told The New Yorker he had no memory of the incident.

The Times essay and the book ultimately add little of value. Appold remains certain he heard the story about Kavanaugh, but says he heard it from two students whose names he doesn't recall. Another Yale alum, Richard Oh, remembers a female classmate recounting a party where “a fake penis turned out to be real.” (Ramirez says that in her inebriated state, she initially mistook Kavanaugh’s genitals for a fake penis that had been passed around earlier.) Appold’s graduate-school roommate confirms that Appold told him about the incident some years later. Two more Yale alumni recall hearing about a similar incident, with no names. Ramirez’s mother, listed in the Times essay as a corroborator, says Ramirez told her something sexually traumatic happened at Yale.

As for the claim of yet another alleged Kavanaugh victim, the story is that a very drunk Kavanaugh dropped his pants at another party and some other male students “pushed” his penis into a woman’s hand. If true, it’s unclear how much at fault Kavanaugh would be. But in any case, as the Times acknowledged in its update, friends of the woman say she doesn't remember any such incident. That’s quite a “Never mind.”

So far, this debacle has ended up giving ammunition to conservatives and Donald Trump supporters who believe that the mainstream media, in tandem with progressive activists, are out to smear Kavanaugh for political reasons.

Conservative pundit Mollie Hemingway, whose book, “Justice on Trial," claims the allegations against Kavanaugh were a left-wing plot, has been derided as a pro-Trump hack. But on Sunday, she was able to successfully fact-check the Times.

The irony is that, whatever happened in his youth, Kavanaugh isn’t the patriarchal devil of progressive imagination. Pogrebin and Kelly acknowledge that he became a better man as he matured. His record of promoting women professionally has been praised by feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He even sided with Planned Parenthood in a recent case.

It may be that the worst damage Kavanaugh will do to feminists and progressives will be the self-inflicted damage to their own credibility. 

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.