Tara Reade's Allegations Deserve More Care

Tara Reade's Allegations Deserve More Care

On March 25, writer and comedian Katie Halper released a seven-minute excerpt from a forthcoming episode of her podcast, The Katie Halper Show, in which former Joe Biden staffer Tara Reade alleges that in 1993, Biden sexually assaulted her in the workplace. In the clip, Reade tearfully says Biden pinned her against a wall, put his hands under her skirt, and penetrated her with his fingers before telling her “You’re nothing to me,” twice. The next day, Halper released the full, hour-long interview on her personal SoundCloud account. Reade’s new allegations are a significant expansion of an interview she gave last year when she told a local Nevada County, California news outlet that during her time working for Biden, he had frequently invaded her personal space, once even stroking her neck in front of interns. While Democratic frontrunner Biden has been accused of inappropriate behavior before—ranging from sniffing a Nevada assemblywoman’s hair to rubbing noses with a woman at a fundraiser—he’s never been accused of sexual assault.

But while the hashtag #IBelieveTaraReade trended on Twitter and right-wing news sites have picked up the story, bigger outlets have been mostly silent. The silence has left many on social media wondering why the media largely seems to be ignoring an assault accusation against the Democratic frontrunner for president, especially when so much press has been devoted to so many other allegations of sexual misconduct aimed at powerful politicians, including our own president. Online, there’s speculation from the right and the far-left that Reade’s story has been deliberately ignored by the media, reluctant to publish anything that will hurt Biden’s chances in the 2020 election.

In reality, it’s very difficult to get even meticulously investigated sexual assault reporting published. Sometimes these stories get buried because media executives are loyal to men accused of sexual assault, but even when that’s not the case, there are always legal and financial risks associated with publishing accounts of sexual assault. NBC executives originally tried to kill Ronan Farrow’s reporting on the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, reporting that would eventually help get Weinstein convicted on rape charges and win Farrow a Pulitzer. In the case of Weinstein, hesitation to print sexual assault allegations was perhaps tied up in executives’ personal connections to Weinstein. But even without those connections, powerful, wealthy people are often litigious, and news outlets can be wary of publishing credible accounts without an exhaustive investigation. Despite having eyewitness accounts and multiple corroborating sources, journalist and former Jezebel writer Irin Carmon wrote about her difficulty in publishing a story in the Washington Post involving sexual harassment allegations towards former CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose and sexual assault allegations towards former CBS executive Jeff Fager. The difficulties arose not only from the close relationship between the Post and CBS but also because of the teams of attorneys working to keep these reports from ever seeing publication, no matter how well-documented and rigorous the reporting.

Part of the media’s silence about the podcast is perhaps not because of any fealty to Biden, but because of the way Halper, who also co-hosts Rolling Stone’s Useful Idiots podcast, aired the allegations—with little context, few follow-up questions, and no additional reporting. Interviewing witnesses and fact-checking dates, locations, and other relevant details while reporting a sexual assault allegation is crucial in the effort to shield victims, who are often maligned and harassed by those who would use any inconsistency in their stories to discredit their accounts. Halper does say she spoke with Reade’s brother and a friend who verified that she shared the story of assault with them, though she has not released any quotes or recordings of those interviews, nor does she seem to have contacted dozens of possible witnesses who could have corroborated Reade’s account. By overlooking these elements, Halper put Reade in a no-win situation, subjecting her to the vitriol of public opinion and ultimately making her account more difficult to verify. Immediately after Halper published her podcast, the veracity of Reade’s account came under fire from people like former chair of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean, who wrote that the allegations “may or may not be true,” in a since-deleted tweet falsely crediting the Intercept with publishing the story.

Reade’s story is both harrowing and credible, and she deserves to have her allegations taken seriously. But because of the ways in which her story has been mishandled, it’s now possible that she’s been set up for more vitriol—and for her story to be cravenly politicized, by both the left and the right.

Halper’s personal website describes her as a podcast and video host, writer, and journalist, with bylines at Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, and The Guardian. But sexual assault reporting is more challenging than other areas of journalism, as survivors’ stories are often missing details or told in fragments as a result of trauma. Reporters walk a fine line between probing for necessary details and retraumatizing the victim by implying that they doubt the story. That’s why it’s critical to gather as much information as possible from interviews and verify it by confirming timelines, following up with other sources, and checking available records. The general public is often already very skeptical of allegations of sexual assault, especially those leveraged against powerful men, and victims are frequently threatened, doxxed, and shamed after their stories are published. Whether through oversight or negligence, Halper’s rush to publish the allegations without doing due diligence in her reporting demonstrates either a lack of concern for how Reade might be raked over the coals or a lack of knowledge around journalistic best practices for sexual assault investigations and reporting. Either way, these failures make coming forward even more potentially harmful to the accuser than it already is.

In a previous interview with the Nevada County Union and in a self-published post on Medium, Reade accused Biden of sexual harassment and his advisors of creating a hostile work environment but not of sexual assault. In both, she says she was hired on the spot after Biden walked into her interview and seemed to be impressed by her appearance, that she was later asked to serve drinks at a cocktail party because Biden said she had nice legs, and that she was both inappropriately touched by Biden in front of other staffers. Reade also spoke about being iced out of her job after attempting to speak to her superiors about Biden’s unwanted touching.

During the hour-long podcast, Reade says that Biden also sexually assaulted her, explaining that she was too scared by the negative reaction to her harassment allegations to tell the full story. She also reveals the names of superiors who she said moved her into a “windowless office” and derailed her attempts to find other employment in Washington, D.C. when she complained about Biden’s unwanted touching. Halper mostly lets Reade speak uninterrupted, leaving her to tearfully stumble over her story, telling it in fragments and often circling back to details or going off on narrative tangents. The story is obviously painful and difficult for Reade to recount, but airing the interview without any attempt to frame the narrative makes the podcast more of a voyeuristic showcase of Reade’s pain, rather than a report about Biden’s alleged misconduct or his senior staff’s attempts to cover it up.

“This is a story that should be looked into,” Halper wrote on social media when she posted the seven-minute teaser. But there’s no evidence that she’s done any of this investigative work beyond the interview, in which Reade lists superiors, including Biden’s longtime advisor Dennis Toner and former chief of staff Ted Kaufman, who she says knew of the harassment as well as news outlets, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, that Reade claims ignored her attempts to contact them with information about Biden. In the podcast, Reade tells Halper that she actually filled out a written complaint about the harassment (not the assault) and was told it had been sent to Biden’s office; she also says she was encouraged by her mother to document her attempts to report Biden’s behavior to her superiors. Even small details, like Reade’s claims that Ted Kaufman instructed her to hire only the children of DuPont employees, were not publicly verified by Harper, and Reade is left afloat, the sole witness to her own narrative.

Believing women also means handling their stories with the care they deserve.

One piece of Reade’s story that has been reported is her interaction with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which subsidizes legal assistance for survivors coming forward with allegations against the wealthy and powerful. On March 24, the Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported that despite initially attempting to aide Reade in sharing her story, Time’s Up eventually backed away, citing organizational concern that Time’s Up could lose its nonprofit status if it supported someone making allegations against a political candidate running for election. The Intercept published an excerpt of a message from Ellie Driscoll, program director for the National Women’s Law Center, asking attorneys for assistance in sharing Reade’s story, along with an email from Driscoll to Reade informing her that Time’s Up could no longer provide aide. A Time’s Up spokesperson also gave a statement on the organization’s behalf, leaving little doubt that Reade did take her story to Time’s Up, and that the organization did decide not to proceed, citing its non-profit status. These details protect Reade and the Intercept, leaving no doubt that these connections exist.

But other issues that are lightly touched upon in the Intercept piece and largely ignored by the Katie Halper Show are still readily available for anyone curious about Reade’s history with Biden to find. Last year, after former Nevada assemblywoman Lucy Flores published an essay in New York magazine alleging that Biden had invaded her personal space by smelling her hair at a campaign event, Reade was one of seven other women to report similar instances of unwanted touching by Biden. After Reade spoke to the local news reporter in April 2019, left-wing conspiracy theorists quickly found an old Medium post in which Reade had written, “I love Russia with all my heart. President Putin scares the power elite in America because he is a compassionate, caring, visionary leader.” Her account of harassment was countered with detractors’ claims that Reade was a “Russian agent,” inventing her story in order to harm Biden under a directive from Russia. In response, Reade deleted the post and published a new blog at Medium titled “My Time With Biden’s Senate Office,” where she claimed that her initial post about Russia was simply poetry from a novel she was writing about Russia.

Amid all the fallout from last year’s allegations, Reade tells Halper she was harassed online, doxxed, and threatened. “We’re kind of a culture of gladiators,” she says at one point in the interview. “It’s thumbs up or thumbs down.” And Reade is correct. When Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a party in high school, an entire faction of disbelievers, including powerful politicians, went after her in an attempt to discredit her story; Blasey Ford was also doxxed and was eventually forced to leave her home, paying for private security out of pocket. These types of examples further emphasize that while no journalism can ever fully protect a credible accuser from harassment or disbelief, a journalist’s failure to shore up a story positions victims—and in this case, Reade—to be weaponized, dismissed, and attacked by the media and strangers online.

Reade is left afloat, the sole witness to her own narrative.

In response to the podcast, New York congressional candidate Lindsey Boylan tweeted that Reade is “compelling, believable and [the podcast is] deeply unsettling.” And while the interview is all of these things, believing women also means handling their stories with the care they deserve. At the end of the episode, after Reade was pushed rather gruffly by Halper to share a detail she originally said she wanted to keep private—that Biden allegedly concluded the assault by telling her “You’re nothing to me”—Reade said the experiences “Made me feel like it was my fault, and I had no power.” Reade also talks about how both her interview with the Nevada County reporter and having her story ignored by other news outlets has similarly made her feel silenced and powerless. To Reade, the opportunity to tell her full story freely might seem safer than past experiences. But as Reade’s narrative is currently being pushed by both the left and right as evidence that Joe Biden is an untrustworthy criminal, his supporters will most likely cleave to the lack of corroboration as evidence that she is lying. Instead of giving Reade narrative control, the gaps in reporting leave her defenseless. The mishandling of these allegations do a disservice to everyone—other survivors, listeners, and even reporters attempting to break sexual assault stories—but most of all Reade, who deserves to have her story told responsibly.

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