December 9, 2016

Did the media really “cover” the Trump sexual assault allegations?

trump_in_2013The cast of MSNBC’s Morning Joe conducted a self-examination of sorts on Tuesday on whether media coverage of the election has been biased against Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The segment was refreshingly sincere and former advisor to Sen. Rand Paul Elise Jordan made a point that’s been lost throughout much of the coverage thus far: the so-called “little people” are as angry at the national media as they are at the government.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post admitted with a smile that he is, indeed, a “coastal elite,” having attended a prep school prior to Georgetown and now residing “inside the beltway.” But he disagreed the coverage has been biased against Trump, saying, “How do we not cover when nine women come forward against one of the two people who’s the nominee?”

Joe Scarborough gave the obvious, answer: the media should cover that story. But did they? Let’s look at just one of the allegations and try to determine that.

The New York Times broke Jessica Leeds’ story on October 12, providing an edited video interview of Leeds accompanying their print story. Leeds gave the by now well-known account of Trump raising the arm rest between their first class seats and proceeding to kiss and grope her on a flight to New York. Having watched the video and read the accompanying print story, it doesn’t require extraordinary curiosity to wonder:

She says she had been traveling in the “middle West” and was now on a flight to New York. From what city/airport?

What airline was she traveling on?

In what year did this happen? Does the airline have any record of the crews working flights from City X to New York that year? Can they be reached for comment? Do any of them remember Trump on their flights?

Is it possible to obtain a passenger list and can any of the passengers be contacted (privacy concerns makes this one unlikely)?

Leeds says that if Trump had confined his contact to the upper body, she “may not have gotten that upset.” Why did she make that startling statement? Was the contact consensual up to that point? Isn’t that an unusual statement for an alleged victim of sexual assault to make?

Let’s be clear. None of the answers to the questions above may have helped Donald Trump. The problem is there is no evidence from the reporting the questions were even asked. Had the report contained statements like, “Leeds was unable to tell this reporter what airline she was flying or what city the flight originated from,” at least readers would know Leeds was asked and couldn’t remember. And they’d likely consider that information, for whatever its worth, in deciding whether to believe Leeds or Trump.

So, did the New York Times really “cover” that story or did they simply take Leeds’ account at face value, with no attempt to verify its facts? They did perform the bare minimum due diligence in obtaining a response from Trump, who denies the incident ever happened. Besides that, they seem to have just taken Leeds completely at her word and published her account without a hint of skepticism.

Hey, it’s not like vivid accounts of sexual assault ever turn out to be false, right?

One might argue it is unreasonable to try to track down flight crews or other details about a flight from three decades ago. But isn’t it incumbent upon a news organization publishing such serious charges to make every effort to do so and report those efforts along with the information they do have?

And where in any of the reporting is the acknowledgment that Leeds’ and most of the other allegations are based upon their completely unverifiable accounts? Why is it immediately assumed Trump is lying, in the absence of any corroborating evidence? Granted, the media is not a courtroom, but is the presumption of innocence completely foreign to it?

When the New York Post reported an equally unverifiable claim by Anthony Gilberthorpe saying he was on the flight in question and the allegations aren’t true, there was an immediate investigation into his past. A search on his name returns pages of stories attacking his credibility, many published the same day as the New York Post story. Apparently, Gilberthorpe has a history of making extraordinary claims to the press and there is at least some reason to question his credibility.

But what about Jessica Leeds’ credibility? Did the Times reporters investigate it? Does she have any political connections, especially to the Clinton campaign or the Democratic Party? Has she ever had any disputes with Trump or any of his businesses? With the Republican Party?

Again, the answers to the questions above may not be helpful to Trump. But there is no evidence in the New York Times story they were even asked of Leeds or investigated secondarily before the story was published.

It’s not unreasonable to say the other accusers have similarly been taken completely at their words. There is a well-intentioned tendency to believe women who allege sexual assault because many in the past have been reluctant to seek justice because they feared the consequences of making their accusations. But we should recognize the danger in that tendency for completely annihilating the rights of the accused. Our legal traditions compel us to not believe the accuser until the defendant has been proven guilty.

At the very least, professional reporters who were aware the Leeds story would have a monumental impact on a presidential election should have taken more pains to verify their facts and presented their story in a way that made their due diligence apparent to the reader. Since they did not, it’s hard to blame Trump supporters for believing the media is biased against their candidate.

Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.

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