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Joe Henderson: A major blunder by the New York Times, which should know better

The presentation of its bombshell story about Brett Kavanaugh had a serious omission

The New York Times messed up badly in a report about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It sensationalized a story that was sewn together with tissue threads and decades-old memories of something wildly inappropriate that may have happened.

Or maybe didn’t.

While he was a freshman at Yale, Kavanaugh allegedly exposed himself to a female student at a party. That incident came up during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and he adamantly denied any wrongdoing.

While writing a book about Kavanaugh, Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly believed they uncovered a similar previously unreported incident of sexual misconduct about the future Justice.

In an excerpted story for the Times, they wrote: “A classmate, Max Stier, saw Mr. Kavanaugh with his pants down at a different drunken dorm party, where friends pushed his penis into the hand of a female student.

“Mr. Stier, who runs a nonprofit organization in Washington, notified senators and the FBI about this account, but the FBI did not investigate, and Mr. Stier has declined to discuss it publicly. We corroborated the story with two officials who have communicated with Mr. Stier; the female student declined to be interviewed, and friends say she does not recall the episode.”

The problem is, the Times updated the original story because it left out the part about the woman not recalling the episode. That’s a canyon-sized omission, especially for a newspaper with the resources and standards of the Times. 

The original story also set off demands from some Democrats that Kavanaugh should face impeachment.

Had the story included the fact the woman didn’t recall the alleged incident, it would have changed the whole tone of the story.

Two things about this stand out.

Even if the original story is accurate, the way the Times’ presented it was badly flawed. In a regrettable tweet sent Saturday to promote the story, the Times said in part, “having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun.”

Uh……no.

Just no.

The Times apologized and called the tweet “clearly inappropriate and offensive.”

At least the Times admitted its mistake.

Compare that to the recent action of President Donald Trump. He screwed up the forecast of Hurricane Dorian, saying Alabama was in great danger.

When contradicted by the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service, Trump couldn’t just admit his forecast was off target. He fought back, and this rant went on for days and days, to the point of being ridiculous. Those who contradicted him were threatened.

Don’t tell me the two incidents aren’t connected, either. They both go to the credibility of vital institutions in this country – freedom of the press, and the presidency.

Journalists get it wrong sometimes, but the standard is to admit when they do and try to make it right. That’s true of hometown papers covering local stories, or the New York Times trying to cover national issues.

The President’s unwillingness to admit he could ever be wrong about anything is a hallmark of his administration. And, of course, he is piling on the Times and suggesting Kavanaugh should sue the paper for libel.

Somehow, that seems weird coming from a man who is not on a first-name basis with the truth. In August, the Washington Post reported Trump averaged 13 untruthful statements during each of the first 928 days of his presidency.

The New York Times wasn’t thorough in its presentation of a major story, and anyone involved should naturally be embarrassed. But there is a right way to handle situations like this, along with a renewed determination to not make the same mistake twice.

At least the Times admits its mistakes.

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Jim Rosica, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Dan McAuliffe, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
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