E. Jean Carroll: She said, he said, and how media weighs balance

Why We Wrote This

In the #MeToo era, editors must be extremely cautious in handling sexual assault accusations. But allegation fatigue should not cause news outlets – or other institutions – to pass over credible new charges.

Craig Ruttle/AP
E. Jean Carroll is photographed June 23 in New York. Carroll, a New York-based advice columnist, claims Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in a dressing room at a Manhattan department store in the mid-1990s. Trump denies knowing Carroll.

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Why didn’t E. Jean Carroll make more front pages?

Last week the Elle magazine columnist accused President Donald Trump of sexually assaulting her in a department store dressing room 23 years ago. Now critics and many journalists are openly questioning why this news didn’t get bigger play in The New York Times and other major media outlets.

President Trump denies the charges. He says Ms. Carroll is just trying to promote her latest book.

Media ethicists say that it’s essential for editors to approach such stories carefully. They need to weigh evidence and check things out. The New York Times, for instance, tried to find corroborating evidence for the charges. Beyond two friends Ms. Carroll says she told at the time, they haven’t yet.

But Times executive editor Dean Baquet now says they should have played the story bigger. Ms. Carroll is a respected public figure. And she is publicly accusing a sitting chief executive of the United States.

With President Trump, a fatigue factor may be at work. Ms. Carroll is the 22nd woman to accuse him of sexual assault or misconduct. He talked crudely of grabbing women on the infamous Access Hollywood tape.

But in general, on sexual assault matters, it is the women whose claims are scrutinized ad nauseam, says Lauren Wright, a lecturer in public affairs at Princeton University.

“The baseline is that we do not believe women,” says Dr. Wright. “And that has been the case going back to the beginning of time.”

Last Friday, when the writer and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll accused President Donald Trump of sexually assaulting her in a dressing room at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan 23 years ago, few of the nation’s major media outlets treated it as bombshell news.

Just a few days later, however, many journalists and critics have begun to wonder why. The president immediately denied what would  have been an explosive, news-dominating allegation, and he quickly attacked the well-known author’s credibility, suggesting her possible ulterior motives.

Ms. Carroll leveled her accusations, after all, in an excerpt taken from her fifth book, and published Friday in New York Magazine – a little more than a week before her book’s scheduled release. “Shame on those who make up false stories of assault to get publicity for themselves, or sell a book, or carry out a political agenda,” President Trump said. 

The columnist’s accusation and the president’s denial were all but absent in this weekend’s headlines and Sunday morning roundtables, and many media watchers decried the fact that this latest allegation barely caused a stir.

Yet when it comes to discerning the credibility of those who allege sexual assault, many media ethicists and journalists say, it is actually essential that news outlets react in a sober-minded and particularly careful way.  

“I do think that in the MeToo era, news outlets have had to be extremely cautious and extremely meticulous about what they publish,” says Lauren Wright, lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, and a frequent political analyst on Fox News, CNN, and other news outlets. “They do check it out, they do figure it out, and they do have that due diligence process, and that sometimes takes a few days.”

The reporting of The New York Times and other outlets, in fact, helped give voice to the many women who were sexually harassed and assaulted by Hollywood moguls like Harvey Weinstein as well as Fox News titans Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes.

Still, critics singled out the particular dearth of coverage in this weekend’s editions of the Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigations of what became the #MeToo movement. On Monday, the publication’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, admitted that “we were overly cautious” in their handling of Ms. Carroll’s allegations against the president. 

But Mr. Baquet also provided insight into the guidelines the paper employs when trying to assess the credibility of an accuser. These include locating sources other than those mentioned by the accusers who are willing to corroborate their allegations on the record. In this story, Mr. Baquet said, The Times could not find any independent sources beyond the two friends Ms. Carroll cited in her book, or any other additional corroborating evidence. 

Nevertheless, given that a respected public figure like Ms. Carroll, whose advice column “Ask E. Jean” has appeared in Elle magazine since 1993, was making a public allegation against a sitting president “should’ve compelled us to play it bigger,” he said.

“But the history of coverage of sexual assault in America’s media has always been one of extreme caution, and that is driven by a sense of fairness,” says Ken Paulson, former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY and now the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “It’s an allegation that, once unveiled, never gets put away.”

And all things being equal, Mr. Paulson suggests, President Trump’s questions about the credibility of his accuser and her possible motives are usually valid concerns. 

“If you take the same fact situation, and someone in your community accuses a small-town mayor of rape from 23 years earlier, and there’s no other indications of such behavior,” he says, “you would look at that with considerable caution. You would ask understandable questions: Why is the allegation being made today?” 

But as he and other observers point out, all things are far from equal when it comes to President Trump. Ms. Carroll is the 22nd woman to accuse Trump on the record of sexual assault or misconduct, and hers is in many ways the most serious, as she alleges an attack that included forced penetration. 

Add to these accusations, too, the fact that the president described sexually assaulting women in the infamous Access Hollywood video and audiotapes.

“The credibility regarding charges of sexual assault should be the same as in any other matter: What are the facts, and who and how many people can testify to those facts?” says Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York. “People should make decisions about whom to believe with the utmost gravity. The credibility of the accused and the accuser should both be taken into account.”

Even though Dr. Wright at Princeton University agrees that the news media has generally handled the recent allegations of rape against the president in an even-handed and proper way, she points out that it is far more complicated when it comes to assessing the credibility of women accusing powerful men of sexual assault. 

“The first thing we always do is question their credibility and ask questions about them,” she says. “And their claims are always scrutinized ad nauseam.”

“And the baseline, I would say, is not that we believe women, the baseline is that we do not believe women,” continues Dr. Wright, author of “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate.” “And that has been the case going back to the beginning of time, as long as humans have existed – women have not been believed.”

False accusations are rare when it comes to sexual assault, according to an in-depth survey of existing research on the subject by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit in Pennsylvania. Only 2% to 7% of accusations in various parts of the counter were found to be fabricated or false.

“Nobody wants to become famous from their story of sexual assault,” Dr. Wright says. “I mean, this idea has been proven again and again, that women face many more consequences when they come out with their story, and the rewards, really, are nonexistent. Society actually punishes you.”  

Some observers also saw an “outrage fatigue” at work in the news media’s cautious response to Ms. Carroll’s accusations, especially on the heels of the divisive confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year.  Others pointed out, too, that the most recent allegations against President Trump were part of a busy weekend in the news, including the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and the administration’s mulling military action against Iran.

“But there is a dynamic to President Trump that we have never seen before,” says Mr. Paulson, the former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. “He does things, he says things, and he is accused of things that would have destroyed less confident candidates or public officials. And that, in some way, can affect editors who sort of go, here we go again.”

“But I guess the long and short of it is that I think that the press overall has acted responsibly, even though there are factors in this case that would lead you not to strip it across the top of your front page in a headline,” he continues. “These should give anyone caution, but it also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cover the accusations, and that you should actually dig deeper.”

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