On March 25, Tara Reade, a former Senate aide for Joseph R. Biden Jr., alleged in an interview on a podcast that Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had sexually assaulted her in 1993.
The New York Times did not immediately report the allegation.
More than two weeks later, on April 12, The Times published an article by Lisa Lerer and Sydney Ember that included an interview with Ms. Reade detailing her claims. The article reported that a friend said that Ms. Reade had recounted the details of the alleged assault to her at the time, and that former Senate colleagues of Ms. Reade said they did not recall any talk of the episode. In the course of their reporting, the authors said, “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden.”
The timing of the article has been questioned by critics who say that a delay was a way to play down allegations against Mr. Biden in the midst of a race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Mr. Biden’s allies, who strenuously deny Ms. Reade’s accusation, believe her allegation is not supported strongly enough to publish at all.
I asked Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, about the decision to wait, and the decision to publish.
Tara Reade made her allegation on a podcast on March 25. Why not cover it then as breaking news?
Lots of people covered it as breaking news at the time. And I just thought that nobody other than The Intercept was actually doing the reporting to help people figure out what to make of it. I thought what The New York Times could do and bring to the story was the expertise we had developed over doing more than a dozen of these kinds of stories.
We did what we always do. One thing we have tried to do, going all the way back to the Bill O’Reilly story, is to find out whether people talk to people contemporaneously, whether they describe their stories to people before they became public. And in fact, she had talked to a couple of people who confirm that to us.
But mainly I thought that what The New York Times could offer and should try to offer was the reporting to help people understand what to make of a fairly serious allegation against a guy who had been a vice president of the United States and was knocking on the door of being his party’s nominee.
Look, I get the argument. Just do a short, straightforward news story. But I’m not sure that doing this sort of straightforward news story would have helped the reader understand. Have all the information he or she needs to think about what to make of this thing.
How do you think about the timing with a story like this? The story broke at a time when Bernie Sanders was deciding whether or not to drop out of the race. Do you feel some obligation to him or to his supporters to try to figure out what’s going on?
At that time, we didn’t know he was about to drop out of the race. I guess everybody knew he was thinking about it. But I thought the biggest obligation we had, frankly, was to the story and to having multiple conversations with Tara Reade. And to be honest at that point it wasn’t like we were in a heated race with the clock ticking. The main obligation was to get a really sensitive story as close to right as we could.
What about Twitter? You have people on Twitter asking, “Where’s The New York Times?” and a narrative developing that The Times’s decision not to cover it represents a political stance. And you and your team are silent through that. You don’t think to say, “Hey, we’re working on it”?
So this is a tricky question. You wish you could say to the world, “Hey, we’re working on this.” But you don’t actually know what you’re going to end up writing. Let’s say for some reason we found out something that made us not want to write a story. Then what do we say to readers? “We looked at this hard and we found a reason. We found out something that made us not want to write. But we’re not going to tell you about it.” So it felt to me like that wasn’t quite the right alternative either.
Once the story came in, did you have any hesitation about publishing it at all? It doesn’t have some of the features that much of The Times’s #MeToo reporting has: In particular, the people to whom she gave the contemporaneous accounts are not on the record. There’s no iron law that you have to get those people on the record?
There are no iron laws. I started the O’Reilly story. We’ve done about 20 of these. [The Times’s political editor] Pat Healy has edited half a dozen of them. There can’t be any iron laws. The iron laws are you try to find everything you can to corroborate the story. There’s a lot of reporting that’s not in the story.
But it was pretty clear to me that we were going to write a story. He also stands an X percent chance of being the next president of the United States. And at that point, that’s a pretty powerful reason to write and to publish.
Does the ultimate decision to publish mean that there’s at least some credibility to her allegation?
It means that there is enough about her case and her allegation to present to readers for them to make their own judgment.
I’ve been looking at The Times’s coverage of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. I want to focus particularly on the Julie Swetnick allegations. She was the one who was represented by Michael Avenatti and who suggested that Kavanaugh had been involved in frat house rapes, and then appeared to walk back elements of her allegations. The Times wrote that story the same day she made the allegation, noting that “none of Ms. Swetnick’s claims could be independently corroborated.”
Why was Kavanaugh treated differently?
Kavanaugh was already in a public forum in a large way. Kavanaugh’s status as a Supreme Court justice was in question because of a very serious allegation. And when I say in a public way, I don’t mean in the public way of Tara Reade’s. If you ask the average person in America, they didn’t know about the Tara Reade case. So I thought in that case, if The New York Times was going to introduce this to readers, we needed to introduce it with some reporting and perspective. Kavanaugh was in a very different situation. It was a live, ongoing story that had become the biggest political story in the country. It was just a different news judgment moment.
Christine Blasey Ford seemed to remember it clearly and told the story very, very clearly. But reporters didn’t speak to anyone who recalled her telling them contemporaneously. Do you think that her allegation on its face is more credible than Tara Reade’s?
I don’t mean to imply that the notion that the person told someone contemporaneously is the ultimate test. It’s not. There are a lot of tests. How did the person appear as they tell the story? What could the person’s motivation be? Was the person clearly in the place of the alleged assault?
Having gone through Harvey Weinstein and all of them, you make these judgments. It’s very subjective. It has to be. You just gotta add up all the pieces and talk to as many people as possible and then do a gut check. There’s no magic formula.
But do you think looking back that The Times hewed to its standards both on Kavanaugh and on Biden, even though the treatment in the moment was so different?
I do. The standard, to be really simple, is that we try to give the reader the best information we can come up with at the time. And we try to give the reader the information they need to make their own judgments. Unless we can make the judgment. And Kavanaugh was a running, hot story. I don’t think it’s that the ethical standards were different. I think the news judgments had to be made from a different perspective in a running hot story.
Do you think that, in your heart, you’re reluctant to promote a story that would hurt Joe Biden and get Donald Trump re-elected?
I can’t make that calculation. I won’t. I won’t let my head or my heart go there. I think once you start making those kinds of calculations, you are not a journalist anymore. You’re some sort of political actor.
I want to ask about some edits that were made after publication, the deletion of the second half of the sentence: “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.” Why did you do that?
Even though a lot of us, including me, had looked at it before the story went into the paper, I think that the campaign thought that the phrasing was awkward and made it look like there were other instances in which he had been accused of sexual misconduct. And that’s not what the sentence was intended to say.
And why not explain that?
We didn’t think it was a factual mistake. I thought it was an awkward phrasing issue that could be read different ways and that it wasn’t something factual we were correcting. So I didn’t think that was necessary.
There’s one other line that jumped out at me, which is: “Filing a false police report may be punishable by a fine and imprisonment.” I’ve just never seen that line in other stories about police reports. And I wondered if that was intended to convey The Times’s skepticism about her claim.
I could read it as the opposite. That we were saying that filing a police report is not a frivolous matter. That’s how I interpreted it.
I’m not the public editor and I don’t necessarily speak for the readers. But you said the goal was to help readers think about this. How should readers think about this? Should readers believe Tara Reade or not?
If we could write the sentence that said you should believe this person or you shouldn’t believe this person, we would have written that sentence. What I think readers should take away from this is that this is a serious allegation made by somebody who has some standing. It is denied strenuously by Mr. Biden and his campaign. Here’s everything we know and you have to make your own judgment.
Sometimes I think it is OK to tell readers they have to make their own judgment. I understand that people want simple answers, but in my experience editing stories like this, sometimes there aren’t simple answers and sometimes you just have to figure that the reader is sophisticated, thoughtful, will read it, weigh it and make his or her own judgment. And I think in this case, that’s the best we could offer.
And that’s a lot, by the way. We took two and a half weeks to talk to a whole lot of people to provide that information to the reader.