It’s easy to lament the fracturing of media, particularly in an age where we have hundreds of television channels to choose from. Don’t get us wrong, pop culture consumers are generally on board with the ever-broadening variety of entertainment choices we have even as the escalating number of new series and channels with each passing year results in us gravitating to the familiar.
Better to have that, the thinking goes, than to be relegated to the selection of three or four broadcast channels and a handful of cable outlets.
Where this becomes faulty, and possibly dangerous, is when that narrow cultivation of entertainment options bleeds into our information gathering habits. When politics and politicians follow the lead of entertainers and media personalities, this transforms news outlets from resources reporting fact-based information into stages. This has always been Fox News Channel’s tactic, of course; the network was created in response to an untapped market of viewers angry at the perceived liberal bias of news reports on ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC and CNN.
But ever since Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency, Fox News’ role as a mouthpiece for the Republican party has been further cemented to serve very specific and narrow right-wing agenda. This is why the appearance of Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States, is being called out not only as being unprecedented but alarming, and rightly so.
On Monday Kavanaugh sat for an interview with Martha MacCallum, host of “The Story with Martha MacCallum ,” with his wife Ashley Estes Kavanaugh sitting beside him. Prior to the interview’s airing Fox released strategically selected excerpts dutifully picked up by various media outlets, including what the Washington Post framed as his “deeply personal” admission that he was sexually inexperienced during the time periods in which his accusers say he assaulted them.
“So you’re saying through all these years that are in question that you were a virgin?” MacCallum asks.
“That’s correct,” says Kavanaugh.
MacCallum follows this with, “And through what years in college, since we’re probing into your personal life here?”
“Many years after, I’ll leave it at that,” Kavanaugh answers. “Many years after.”
These early details painting Kavanaugh as a wide-eyed innocent likely led many conversations after they came out, and may have been colorful enough, possibly, for people to refrain from watching the entire 20-minutes or so of the conversation.
Having seen what else Kavanaugh says, that’s understandable — if one’s goal is to be entertained or to have one’s existing opinions reaffirmed. Because most of his interview consisted of recycled and frequently repeated talking points, primarily some version of the following:
“All I’m asking for is a fair process where I can be heard and I can defend my integrity.”
And, “What I’m here for today is to tell you the truth.”
Also, “America is about fairness and hearing from both sides,” which he followed with, at one point, this declaration: “I’m the one telling the truth.”
Kavanaugh also insisted of Deborah Ramirez’s claim, which emerged Sunday in The New Yorker, that if it had happened, “it would have been the talk of campus.” The problem with that assertion is, it was. A person would just have to be willing to read the story from whence Ramirez’s claim originates to see that. Jane Mayer, who co-authored article with Ronan Farrow, informed NBC news that emails about the incident circulated between Yale alumni who were classmates of Kavanaugh and Ramirez, which is how the media and congressional officials caught wind of Ramirez's account.
But The New Yorker is part of the liberal mainstream media. By appearing on Fox, Kavanaugh's one-sided version of events therefore becomes the truth, because he says it is.
Speaking of college, Kavanaugh’s appearance reminded me of an early campus experience. Over the course of a few days in October 1991, I remember gathering with women of various political stripes, backgrounds and ethnicities in the common room of the all-girl’s dormitory where I lived in my freshman year.
What brought us together was the television event of that fall, Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in which she gave an explicit accounts of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ incidents of sexual harassment.
Nobody quite knew what it all meant or whether what she said would derail Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court. Nor did it generate consensus in that dormitory as to whether Hill should be believed.
For some, Hill’s on-the record objections went against the grain of behavior many women had been raised to bear in silence and accept as part of the burden of being female and America. For others, Hill was speaking out on behalf of women who were fed up with being denigrated and treated as second-class participants in a professional world dominated by men.
Hill’s testimony did not halt Thomas’ confirmation. We know this. But it did produce legislation discussions about the subject we’d eventually come to know as workplace sexual harassment. It moved President George H. W. Bush to withdraw his opposition to a bill giving harassment victims the right to seek federal damage awards, back pay and reinstatement.
Hill’s testimony also inspired record numbers of women to run for office in 1992. It also eventually cost Hill her faculty position with University of Oklahoma College of Law.
But millions watched her testimony via a small group of channels — on C-SPAN, maybe, or PBS. In 1991 there were four major broadcasters: CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, which was only five years old.
Fox News Channel would not launch until October 7, 1996, almost five years to the day after Hill reluctantly became a household name.
NBC would not debut “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” until September 1999.
These things are related.
In 1991 our avenues for media consumption were relatively limited. The Internet was in its infancy and barely seen as an information platform save but for a privileged few. Instead there was discussion in public forums, vehement debate and disagreement. There was also the understanding that certain elements of our government should be immune to political influence — specifically the judiciary branch.
Some portion of that was always illusory, of course. George H.W. Bush knew good and well how Thomas would vote when he placed him on the Supreme Court. The same is true of Bill Clinton’s selection of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who built her legal career as an advocate for women’s rights to equal protection under the law, as well as Barack Obama’s selections of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Presidents are politicians with specific agendas, but in our ideal view of how government should work, their Supreme Court nominees should not be partisan. Justice, in this perfect view, should be impartial.
Kavanaugh destroyed that illusion by appearing on Fox News. In fact, this would have been true had he appeared on any other news outlet at all in the midst of a confirmation process that is far from over. In 1991 we watched Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas being questioned by lawmakers even though, as the result shows, their patriarchal agenda overruled the possibility (or, as Mayer’s and Jill Abramson’s book “Strange Justice” concludes, the near certainty) that Hill was telling the truth. Kavanaugh's Fox News interview, meanwhile, was meant to appeal to a narrow audience and utilized similar obfuscation tactics that Trump and other politicians have employed.
Today’s media consumer also is better informed than they were three decades ago, specifically with regard to strategies politicians and perpetrators use to dodge the truth, and in part that’s due to the wide popularity of legal procedurals such as, yes, “Law & Order.” Through its episodes, we see how attorneys and detectives struggle with cagey suspects who bend the truth to suit their own ends, or avoid addressing it completely.
Today’s media consumer also is more willing to limit their avenues of information gathering to sources validating their points of view. This is where fact and opinion become conflated; this is the space in which Fox News has carved out a very lucrative niche. And this is specifically why Kavanaugh’s insistence that he’s telling the truth in that venue, repeated via a series of talking points straight out of a crisis management playbook, may strengthen his position with Trump's base while weakening it among those concerned about politics further tainting the professed neutrality of the Supreme Court.
It’s not just what Kavanaugh said, which would be innocuous if blurted out one or two times, but his robotic repetition of the same statements in place of honestly answering questions.
For example, when MacCallum asks, “So in terms of the process now and what happens now, when you look at how all of this, where all this generated from, do you have thoughts? Is this about Roe v. Wade? Is this about people who initially, right off the bat, said they wanted to see you never take the spot on the Supreme Court? [sic] Where's this all coming from?”
Kavanaugh answers, “I just want a fair process where I can be heard.”
MacCallum continues to press the issue. “You don't have any thoughts on what's generating, where this is coming from?”
Then Kavanaugh starts to sputter, having repeated the same line too many times: “ I just want a fair process where I can be heard, defend my integrity, defend the . . . integrity of . . . my family, um…”
He pauses. “I've uh... I'm telling the truth.”
“You don't want to talk about where you think this is coming from,” MacCallum finishes, to which he replies, haltingly, “I just want an opportunity of fair process where I can . . . uh . . .” His voice all but trails off before he finishes, weakly, with “defend my integrity.”
One could almost picture Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Goren picking apart the unspoken attempts to mask his dishonesty in that moment.
But Goren was central in “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” I specifically mentioned “SVU” because of what its star Mariska Hargitay has been doing in service of sexual assault survivors and trauma victims long before Kavanaugh’s nomination was even thought of.
Hargitay is using her celebrity to raise awareness about the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits. And in the wake of Kavanaugh’s accusers coming forward with allegations of sexual misconduct while admitting an inability to remember certain details about the incidents in question, Hargitay and others have used social media to disseminate science-based research that explains why trauma survivors have gaps in their memory.
This highlights a few key differences between 1991 and 2018: Now, social media hashtags such as #WhyIDidntReport respond to questions about why Christine Blasey Ford didn’t immediately go to authorities in 1982, when she says the incident occurred.
Anecdotes are not the same as data, admittedly. But the information age makes it possible to find numerous scientific studies backing up the merit in accounts like Ford’s and Ramirez’s.
MacCallum, to her credit, cites some of these findings early in the interview, only to be met with the usual deflections. And Kavanaugh’s wife Ashley dutiful insists several times she truly does not understand it, that “I know Brad, I know who he is."
Ours is a time in which information access has been democratized, where anyone can track down data to inform themselves about just about anything.
Yet we have a Republican-controlled Senate that just wants to rush through the confirmation of a nominee — selected by Trump, not elected by voters — whose past raises troubling questions about his qualifications and willingness to protect men and women equally and fairly under the law.
They have access to a wealth of information about Kavanaugh and, according to several news outlets, were made aware of Ramirez’s accusations before they went public.
But they are not seeking out any information that may derail their mission to shove through the confirmation of a nominee that would have been disqualified had he been selected by a president who is Democrat. Or as Louisiana Senator John Kennedy explains on this week's episode of “The Circus,” “I don’t have enough information to ask for an F.B.I. investigation” — the very act which would, in fact, yield more information.
Ours is also a time when scripted television has succeeded, to our benefit and detriment, in educating us about aspects of the law as it relates to fair process. And yet, when news outlets leap to circulate excerpts of an interview with a Supreme Court nominee being scrutinized for sexual harassment claims, painting its subject as a virtuous innocent as opposed to evaluating the full, spin-filled product after it airs, they do a disservice to the spirit of fair process.
On Monday night that nominee chose to spew talking points designed to create Fox fan-affirming chyrons (“Kavanaugh: ‘America is about fairness, I want a fair process’” and “Kavanaugh: ‘I’m not going anywhere’" are two favorites) instead of directly answering questions posed to him by a journalist. Those are political tactics, not the actions someone under consideration to be one of the final arbiters of American jurisprudence.
“Listen to me and the facts I’ve described,” Kavanaugh says. And we could. We could also easily track down his judiciary record, his worrisome contributions to Kenneth Starr’s crusade to impeach Bill Clinton, as well as the troublesome entries on his high school yearbook page.
But why bother? The fact that he appeared on a partisan network to spin his account tells us nearly everything we need to know about his fitness to serve on the Supreme Court.