The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Kavanaugh–Blasey Ford hearing perfectly illustrated the conundrum that we find ourselves in today. We teach our children to live by the core values of honesty, civility, respect, and fair play, and we do our best to live up to them ourselves. Yet it is our own adherence to these values that leaves us vulnerable to the campaign by Donald Trump and the Republican Party to destroy what remains of our democracy.
It is no secret that—amid his whining, braggadocio, and staggering displays of self-pity—would-be Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly perjured himself. Fact-checking articles in the days after the hearing identified well more than a dozen lies: lies about his high-school years, his college years, his drinking habits, his calendar, his yearbook, his judicial beliefs, the laws of Maryland, the testimony of his friends, and the meaning of words. It’s a wonder he gave his real name.
And yet none of the Democrats on the committee had the nerve to call Kavanaugh a liar to his face; none were even willing to call his lies “lies.” They raised questions; they implied that they did not find him credible; they tried to catch him in contradictions; they rolled their eyes at his protestations of innocence, in both sexual and criminal matters; and they asked him, over and over, to pretty-please ask the president for an FBI investigation. But Kavanaugh simply boasted and yelled, as if auditioning for a frat-boy spin-off of Fox & Friends.
In the upper reaches of American politics, to call a powerful person a “liar” has long been beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. The exploitation of this now-obsolete nicety is what lies behind not only Trump’s success, but that of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and just about every other successful contemporary “conservative” pundit and politician in America.
But Democrats and most members of the mainstream media are still playing by the old rules. Senators on the Judiciary Committee had to know they were being lied to, since the lies were continuously highlighted on Twitter. Just cataloging them all would take up more than double the space of this column. The New York Times’ fact-check of Kavanaugh’s testimony ran over 2,700 words; The Washington Post’s, more than 2,300. But even here, where his deliberate dishonesty was the actual topic of the articles, we got headlines that described Kavanaugh as having given testimony that “Misleads or Veers Off Point” (the Times) or was “misleading or wrong” (the Post).
The fact-checking articles were largely second-day pieces, but just like the brainless chyrons that appeared on the bottom of the cable-news shows, the initial straight-news reporting presented the hearing as a “he said/she said” affair, despite being written and edited by people who had to have known that “she” told a credible story, while “he” had done the opposite.
The front-page coverage in the Times was literally headlined “She Said. Then He Said. Now What Will Senators Say?” Peter Baker’s account failed to mention that Kavanaugh’s testimony had been discredited (though the other article that ran across the front page—“High-Stakes Duel of Tears and Fury Unfolds in Senate”—quoted a senator inquiring about a lie but took no position on the obvious falsehood). The stories that ran inside the paper similarly ignored Kavanaugh’s fibs, such as “Graham Erupts at ‘the Most Unethical Sham,’ Capping a Turn Toward Trump,” by Michael Shear, or “A Day When Emotions Ran High, Both Inside and Outside of the Capitol,” by Matt Flegenheimer.
The Post’s coverage mirrored this tendency. Its front-page story was a “he said/she said” compendium by three reporters—Michael Kranish, Emma Brown, and Tom Hamburger—titled “A different Kavanaugh comes out swinging, hard.” Such stories were the rule across the mainstream media. Here’s CNN.com: “Ford ‘100%’ certain of assault claim; Kavanaugh says ‘I am innocent.’” The Atlantic’s report by Russell Berman was headlined “The Senate Judiciary Committee Believes Brett Kavanaugh” and took no notice of the judge’s lies. Even the Columbia Journalism Review chose to go in this direction with Pete Vernon’s article, “Ford, Kavanaugh, and America divided,” which began with the words “It was a he-said-she-said exchange….” In The Wall Street Journal, Kristina Peterson, Natalie Andrews, and Andrew Duehren’s piece, “Hearing Rivets the Nation and Its Legislators,” not only failed to point out Kavanaugh’s flimflammery, but also mostly limited its quotes to pro-Kavanaugh partisans, going so far as to give unnamed “officials” anonymity to sell the Republican version of events.
All of these publications—excluding Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal—were filled on the same day with probing commentary demonstrating how dishonest Kavanaugh had been. (Special kudos to the Boston Globe editorial that stated flatly: “Brett Kavanaugh’s a liar.”) It is this kind of commentary that gets the media accused of “liberal bias.” But it is also clear that reporters on the news side aren’t going to do the Democrats’ job for them, and so Democrats had better do it themselves. If just one senator had listed Kavanaugh’s lies and then challenged him to prove that he was telling the truth, our benighted politics would be in a different place today. If that had happened, journalists covering the hearing would have had an opening to adjudicate the argument by examining the evidence without falling prey to the reflexive charge of “liberal bias.”
When spectacle is all, then the spectacle wins and substance disappears. Trump and the Republicans know that, which is why they control all three branches of government in a country where most people find their policies and politics anathema. Democrats refuse to acknowledge this, which is why they keep losing. And the members of the mainstream media certainly know this as well, but continue to pretend they don’t—which is why the charade lives on.