Brett Kavanaugh

Curriculum Connection: Complex Kavanaugh story gets tangled in the telling


On Sept. 14, The New York Times published an essay by two of its reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, that was based on their new book, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation. The Times’ opinion section — which is responsible for the Sunday Review section, where the essay appeared — also posted a tweet promoting the piece. Both the tweet and the essay sparked a firestorm of outrage and criticism across the political spectrum and exposed a series of flawed editorial decisions and blunders.

Within minutes of the posting, @nytopinion deleted it, calling it “poorly phrased.” (It asked whether exposing male genitalia in someone’s face might be considered “harmless fun.”) Soon thereafter, the second tweet also was deleted. Later that evening, @nytopinion described the original tweet as “offensive” and apologized. On Sept. 17, and said it was “misworded.”

Omissions and corrections

The essay also included a new allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh when he was in college. Some readers were perplexed that the Times hadn’t made this new allegation the focus of the piece. In addition, the essay omitted two important facts included in the book. The female student did not recall the incident, according to friends, and she had declined to be interviewed. The Times later added those details to the essay, along with an Editors’ Note.

Kelly and Pogrebin told MSNBC that there was no intention to mislead anyone, and that the omission occurred while the essay was being edited. The book identifies the female student by name. The Times typically does not do so in such cases. “In removing her name, they removed the other reference to the fact that she didn’t remember,” Pogrebin said of her editors during an appearance on The View.

One conservative publication contended that the Times was admitting to publishing “fake news” by adding the Editors’ Note and the omitted details. However, other outlets called the update a “correction.”

The new allegation led several Democrats running for their party’s presidential nomination to call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment. The Times did cover this development.

Pointing out the omission

News outlets credited Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist, a Fox News contributor and a co-author of Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court, for pointing out the omitted material. (Hemingway is a member of the News Literacy Project’s board of directors.)

Discussion points for teachers

Do you agree that The New York Times should have deleted the initial tweet? Why or why not? What do you think of the way the Times handled the essay and the new allegation it contained? What do you think of the way it handled the criticism? Do you think adding details to a story after initial publication counts as a correction? In its Editors’ Note, should the Times have explained how the omission occurred.?

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