It is becoming a truth universally acknowledged that nothing a woman says rings true, unless it is also said by a man.
Just look at what’s happening right now with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In case you haven’t followed that particular chapter of our news cycle – and I don’t blame you, because well, have you seen the news cycle these days? – allow me to catch you up. On Sunday, Ben Smith, formerly founding editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and now a media columnist for The New York Times, published a piece examining the legacy of Martin Barton, who has been the editor of The Washington Post since 2012.
Smith begins with the following scoop. Back in 2018, amid Kavanaugh’s controversial nomination for a spot on the Supreme Court, Bob Woodward (one half of the journalistic duo behind the Watergate scandal investigation, portrayed by Robert Redford in All the President’s Men) was reportedly going to name a source who had so far been kept anonymous. Specifically, according to Smith, Woodward was about to identify Kavanaugh as one of the elusive sources in Woodward’s 1999 book Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.
Why does this matter, you ask? Well, according to The New York Times, the revelation would have contradicted past statements made by Kavanaugh. According to Smith, “Mr Woodward was planning to expose Mr Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr Woodward for his book.” But Baron reportedly urged Woodward not to name a confidential source, and the piece didn’t run.
A significant part of the discourse surrounding Smith’s piece has revolved around that part of the story. Some are outraged that a newspaper wouldn’t disclose what they view as a key piece of information about a Supreme Court nominee in the lead-up to his confirmation. Others agree with the age-old journalistic principle that when you agree to keep a source anonymous, you do so forever. You do so knowing that circumstances might change – that the source, for example, might end up in the running for a lifetime position at the highest court in the land – and the threshold for breaking that secrecy is extremely high.
But this isn’t the part of the story I care about the most. Sure, it’s an interesting journalistic debate, but if you fall on one side, you’re unlikely to hear the other side’s arguments, and you’ll just have to agree to disagree. What has struck me, instead, is the number of people on social media who have reacted to Smith’s report by suggesting it indicts Kavanaugh’s character to the point that Kavanaugh should be impeached (which, yes, is a thing that can be done to Supreme Court justices, just like presidents).
You mean to tell me there is now a publicly available news article that casts serious doubt as to Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability as a Supreme Court justice? How unbelievable! In the words of Phoebe Buffay from Friends, that is brand-new information! It’s not like a woman has already given us plenty of material to go around, putting her whole life on the line and publicly reliving her trauma in the process.
Oh, but wait – a woman has done just that. Her name is Dr Christine Blasey Ford and she testified for four hours in September 2018 about the night she alleges Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. “Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes,” she said during a hearing watched by roughly 20 million people. “... I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”
I’m not quoting Ford’s testimony for shock value. I’m quoting it to highlight the lengths to which she went in her efforts to share what she considered to be capital information about the fifty-something man about to be handed a lifetime appointment to rule on matters of policy affecting all Americans. (Kavanaugh, by the way, was confirmed by the Senate a month later.)
Whatever you think of the substance of Ford’s testimony, it’s hard to deny that it at least raised questions as to whether he was the best person the president could put forward to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Yet, people are reacting to the news that Kavanaugh allegedly acted as an anonymous source for Woodward then publicly denied it as though it is the first and most damning thing they have ever heard about him. There is a sense of, “Accusations of sexual assault? I mean, who among us – but being an anonymous source and then DENYING it? That’s beyond the pale.”
But of course, Ford was one woman accusing a powerful man of sexual assault. Woodward is a serious journalist in a story that involves several other serious journalists – and, crucially, men. Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh devolved into questioning in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, really, the world. The Smith/Woodward/Barton story, by comparison, is being afforded a heft that Ford could only have dreamt of. This isn’t a criticism of this particular story, by the way. Rather, it’s people’s reactions to the story that tell us a disheartening little something about how different men's and women’s voices are treated in our public discourse.
If the latest Brett Kavanaugh story strikes more of a chord with you than Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, you have work to do. Listen to women. Don’t wait for men to give credence to what they just said. I promise you: their voice is enough by itself.