When a third woman came forward to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct during 1980s house parties in Maryland, some in the mainstream media kept their distance. NBC News made a different decision.
MSNBC aired a 10-minute story Monday about reporter Kate Snow's interview with Julie Swetnick, with an excerpt on NBC's "Nightly News." The interview was a continued topic of conversation — and further reporting — on Tuesday.
Kavanaugh has not just denied her allegations, he suggested they're "from the Twilight Zone." During the interview conducted Sunday, Snow said there were inconsistencies between what Swetnick wrote in a sworn affidavit and what she told her. Attempts to reach people who could corroborate her story were unsuccessful. Dispatches from other news organizations have questioned Swetnick's credibility, including an Associated Press story that detailed her extensive history of legal disputes.
Those are normal signals for news organizations to apply the brakes.
But in this case, it's a competitive news story with an imminent deadline, given the Senate Republican leadership's determination to vote on Kavanaugh's nomination within days. Testing — and reporting on — the credibility of Swetnick's claims are part of what the nation needs to weigh in deciding on his suitability for the court.
"It's an unusually tough call," said Jane Hall, a professor at the School of Communication at American University. Given how Swetnick has stepped forward to become part of the process, Hall said NBC made the right one.
"You can't argue that it's not compelling and in the public interest," she said.
In her story, Snow pointed out differences between what Swetnick told her and the affidavit released earlier by her lawyer, Michael Avenatti. For instance, Swetnick in her previous statement had accused Kavanaugh and his friends of "spiking" the punch at parties with drugs or grain alcohol so girls would lose their inhibitions. In the interview, Swetnick said she saw Kavanaugh standing near the punch but didn't see him or friend Mark Judge spike it.
Swetnick also walked back allegations that Kavanaugh and other boys at the party waited their turn to "gang rape" girls who had been drugged. She told Snow she had no specific knowledge that this was happening. She did say that she was "violated" by boys at one party, but couldn't say whether Kavanaugh was involved. She said she contacted the Montgomery County, Maryland, police about it; when NBC contacted the police to ask if there were any records, they said it could take up to a month to find them.
The morning after the interview, Snow said Swetnick provided the names of four people she said she went to some of these parties with. One of these friends is dead, and one said he does not recall a Julie Swetnick. Two others hadn't returned NBC's inquiries before the story aired and still had not on Tuesday, the network said.
Hours after it aired, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity that NBC News was a "co-conspirator" in Kavanaugh's destruction. He said NBC News would never have done the story if the nominee were a Democrat.
"Their journalistic integrity has been destroyed over this case," Graham said.
Yet political criticism of NBC for airing the Swetnick interview has not been widespread beyond Graham, in part because it questions the credibility of one of Kavanaugh's accusers.
NBC News would not make an executive available Tuesday to discuss its decision. The area of sexual misconduct is fraught at NBC News, where the network was criticized for letting Ronan Farrow take his investigation into Harvey Weinstein's actions to The New Yorker magazine, where he won a Pulitzer Prize. NBC also fired "Today" show anchor Matt Lauer because of sexual misconduct.
But on Twitter, MSNBC senior vice president Jonathan Wald responded to an unnamed critic who wondered why the network continued "to perpetuate the unsubstantiated, absurd accusations and hope someday someone will back her up ... this is journalistic integrity?"
Wald responded: "We report on a claim and see if it's true. And if we can't confirm it, we tell you. That's the opposite of perpetuating it."
When the Swetnick allegations initially emerged, editors at The Associated Press decided against reporting about her specific accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior allegedly engaged in by Kavanaugh and others because of an absence of corroborating information, said John Daniszewski, the AP's standards editor. That's in line with the AP's editorial decisions in similar "MeToo" cases, he said.
"Part of the issue, also, was that we couldn't tell exactly what she was alleging," Daniszewski said.
Veteran news executive Tom Bettag, a former "Nightline" executive producer and now a professor at the University of Maryland, said Snow did a good, challenging interview with other reporting to surround it.
"This is a matter of great importance to the nation," he said. "Swetnick, by everything we can tell, is a serious person with serious charges. She has received attacks on her credibility that merit asking for her response. If this interview were not aired, it's not as if the issue would fade away."
The only issue Bettag said he'd raise is whether NBC should have held the story longer to see if corroborating information emerged. NBC said Tuesday that the other two people it had reached out to still had not responded.
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