Last week, BuzzFeed shared details of talking points that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign had circulated among its surrogates—bullet-pointed responses to the claim of sexual assault that had been made about the candidate, in late March, by his former staffer Tara Reade. In 1993, Reade alleges, Biden pinned her against a wall, reached under her clothes, and penetrated her with his fingers. The talking points denied that claim. “Biden believes that all women have the right to be heard and to have their claims thoroughly reviewed,” one of them read. “In this case, a thorough review by The New York Times has led to the truth: this incident did not happen.”
The response was both carefully worded and blithely misleading: The Times’ investigation into Reade’s account was by no means an exoneration of Biden. But his campaign’s impulse toward absolutism was revealing—not only of the campaign itself, but also of the way Reade’s allegation has been metabolized by the American public. In the story the Biden campaign was referring to—reported over a span of roughly two weeks and bearing the notably hesitant headline “Examining Tara Reade’s Sexual Assault Allegation Against Joe Biden”—the Times did not make broad claims about whether the assault, as Reade had described it, had taken place. What the paper shared, instead, was something much more hedged: Its investigation had been unable to corroborate Reade’s assertion. The Times’ story was comprehensive but not definitive; it recognized, implicitly, that there is more reporting to be done on the matter. But the campaign’s talking points took the result of that effort and turned it into something strident: Case closed.
Almost all claims of sexual assault involve a degree of uncertainty. There are no perfect victims; there are no perfect stories, either. Reade’s claim is particularly complicated by its age—the alleged assault took place, she says, nearly 30 years ago—and by the fact that her alleged assaulter is the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for the 2020 presidential election. The matter is complicated further still by the fact that nearly every day, new corroborations and questions come to light as reporters continue to investigate the story. (“For every piece of information that suggests she’s telling the truth and Biden did sexually assault her, there’s another that suggests the opposite,” The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman wrote recently.) And the matter is complicated even more by the fact that Biden, if he is the nominee, will be running against an incumbent president who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women. Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement and an advocate for survivors of sexual violence, summed up the tensions like this: “The inconvenient truth is that this story is impacting us differently because it hits at the heart of one of the most important elections of our lifetime. And I hate to disappoint you but I don’t really have easy answers.”
Many others, though, have found “easy answers” in ready supply. Reade’s claims have lived in the American media not only as assertions of fact to be vetted and potentially acted upon, but also as sweeping metaphors. Her story, sanded of the edges that complicate it, has been treated as evidence of rank hypocrisy, among both Democrats and the “mainstream media”; as an argument against “believe women”; as a harbinger of the wholesale demise of #MeToo. Reade’s claims, in the process—and Reade herself—have often been reduced to talking points. Survivors, meanwhile, watch and learn: This is what it looks like to make a claim in public in the America of 2020. The lesson, as it so often will be, is a sober one. We are so bad at this, still. And we are bad at it in part because we remain so profoundly uncomfortable with uncertainty.
“CNN Missing in Action on Biden Assault Accuser Tara Reade’s Story,” a Fox News headline announced in April, with unmistakable glee. Many other conservative outlets have delighted in pointing out which networks have featured Reade’s story on air, and which have not—as if each mention of Reade’s allegation against Biden amounted to a point in a game of their own design.
Those outlets are correct, in some ways, to criticize: It is absurd that Biden, who appeared on ABC, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC between March 25 and April 27, was reportedly asked 77 questions—with exactly zero of them, before his appearance last Friday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, addressing Reade’s allegation. What the glib tallies don’t make room for, though, is the fact that many other reporters are currently doing what most everyone agrees they should be doing: learning, corroborating, analyzing. The challenge for many news organizations, and particularly for TV news networks, is that the investigations themselves are being done, largely, behind the scenes. And those outlets don’t have many commonly used mechanisms to communicate to audiences: “Stay tuned; we’re working on it.” This is another way that our discomfort with uncertainty does a disservice. Detailed, time-intensive investigations become all-or-nothing propositions. The whole story exists, or no story does. Before the work is made public, Fox can easily declare that news networks are simply “missing in action”—and turn Reade’s story into yet another parable of media bias.
The impulse toward absolutism also makes it easy for #MeToo naysayers to glibly compare Tara Reade to … all other women. “Democrats say ‘believe all women’—just not Tara Reade,” the Boston Herald wrote this weekend. This was another iteration of a headline run by The Intercept late last month: “Joe Biden Thinks We Should Believe Women—Just Not Tara Reade.” Here was Reason magazine: “Joe Biden Said He Believes All Women. Does He Believe Tara Reade?” (More from that article: “When it comes to #MeToo sexual misconduct issues, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party's presumptive 2020 presidential nominee, has made it no secret where he stands: automatically believe women.”)
Automatically believe women. The summation makes a straw man of certitude itself. The slogan that arose with the expansion of the #MeToo movement is “Believe women.” It was meant not as an imperative but as a corrective—to centuries’ worth of assumptions about women as unreliable narrators of their own lives. The phrase was not, and is not, “Believe all women”; no reasonable person would claim that every single woman is so morally pure that she is incapable of telling a lie. “Believe women” is a slogan that was never meant to be a standard—which is to say, it was never meant to double as a demand for dogmatism. And yet, the Wikipedia entry explaining the slogan currently begins: “‘Believe women,’ sometimes expressed as ‘Believe all women.’” Repeat the absolutist version of the phrase enough times, and before long it becomes the default. Here was NPR last week, reporting on Reade’s story: “Reade’s allegation has put Democrats in an uncomfortable spot, torn between defending the presumptive Democratic nominee and believing all women who make allegations against any powerful men.” And so the slogan that was meant to center women as narrators of their own experiences ends up putting feminists in an extremely familiar position: being belittled for saying things they never said.
In September 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about an assault she said she had experienced decades before, she provided a national lesson about trauma’s effects on the brain. “The trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift,” the research psychologist explained. Last year, the reporter Julie K. Brown, whose investigation into the alleged abuses of Jeffrey Epstein led to his arrest, offered a similar insight in an interview with WNYC: “Actually,” she noted of trauma victims, “you should expect that their memories are not going to be consistent.” Barbara Bradley Hagerty expanded on those ideas in a cover story for The Atlantic. “To police officers who haven’t been trained to spot signs of trauma,” she wrote, offering one explanation for why so many acts of sexual assault have gone unbelieved and therefore unpunished, “many rape victims appear to be lying.”
To be a survivor can also be to swim in uncertainty—not because the facts of an assault cannot be certain, but because of the cruel ways trauma can settle itself on the brain. Some memories, especially over long stretches of time, might fade, even as many others remain seared, inescapable. The media, often, have ignored those facts, treating Reade’s admissions about lapses in her memory as default evidence for the “disbelieve her” camp. Last week, USA Today ran a column by a former prosecutor under the headline “Why I’m Skeptical About Reade’s Sexual Assault Claim Against Biden.” The piece included a valid summary of the complications of Reade’s claims; it also, however, included lines like “Her memory lapses could easily be perceived as bulletproofing a false allegation.” In a column on Friday, the New York Times op-ed writer Bret Stephens crowed about the ways Reade’s claims supposedly lay bare the hypocrisies of #MeToo. His column included the line “For my part, I don’t believe Biden. I don’t believe Reade, either, barring dispositive factual disclosures.”
What if there are no such “disclosures,” one way or the other? What, in this extremely complicated case, would true certainty look like? What are we to do in its absence? Trials, in courts of law, can end with hung juries; courts of public opinion, however, make no such allowances for indecision. “Believe women”—“believe survivors”—is an unmitigated good. But we have not yet built up infrastructures to bolster the belief itself. It is a mark of progress that Tara Reade has been listened to, her claims investigated; those who came forward in earlier eras were not given that baseline respect. But the particular way she has been heard points to how far we have, still, to go. In the weeks and months to come, the Democratic Party—as well as news editors and commentators and archivists and investigators and, of course, voters—will need to find some kind of resolution in the chaos. The process will be disorderly. But if we made more space for uncertainty in our approaches to a messy world, it wouldn’t feel quite so jarring, quite so extreme. Quite so sad.
Last week, my colleague Ed Yong, continuing his reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, published a lyrically comprehensive examination of a distressingly complex question: “why the coronavirus is so confusing.” One explanation he found involved the workings of the media. “Through attention,” he noted, “the media reward voices that are outspoken but not necessarily correct.” A related problem is a muddled notion of what confidence, in a big and disheveled world, really looks like. Scientific discovery, Yong noted—science itself—is “less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.” Journalism often works like that as well. So does politics. It would be helpful if those fields allowed themselves more room to recognize that.