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.”
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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.