Over the past few weeks, as they fell even further behind with women voters across America, Republicans and the White House have begun appropriating the language of the #MeToo movement. Galling as it is, it’s not surprising — just another Orwellian turn among many. But the clumsiness of this latest hijacking, involving doctored tapes, hoaxes, and more than the usual quota of lies, is based on several wrong assumptions about the press.
First, the GOP seems to think that biased reporters will jump at just about any #MeToo story, even ones dangled with poisoned bait. They don’t understand that facts are still the currency of journalism, and that the press’s role in the #MeToo movement has been that of careful authenticator.
The recent yanking — and provisional reinstatement — of a CNN reporter’s White House press pass, was done under completely false pretenses, based on a doctored video from Infowars. Conspiracy mongering is by now fairly standard stuff for this administration. But it was the next step that represented a new move, an attempt at Zeitgeist-y cultural jujitsu: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders falsely accused the reporter, Jim Acosta, of manhandling a young female White House intern, an attempt at contorting the non-touch touch into a White House #MeToo moment.
“We will … never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern,” she indignantly tweeted. (Surely the emphasis on “White House intern” was meant to remind liberals of their own presidential baggage.) Such a sweet hypocrisy from Sanders, who won’t even answer questions about sexual misconduct or where the president’s hands have been.
Instead of accepting Sanders’s spin, in about a nanosecond, good reporters and reliable social-media watchdogs exposed the doctored tape and the brouhaha backfired. This White House operates under the cynical belief that the press is so in the tank for “liberal” causes that pleasing the feminist hordes is more important to reporters than the truth. It’s a fundamental misreading of how journalists have covered stories about sexual abuse over the past year, through a process of scrupulous verification that is the core of good journalism. It was, after all, careful verification, by the New York Times and The New Yorker, of the long-running, sub-rosa rumors about Harvey Weinstein that started the whole movement. But perhaps it’s hard for a Trumpian GOP to understand, because it’s the antithesis of how this White House works. (Sanders once also encouraged the White House press corps to watch a tape from Project Veritas, the conservative group that conducts undercover stings against the press, while allowing that she could not vouch for its accuracy).
Then there was the #MeToo hoax dreamed up by a 20-year-old MAGA troll, Jacob Wohl. It’s a tangled story still, but his original plan was to find women to invent sexual-misconduct charges against Robert Mueller. Next, a nonexistent woman named “Lorraine Parsons” emailed a number of journalists claiming she had been offered substantial sums of money to make false accusations about Mueller. “She” also traced back to Wohl. Again, the wrong assumption was made about supposedly biased reporters. Almost instantly, journalists — including Jane Mayer, who has spearheaded important #MeToo investigations for The New Yorker — exposed the hoax.
Republicans seem to perceive the reporting on #MeToo to be more about letting women air their traumas, instead of getting at the truth of what happened. Many think that it is all flimflam to be manipulated, not checkable facts. During the Kavanaugh confirmation battle, Republicans tried to ignore the credible evidence against the nominee. But Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s account remained detailed and consistent, from the moment she identified herself in a Washington Post interview to her testimony before the Senate. Investigative reporters uncovered a lot more, including another accuser who was prepared to testify. Kavanaugh and Republican senators accused the liberal press of ganging up to kill the nomination. But because of the pressures of #MeToo — and perhaps a genuine reaction to the force of her testimony — some tried to have it both ways, saying they believed Ford was sexually assaulted, but that she was mixed-up and confused about the identity of her assailant. “I’m not saying that she was not sexually assaulted,” said Maine’s Susan Collins, who cast one of the decisive votes for Kavanaugh. “I believe that she was, and that that horrible experience has upended her life. But it does not mean that Brett Kavanaugh was her assailant.” If the GOP had allowed the time for a real fact-finding hearing, the press would have surely revealed more on Kavanaugh. But everything is a political game to the current Republican Party. With this administration, it’s always tactics over truth.
In still another political stratagem, Republicans tried to use the #MeToo moment to recycle old and unproven sexual-misconduct allegations against Democrats in the midterms. Among those targeted were Democratic senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Brown’s opponents formed a group called Me Too Ohio and launched an attack ad and website dredging up Brown’s messy 1986 divorce and allegations that he bullied and shoved his ex-wife, which she has denied. The Ohio press didn’t take the bait and saw right through Me Too Ohio. Cincinnati.com concluded, “Amid the Me Too movement, Republicans figure they can beat this dead horse some more in hopes of generating enough backlash from Democrats to convince Brown to take a pass on a bid for the White House.” Brown’s ex-wife, meanwhile, hosted a fundraiser for him and has always supported his campaigns. Cleveland.com focused on the GOP operatives behind the bogus site and its dark-money funding. It was a satisfying rebuke, and a reminder that the press’s role has always been not to further agendas, but to uncover buried truths.