At the height of the contentious Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, The New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer wrote arguably the thinnest #MeToo story published by an outlet that didn't have "babe" in the url. Mayer and co-author Ronan Farrow reported for the first time that Deborah Ramirez was accusing the Supreme Court nominee of taking out his penis and putting it in front of her face when they were both Yale undergrads.
But complicating the story was the candid admission that, "in [Ramirez's] initial conversations with The New Yorker, she was reluctant to characterize Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident with certainty," and she only accused Kavanaugh six days later. No other witnesses at the party corroborated her story, while quite a few gave on the record statements insisting it didn't happen. And there was the small matter that Ramirez attended Kavanaugh's wedding, and smiled in a photo with him.
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The evidence in Mayer's Kavanaugh story was rather weak compared to your average #MeToo story, which is why it is puzzling that Mayer's newest piece is a lengthy diatribe arguing all eight of the women who accused former Democratic Senator Al Franken of impropriety—Democrats and Republicans alike—were mistaken or lying. It's difficult to summarize a 12,000-word piece, but at its heart the argument is Franken is innocent of groping and forced kissing because a lot of people who like Franken insists he is; also, he has a family and cries a lot.
Mayer for example produces three pieces of evidence Franken didn't slip model Leeann Tweeden tongue without her consent while rehearsing a kissing scene for a 2006 U.S.O. show. The first is Al Franken denies it. The second is "Franken’s longtime fund-raiser" denies he would do something like that. The third is a former SNL writer says, "I’ve known him for forty-seven years" and "he’s the very last person who would be a sexual harasser."
This "evidence" is laughable, and Mayer would dismiss it as irrelevant in any other case. Matt Lauer, Les Moonves, Mark Halperin, Roy Moore, virtually all powerful men accused of sexual harassment and assault have trotted out male and female colleagues alike who will stake their professional reputation on the notion that, "he isn't that kind of guy" or "well, he never harassed me." In fact, one of the colleagues Mayer quotes extensively defending Franken, comedienne Sarah Silverman, is also a shameless supporter of Louis C.K.
Mayer does find some evidence that calls into question certain elements of Tweeden's story. They're usually quite trivial. "Contrary to Tweeden’s statement," Mayer writes, the photo of Franken pantomiming grabbing her breasts while she was sleeping "was taken not on Christmas Eve, 2006, as a final taunt, but on December 21st." Got ‘er!
One actually interesting bit of reporting is while Tweeden said Franken told her he wrote a part for her with the sole intention of kissing her, that's actually a line of dialogue in the sketch they appeared in. In the skit, Franken played an officer who has written a role specifically for a beautiful woman so he could kiss her, a role he performed with two other women in two previous tours (they were okay with the kissing). In other sketches, he played a doctor trying to give Tweeden a "breast examination" and rigs a contest so he can have sex with Tweeden.
Mayer treats this as evidence Tweeden is mistaken or lying about her backstage encounter with Franken, and the whole thing was "borrowed from his skit." But that ignores what strikes me as an obvious possibility, namely that Franken's skits about being a horny creep were meta and self-referential. Is it really hard to believe a professional comedian who was thinking up excuses to kiss his attractive co-stars, would write a skit about how he wrote a skit to kiss a beautiful woman? And he would then approach the women and demand "rehearsals"?
Even Mayer can't erase the incontrovertible fact that Franken was photographed groping or just about groping a sleeping woman who could not consent. Mayer's defense here is once again to gather quotes from sympathetic sources saying the U.S.O tour was a "raunchy vaudeville throwback," Franken was just "goofing around," and "people were taking funny pictures" and "it was campy." And that makes it better… how exactly?
The former SNL star's friends insist to Mayer that the photo "was a mockery of someone acting in bad taste," that Franken was "adopting the persona of a douche bag… The joke was about him. He was doing ‘an asshole.’" Again, there again seems to be zero interest in exploring the possibility Franken adopted the persona of a sexist douche bag asshole who wants to grope and kiss women because he wanted to act like a sexist douche bag asshole who gropes and kisses women. Louis C.K., after all, made quite a few jokes about compulsive masturbation.
Elsewhere Mayer entertains defenses of Franken that are downright offensive. One U.S.O officer said Tweeden's accusations were "shocking," Mayer notes, because she "participated in other ribald U.S.O. skits," including a show with Robin Williams where "Tweeden jumped into his arms, wrapped a leg around his waist, and spanked his bottom as he suggestively waved a plastic water bottle in front of his fly."
So? How does Tweeden's willing participation in bawdy skits with one man diminish her documented and alleged unwilling encounters with Franken? This is dangerously close to the open slut-shaming liberals engaged in when Tweeden first spoke out.
At another point, Mayer takes issue with Tweeden comparing Franken's conduct towards her with an incident in which Rep. Jackie Spier was forcibly kissed by a chief-of-staff when she was a congressional aide. "Speier’s allegation, however, involved a boss assaulting a subordinate in an office; Franken and Tweeden were volunteers performing a scripted kiss, and he had no supervisory authority over her," Mayer argues.
This is just delusional about how show business operates. Franken in 2006 was a longtime comedy star considering a Senate run and the headliner of the tour, while Tweeden was a virtually unknown model trying to get into broadcasting. It doesn't matter if he was nominally her superior, there was an undeniable power dynamic in play, and in Franken's favor. It's shocking to me a journalist who regularly writes about sexual harassment wouldn't recognize that fact. Her insistence on such an insanely petty "gotcha" indicates she is writing the story first and foremost as a hit piece with zero interest in understanding the side of an alleged victim.
I've spent the bulk of this rebuttal focusing on Mayer's attacks on Tweeden, because that's how she spent the bulk of her piece. She devotes 57 paragraphs or so writing about Tweeden's accusation and how—this is the real thrust of her argument—Tweeden is a Trump supporter working for a Trump-supporting radio network, and how they rolled out her story in an intentionally partisan attack. She devotes only ten paragraphs to the dagger in the heart of her thesis; namely that seven other women accused Franken of inappropriate behavior and forced kissing.
Mayer's excuses for dismissing their stories are to quote Franken supporters making arguments that are far too embarrassing for her to make herself. Sure, two women claimed Franken grabbed them by the buttocks during a photoshoot, but "he’s sort of clumsy," he's a "hugger," and "there’s a difference between molesting someone and being friendly." Yeah, women say he tried to kiss them without permission and with an open mouth, but "it was the New York hello-goodbye kiss," and he's "a social—not a sexual—'lip-kisser.'" (???) And even if it did all happen as these women claim, "This isn’t Kavanaugh. It isn’t Roy Moore."
She notes one of Franken's accusers went to the Boston Globe "a week or two before Tweeden stepped forward" with a story about an unwanted kiss, but they thought it was too thinly-sourced to run. No doubt Mayer meant to weaken the case against Franken, but she accidentally included a damning tidbit; while Tweeden was preparing to accuse Franken of kissing her without her consent, a second women was trying to tell reporters the same story, on the other side of country, and independently. That should be damning, but Mayer completely ignores its significance.
As for the accusation from a Democratic staffer that finally sealed Franken's fate, Mayer chooses to simply ignore evidence. The Politico piece that broke the story noted the staffer told two colleagues in 2006 and 2009 about an incident in which Franken went to kiss her, and then said "it's my right as an entertainer" when she ducked the kiss. Mayer omits this fact, and instead includes Franken's denial, and a Franken staffer saying, "there’s zero chance" it happened based on her subjective assessment. Why would someone purporting to give a fact-based assessment of the Franken allegations leave out actual evidence, but include irrelevant speculation from a supporter?
The headline of the piece is "The Case of Al Franken," but in reality it is the case for Al Franken. That case turned out to be exceptionally weak, privileging the immaterial character witness of Franken's friends and family, ignoring the actual testimony of the women, and putting forth blatantly sexist and ignorant excuses for concrete evidence of wrongdoing.