Late last week, Politico published an article that in the headline alone referred to Tara Reade as a “manipulative, deceitful, user” who “left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances.” It had all the framing of a bombshell report, and the dramatic intensity of an old-school TV detective slamming shut a case file. Yet the piece itself failed to deliver any evidence around Reade’s allegation of sexual assault against Joe Biden. Instead, it put another subject under the magnifying glass: Reade’s economic stability. The “aggrieved acquaintances” were but a handful of former landlords. The damning behavior behind the trumpeted claim of dishonesty and wrongdoing? Reade allegedly struggled to pay her rent, and sometimes she pleaded for her landlords’ sympathy.
This is not a bombshell report. Instead, the article is a smear job that digs up details from Reade’s personal life that are unrelated to her sexual assault allegations. This may not be so egregious as the defense attorney who puts an accuser’s sexual history or style of dress on trial, but it engages in the same kind of character assassination supported by the myth of the “perfect victim.” In this case, Reade’s economic class is Exhibit A.
Reporters have doggedly tried to corroborate Reade’s allegation that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 when she was a staff assistant in his Senate office. This is the critical task facing journalists reporting on sexual assault: knocking on doors, digging up documents, corroborating accounts, and asking oftentimes painful questions, all in service of responsibly detailing a sexual assault allegation. Reporters have, reasonably, approached this task from different angles: For example, PBS News Hour recently interviewed 74 former Biden staffers, finding that none reported personally experiencing sexual harassment or assault. However, the coverage also noted that these staffers’ “experiences do not disprove” Reade’s accusation.
The PBS News Hour article was centered around Reade’s allegation, though. The Politico report is not. It digs up a few landlords from Reade’s past, all but one of whom have bad things to say about their prior tenant. (The one landlord who calls Reade “a wonderful person” does not get prime placement in the piece.) There are allegations of missed rent payments, requests to borrow money, and pleas for sympathy. Around those concrete allegations of financial trouble—which are unrelated to one’s capacity to credibly make an allegation of sexual assault—are subjective character assessments from prior landlords, all of which relate to their financial interests.
“She was manipulative,” Harriet Wrye, who had “rented a yurt” to Reade, told Politico. “She was always saying she was going to get it together, but she couldn’t. And ‘could you help her’?” (Wrye is introduced by Politico as a “self-described feminist and social activist,” as though those proclaimed credentials make her commentary any more credible or relevant.) Lynn Hummer, the owner of a horse sanctuary where Reade volunteered, told Politico, “I do think she’s a liar.” What follows is a story about Reade asking to bring her car to Hummer’s property to “hide it from ‘the repo man.’” Once again, it’s an allegation of financial trouble with implied dishonesty.
Further pulling at the thread of alleged deceit, a quote from Kelly Klett, who rented Reade a room, provided Politico with its explosive headline: “You can use these words: manipulative, deceitful, user.” Well, yes, you could use those words, but should a publication print them without concrete proof of wrongdoing beyond economic struggle and a solid link to the sexual assault allegations at hand? Klett’s supposedly damning allegation: Reade told her that she was a victim of domestic abuse, which led Klett to lower the rent, and which Reade still struggled to pay.
Similarly, Politico spoke with another former landlord, Austin Chung, who rented Reade a house in 2008 and said she, in Politico’s words, “claimed that she was on the run from domestic violence and trying to start over.” Politico then notes that Reade was granted a temporary restraining order against her then-husband, but 12 years before renting the house from Chung. Of course, this does not speak to the possibility of more recent trauma or the reality of how long a survivor of domestic violence might be “on the run” or “trying to start over.” The same landlord is then given space to complain that Reade damaged the floors in the apartment.
In addition to difficulty paying her rent, the landlords point to Reade having “spoken highly of Biden,” as Politico puts it. “She spoke favorably about her time working for Biden,” says the article of one landlord’s recollection. None of this is damning: Research shows that victims of sexual assault can have complicated relationships with abusers, and many continue to interact with their abusers. The article fails to consider all of the reasons a victim might not readily disclose an alleged sexual assault—and to a landlord, no less. The piece as a whole holds Reade to a standard that most sexual assault victims would fail to meet: Never having struggled, never having been dishonest, and never having spoken positively of an alleged abuser.
Dogged, diligent reporting that seeks relevant corroboration around an allegation is what it looks like for journalists to take sexual assault seriously. But calling up a bunch of landlords and giving them a bullhorn to vent about missed rent payments only contributes to a culture of silence in which the majority of victims never report their assaults (data show that three out of four sexual assaults go unreported). Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told Jezebel that there are many reasons victims delay or decide against the disclosure of sexual harassment and assault, among those most relevant here: “fear of not being believed,” “fears of privacy invasions,” and “being made the subject of gossip and slander.” The media is one of the most visible stages on which those fears are exemplified.
“Survivors of sexual harassment and assault are often judged by baseless ideas of how ‘real victims’ would or should behave,” said Palumbo. “When harsh judgments and victim-blaming myths play out in media, this has a chilling effect on others speaking up and leaves many survivors feeling triggered and retraumatized.” In this case, it may leave victims to consider just which “aggrieved acquaintances” in their life, whether former landlords or ex-boyfriends, will give a journalist the grabby quote needed for an explosive-sounding headline.