The New Yorker Seriously Mischaracterized the Story of One of Al Franken's Accusers

Franken leaves the Capitol after speaking on the Senate floor, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.
Photo: AP Images

This week, the New Yorker ran a long piece by Jane Mayer re-examining the sexual harassment allegations against Al Franken, a piece which minimized the accusations themselves while giving Franken ample space to defend himself. While the piece contained some unflattering new revelations about Leeann Tweeden’s story, the conservative radio host who made the first public accusation, it was notably weaker in dealing with the other women who made accusations of groping, harassment and unwanted kissing.

Unfortunately, Mayer and the New Yorker also seriously mischaracterized the story of one of those accusers, whom Jezebel previously reported on. The accuser provided Jezebel an account of her interactions with Mayer and a New Yorker fact-checker, which she said left her feeling as though the overall intent of the story was to discredit and mischaracterize her and how she behaved in the aftermath of the incident. The publication also made statements we can prove are demonstrably misleading; failed to contact us for comment at any point prior to publication; and have, to date, declined to make any corrections.

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On November 30, 2017, we ran a story about an anonymous former New England elected official who said that in 2006 Franken tried to give her a “wet, open-mouthed kiss” onstage. Franken was then a host at Air America, and announced his Senate run a short time later. The woman had agreed to appear at a live taping of his show and sit for an interview in front of an audience. She said the attempted kiss, which she turned her head to avoid, made her feel “stunned and incredulous. I felt demeaned. I felt put in my place.”

In isolation, the incident looks bizarre, clumsy, but possibly innocuous; combined with the accounts of the five other women who’d come forward by then—who became seven in the end—it looked like an indication that Franken had serious issues with maintaining appropriate physical boundaries with women. (There are no reports that he kissed any men, palmed their buttocks while posing for photos, or jokingly pretended to grope their chests in photos while they slept. He was only “clumsy” in one direction, it seems.)

The woman we spoke to, however, was adamant at the time that she wasn’t looking for Franken to resign, and admired his politics. Her sister and a family friend confirmed they’d both been told about the incident at the time it occurred. All three of them said they respected Franken and merely wanted him to take ownership of his behavior.

“I want him to take personal responsibility for his actions, learn from this, not repeat the behavior,” the woman told us at the time, “and go forward with respect in all his interactions with women.”

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Jezebel granted the woman anonymity because she was describing an incident of sexual harassment, and explained that she’d been reluctant to come forward before because she didn’t want her name and hard-won reputation as a former elected official to become linked to a man’s bad behavior. Jezebel, like every reputable news outlet, doesn’t identify victims of sexual misconduct without their permission. (This will, sadly, become important in a moment.) Our piece was vetted by our lawyer, Lynn Oberlander, who was, ironically, previously the general counsel at the New Yorker.

Jezebel contacted Franken and his staff for comment; I provided the woman’s name to them so they could more easily remember the event. I then spoke on the phone with two members of Franken’s communications team. One of them, Ed Shelleby, responded, “That’s all very interesting, thank you,” when I described the incident, then never responded to a single email ever again.

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Mayer doesn’t dispute that the kiss happened. When she was reporting her piece for the New Yorker, in fact, she located a local reporter who’d been in the audience when the kiss occurred, and said he witnessed it. (The woman had told me she didn’t think anybody had seen it happen, calling it “insidious.”) Mayer writes:

Christian Avard, a local reporter, witnessed it, and told me, “I think it was supposed to be ‘Thank you very much,’ but it looked like a bad kiss on his part.”

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(What a “bad kiss” might be is never delineated, but what’s clear is that Avard’s interpretation of it is presented as more credible, somehow, than the woman describing her own experience.)

The woman told us that Mayer contacted her for comment several weeks ago, and that the two had a conversation the woman insisted remain off the record. She maintains that she didn’t hear from Mayer again until several days before the piece ran, when the reporter called to tell her that the piece was running soon. Mayer added, according to the woman’s recollection, “I think you’ll think it’s too sympathetic towards Franken.”

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The woman says she soon received a call from a fact-checker, and learned, to her dismay, that Mayer was planning to use quotes from their off the record conversation, and a few other things Mayer had apparently found online. Those facts included identifying the woman as a “sex therapist,” which she’s not and has never been, though she’d once facilitated group discussions on sex and intimacy for people in mental health recovery when she worked in the mental health field.

“A sex therapist is a legitimate profession,” she told me this week, “But it felt like it was an attempt to be reductive and provocative.”

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In an email that the woman provided to Jezebel, Mayer insisted she had no obligation to keep her identity private, but would do so as a courtesy:

Dear [Accuser’s Name],

As you know I went over the same material with you yesterday. I’m mystified as to why you had no complaints then but do today.

I believe you told me you did not want to be identified. That is not the same as off the record. I can cut your quotes and rely on the nearly identical ones that you gave to Jezebel instead. As you know, I was able to identify you and the other details without your help and to confirm them through local press reports and eye witnesses. The Boston Globe and KABC also have provided information. Given that my own reporting documented every detail, I have no obligation to keep these details or your identity anonymous, but I have chosen to withhold your name as a courtesy to you. I also bent over backwards to convey your point of view accurately and respectfully.

I hope you appreciate the gesture.

Best, Jane.

In the final version of the New Yorker’s story, the woman isn’t identified as a “sex therapist” and the other material she says was used without her permission was not included; the woman says the removal was the result of several tense calls with New Yorker editor David Remnick and a fact checker on the piece.

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But in the published story, Mayer claims that Jezebel only ran the story after two other outlets passed on it for being “too weak,” in her words. Mayer writes:

About a week or two before Tweeden stepped forward, the former Vermont official tried to report Franken to the Boston Globe. The newspaper has standards requiring #MeToo accusers to be identified or to corroborate their story through documents and witnesses—preferably, people outside their immediate circle. The Globe deemed the story too weak. After Tweeden came forward, the woman called KABC-AM, but the station also passed. (McIntyre, Tweeden’s former co-host, told me he felt that blind accusations were unfair.) But, on November 30th, Jezebel ran the woman’s anonymous account, citing as corroboration an unnamed sister in whom the former Vermont official had confided.

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That paragraph strongly suggests that both the Globe and KABC investigated the story, found it factually weak, and declined to run it. That’s provably untrue. Similar to Jezebel’s standards of reporting, we can show that the Globe required not that the woman identify herself in print, but that she corroborate her story. Eventually, the woman says she brought the story to Jezebel, not because of different reporting requirements, but because she trusted the publication.

Texts between the woman and Kay Lazar, a Globe reporter, provided to us by the woman, show that she initially contacted a hotline set up for sharing sexual harassment stories a week before the Tweeden story broke, saying she wanted to share a story about a now-Senator sexually harassing her before he became a Senator. After Tweeden’s story broke, the woman called the Globe again, now recognizing that what had happened to her was likely not an isolated incident.

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Lazar eventually responded to the woman by text and the two spoke on the phone. But soon after, the woman decided not to continue talking to Lazar because she simply wasn’t ready to go on the record. With her permission, we’re sharing the text exchange, with her name redacted:

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In other words, Lazar and the Globe pursued the story, but it stalled permanently when the woman decided she wasn’t ready, telling Lazar, “I’m not ready to go on the record. Thanks for talking with me this morning and for the important work you’re doing.”

Lazar said she understood and even asked if the woman would be willing to speak “on background as opposed to for the record.” The woman also declined. (“Background” has a wide variety of interpretations across different publications. Sometimes it means the information can be used, but not attributed to the interview subject. Other times it means the subject will be quoted, but not by name.)

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Lazar ultimately declined to speak with Jezebel on the record. However, an email she sent to Mayer while Mayer was reporting the piece was shared recently with Jezebel by a fact-checker at the New Yorker. (At the start of her email, that New Yorker fact-checker attempted to unilaterally declare that the email she sent me was off the record. That’s not how “off the record” works. In standard journalistic practice, it’s an agreement that must be entered into by both parties. I didn’t agree to it, and told the fact-checker I would not adhere to it. Another fact-checker, who was the lead on this particular story, would only agree to an off the record conversation, which I declined.)

In her email, Lazar of the Globe tells Mayer not that the story was “too weak” factually, but that it was “too weak” because they could not do it without the woman’s participation. Lazar wrote:

Her story, alone, without any independent corroboration, and her reluctance to have it told, seemed too weak to run with.

The Globe’s #MeToo coverage policy has evolved with time, but basically it is that accusers either have to be identified, or we have to be able to corroborate their story some other way— through documents, emails, court records, audio or video recordings, witnesses or someone (preferably more than one person) who was told about the incident at the time it happened.

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In 2017, while reporting the story, Jezebel was able to corroborate through social media posts that the Franken interview our source described took place, and we were able to confirm she’d mentioned the unwelcome kiss to both her sister and friend soon after it occurred. That would seemingly meet the Globe’s current standards, but Mayer’s obvious implication is that the story was too factually weak, and that the Globe was too wise to run it.

About a week after our source pulled out of a possible Globe story, however, the woman was connected with Jezebel and with me. She said at the time that she felt more comfortable speaking to a journalist who’d been referred to her by someone she knew: the woman reached out to us after being given my name by a family member of a staffer, someone she knew in passing and held in high esteem.

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It’s important to remember that at the time, Tweeden’s allegations were about a month old, and five other women had stepped forward in quick succession to share their own accounts of Franken’s alleged misconduct. The backlash was quick and intense: Democrats who supported Franken resented the implication that his behavior was anywhere near the severity of someone like Harvey Weinstein’s. They pointed out that a desire among Democrats to hold themselves to rigorous standards when it came to sexual harassment and abuse might be weakening their political position, and that Franken was a reliably progressive senator the left could ill afford to lose. They also balked at the way the right was gleefully celebrating the Franken allegations.

In her New Yorker piece, Mayer claims that our source’s account was also declined by KABC, the conservative radio station where Leeann Tweeden works. “After Tweeden came forward,” Mayer writes, “the woman called KABC-AM, but the station also passed. (McIntyre, Tweeden’s former co-host, told me he felt that blind accusations were unfair.)“

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That’s not true either.

The woman recently told me that she recalls contacting KABC soon after Tweeden’s story aired, but because she hoped to speak with Tweeden privately to express her support. “I had no idea who she was,” the woman told me. “And I called her radio station because I knew going forward there was going to be so much backlash. Some guy got on the phone because Leeann was on the air. They wanted me to go on the air, but I said the message was for Leeann.”

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It’s unclear whether KABC even knew the woman’s full name. I say that because they also made an effort to get her on the air by asking me to put in a request with her.

On November 30, then-news director Nathan Baker emailed me, writing, “We were very interested to see your story this morning on the Al Franken accuser from New England. If she wants to speak to Leeann we would happy to connect them.”

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When I forwarded Baker’s message to the woman, she declined. He then asked if I would appear on the show in her place, to air her allegations: “Totally understand,” he wrote. “Would you yourself want to do a phoner on KABC Radio in Los Angeles (with Leeann and our morning show host) to talk about what you can, without revealing her identify [sic]? Maybe tomorrow morning?”

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I also declined.

These facts don’t jibe with KABC’s claim to the New Yorker that they also investigated the woman’s claims and didn’t run them because they felt a “blind accusation,” in Mayer’s words, would be unfair. (KABC’s current operations director didn’t return a request for comment; nor did Tweeden or Baker, who now works for a conservative media consulting firm.)

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It’s not surprising that KABC was so interested in getting more Franken accusers on-air; Mayer’s piece shows convincingly that Tweeden was misleading about some details of her account of Franken’s behavior, and that KABC and Trump advisor and political dirty tricks specialist Roger Stone worked hard to help her make it into the biggest possible media event. (Among other things, Tweeden claimed Franken had written a lewd USO sketch solely in order to kiss her, when he’d been performing it for years prior. Mayer also found that Tweeden’s statement hadn’t been fact-checked in any way by the station before they rushed it out. Stone also tweeted that it was Franken’s “time in the barrel” hours before the story appeared.)

It’s curious, then, that Mayer appears to have taken KABC’s word for it that they also investigated the woman’s claim and found it lacking, given that she convincingly spends quite a lot of her piece showing the outlet is an essentially partisan one without a ton of regard for normal fact-checking procedures.

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In an email to me, Mayer defended her reporting, and defended a line at the end of the paragraph which suggests Jezebel only had one corroborating source when we eventually ran the story (“citing as corroboration an unnamed sister in whom the former Vermont official had confided,” as Mayer put it.) She wrote:

I spoke with both the Globe editors and reporters who dealt with [the woman], and with the KABC personnel who did. They actually did both pass on doing her story for the reason you state: she wouldn’t allow them to identify her, and unless she did, it didn’t meet their standards. That was exactly my point.

I have email chains from the Globe about it, and notes from KABC about it. KABC’s Doug McIntyre is in fact named in my piece about it.

And I purposefully added that you got corroboration for [the woman] in order to be fair to your account. I agree I didn’t mention her friend too- but my aim was to show you got corroboration.

Let me know if you’d like to discuss this further- but my account is correct, and was thoroughly reported.

Best, Jane.

Ps- your account quoted [the woman] saying there were no witnesses. I found one and interviewed him. I truly made quite an effort before writing what I did- and it’s very solid.

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She maintained that point of view through a series of followup emails, insisting that she was “respectful” of my work:

I thought I was respectful of your work, and am trying to understand why you’re finding fault here with mine. Clearly, if [the accuser]’s story met the other two news organizations’ standards, they’d have run it. They passed. This issue of granting anonymity is really important. The Times and Globe both have been evolving standards on when to grant it to #MeToo accusers. They require documentation and corroboration that is independent of the accuser as much as possible.I’ve worked on these stories since Anita Hill, and have also tried incredibly hard to get everyone on the record. You can’t always succeed, but it’s a hugely serious issue journalistically, as you know I’m sure you know.

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As I continued to point out that neither outlet had “passed” at all—that one continued pursuing the story until the woman pulled out, and the other cannot prove they were ever even offered the opportunity to run the woman’s account—Mayer eventually requested that she and I talk on background. That idea was apparently quickly abandoned; I soon heard from the New Yorker fact checkers and the magazine’s communications director Natalie Raabe, and email chains indicate that the features editor Daniel Zalewski was also included in internal discussions. (Of the thinly-sourced idea that the woman was a “sex therapist” and other unflattering facts about her that were ultimately not included in the story, Raabe told me, “That’s how the reporting and fact-checking process work, as you know. Those things did not ultimately make their way into the final piece.”)

In the end, though, the magazine decided their version of events was accurate. (Their full statement is at the bottom of this post.) The New Yorker and Mayer also insist that they were fine to imply in their piece I only had one corroborating source, when there were two.  Raabe told me on Wednesday that they are “reviewing” my request for a correction: “This situation is also a bit unusual because you are simultaneously asking for a correction while planning to write about our story.” (It’s not at all unusual to request a correction, nor is it unusual to write about the mistakes or mischaracterizations of another media outlet, particularly when they concern our own work.)

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The woman’s story is ultimately a small part of the New Yorker’s piece, but considering that it contains inaccurate, reductive and misleading information, it also feels concerning. It raises questions about what else might be glossed over, mischaracterized, or misleading.

The piece suggests that Franken’s only offense was clumsiness, and perhaps naiveté. Mayer and Franken have both made it clear enough that they believe the former senator has been falsely condemned, and while they’re welcome to try to push that concept using barrels of ink and space in one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, they’re not free to use misrepresentations of other journalists’ work to do it. On Twitter, Mayer has implied she’s the only person who truly interrogated Franken’s accusers’ stories, writing, “Sometimes the first draft of history is wrong - especially when no one fact checks it.”

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For her part, the woman says she’s still baffled as to why the magazine decided this was worthy of such an extensive — and, she argues, misleading —rehashing.

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“There are so may stories that need to be told right now,” she told me recently. “To devote 14,000 words in the service of discrediting women — why?”

Natalie Raabe, the New Yorker’s communications director, ultimately sent us the following statement:

We stand by our reporting. The Boston Globe and KABC-AM confirmed to The New Yorker that they passed on the story. As we note in the article, Doug McIntyre, Leeann Tweeden’s former co-host, said he felt that blind accusations were unfair. As for the incident itself, Jane Mayer found an independent witness and quoted him, on the record.

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About the author

Anna Merlan

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.

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