Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and the treatment of survivors.
In early March, Tara Reade accused former vice-president and likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her in the spring of 1993, when she worked as a staff assistant in his Senate office. Two months after Reade first made the allegation, and one month after she filed a criminal complaint against Biden on April 10, a consensus seems to have been reached by Democratic politicians: do not ask more questions, do not press further, and do not elevate Reade’s voice. This contradicts the heart of the fight against sexual assault and is the exact opposite of how women who come forward should be treated. Whether or not Biden is guilty, Reade deserves to be heard.
A slew of staunch supporters of the #MeToo movement, including Democratic politicians Stacy Abrams and Kirsten Gillibrand, have quickly voiced their continued support for Biden, tacitly stating they believe his denial. Media investigations continually fail to mention all available evidence, and often seem predisposed to find the allegations not to be credible, urging their audience to come to a certain conclusion. In all this, Reade has been left behind and has not been given even a semblance of the investigation her accusation merits.
The response to Reade, like every response to women who accuse powerful men of sexual assault or harassment, tells survivors in this country how society will treat them. Reade’s accusations have garnered disbelief, disdain, and nonchalance. There is almost a consensus that women will only be fiercely defended when it is politically convenient, as can be seen in the different responses to Reade’s accusations of Biden and Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Reade, who has received little support from the media and prominent Democratic officials, deserves to have her claims investigated and taken with the utmost seriousness.
Reade first made her allegation in a podcast on March 25. It took over two weeks for major outlets, including the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Washington Post to write articles on the allegations. In contrast, the Intercept reported on Ford’s allegations before her initial letter detailing the allegations to Sen. Dianne Feinstein was made public, and CNN, the New Yorker, and the Post all published stories within four days on the revelation. Meanwhile, Reade was discredited on social media, with a tacit understanding by much of the public that the lack of articles was a direct reflection of the accuracy of Reade’s claims. In recent days, articles about other aspects of Reade’s life have been used to create doubt of the veracity of her claims.
The stories that were then released often took a dismissive or critical tone, and focused on Biden’s response rather than the allegations themselves. A particularly egregious “investigation” by the New York Times asserted the Times had found no corroboration of her claims and “no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden,” effectively making a judgment on the veracity of Reade’s claims for readers. In the days after the article was released, multiple pieces of evidence that supported Reade’s claim and had been overlooked by the Times came to light.
We cannot expect reporters to examine claims of sexual assault to the extent of a criminal investigation. We should, however, expect them to be honest about when they fall short, and to allow their readers to make their own judgments. We can expect them to treat women who come forward with far more dignity and respect than Reade has been afforded, and we can expect them to report on women’s claims regardless of the political party of the accused.
The media’s lukewarm response to Reade has been mirrored in the response of politicians who ignored their chances to amplify Reade’s voice. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have all publicly voiced their support for Biden. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called Biden’s denial “sufficient.” Prominent women’s advocacy organizations such as EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood Action Fund commended Biden for speaking out, occasionally asking for a stronger investigation and often pivoting to President Donald Trump’s own allegations of sexual misconduct. None pulled their endorsement.
Biden is, of course, innocent until proven guilty, but the reality is that there has not yet been an adequate investigation of Reade’s claims, and clearing Biden without seeking more information sends a dangerous message that allegations of sexual assault can be ignored for presidential candidates. In a May 1 interview on MSNBC, Biden himself volunteered to cooperate with an investigation, an important step if Democrats hope to give Reade the due process all those who come forward deserve and to nominate a candidate that voters can trust.
This editorial board believes that a full investigation by an impartial third party must occur. Not investigating Reade’s accusation ignores the truth that all women who wish to come forward deserve to be heard.
The fact that there is no clear body to call on to investigate the claims reveals a larger problem of accountability for candidates for public office. Survivors should not have to file a police report to have their story told, and should not have to report within the ludicrous statute of limitations allotted to sexual crimes. Investigations by media outlets can themselves be harmful when they seek to pass judgment and are not cognizant of the nuances of the situation. Additionally, media organizations are not able to offer a completely unbiased investigation, nor can they be held to the same standard as a typical criminal investigation.
Reade showed incredible courage in coming forward—that should not be rewarded with an invasive, biased, media-led investigation process. Reade, Biden, and American voters all deserve a neutral third-party investigation that is committed to uncovering the truth, regardless of political consequences.
As the election heats up, and COVID-19 continues to dominate the news cycle, it will become easy to forget about Reade. It will become easier to see her accusation as part of a political scandal, rather than a legitimately concerning allegation of sexual assault against her former boss. Politicians and voters should listen to her. Her claims should be investigated. We cannot let her go unheard.