A new sexual assault accusation against President Donald Trump based on an alleged incident 25 years ago caused a minimal surge in the overlapping circuits of news, social media, and politics late last week.
On Friday, New York magazine published an excerpt from advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s upcoming book in which she said Trump attacked her in a New York City department store dressing room. She said the encounter, which happened in either late 1995 or early 1996, started off friendly when they ran into each other and he asked for help picking out a gift for an unnamed “girl.” (Trump was married to his second wife, Marla Maples, at the time.) Later, Carroll said, he held her against a dressing room wall and violated her.
Trump said in a statement issued to the White House press pool that he didn’t know Carroll and the incident never happened. “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened,” Trump said in an interview with The Hill.
Carroll’s book, titled What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, tells of encounters throughout her life with what she calls “hideous men.” If her descriptions are true, the men, who also include disgraced former CBS CEO Les Moonves, were not only hideous but also abusive and in some cases psychopathic. The weekend after the excerpt was published, the story was not mentioned on the Sunday morning talk shows, and most major newspapers left it off their front pages.
Since the Times and the New Yorker kicked off the #MeToo movement with bombshell reporting on movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial abuse, journalistic standards for reporting rape and sexual assault have evolved. Until #MeToo, most news outlets would not report a rape accusation without corroborating evidence from law enforcement. Now they use other methods of verification such as texts, emails, accounts from close friends and relatives, and fact-checking other details of the story.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, said reporters initially attempted to verify Carroll’s story with outside, on-the-record sources and couldn’t. He told the Times’ Reader Center blog that, in retrospect, he wished they had played the story bigger.
The Times eventually got two of Carroll’s friends to go on the record, and on Thursday, it aired an interview with all three women on The Daily podcast. The women, Carol Martin and Lisa Birnbach, both said Carroll told them about the alleged assault shortly after it happened. Their interview could lead more media outlets to give the accusation more attention, but it’s possible that after almost a week, the story has exceeded its shelf life in the 24-hour news cycle.
Trump’s opponents, specifically the candidates hoping to run against him for the presidency in 2020, did not pounce on the story right away, either. When asked over the weekend by journalists about the accusation, most of them called it serious and said law enforcement should investigate but stopped short of saying they thought it was true.
Along with concerns about veracity, another more haunting possibility exists for why Carroll’s story hasn’t dominated the headlines. After hearing accusations of infidelity, harassment, or assault from more than a dozen women against Trump—along with remarks he made to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in 2005 about forcibly kissing and groping women—the public might be desensitized to them and to allegations of sexual assault against powerful men in general.
“One of the reasons that some of the media coverage might have been stifled is around this question of whether America has reached #MeToo fatigue,” Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told USA Today. “#MeToo has been about [us] as a society coming to the realization that sexual harassment and abuse are commonplace experiences for women. ... The challenge is the more that sexual harassment and assault is normalized, the more it can take away some of the outrage, and that may be what’s diluting some of the response.” —Lynde Langdon