The day after Christine Blasey Ford came out to say Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson came to the defense of the embattled Kavanaugh, but didn’t attack Ford directly.
Rather, he used a tactic Kavanaugh supporters are now repeating: He attacked the reliability of Ford’s memory.
For this show, we’re not dismissing Christine Ford as a liar. It doesn’t seem like she is. It seems like she sincerely believes everything she is saying.
But that does not mean she is right. Human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially over time. What were you doing one drunk night in the spring of 1982? Don’t remember clearly? Of course you don’t. It’s been 36 years. Past a certain point, the past is unknowable. And that’s why we have statutes of limitations for crime — not because our desire for justice dims, but because our chance of achieving it does.
This attack on her memory, not her directly, has been repeated over and over on Fox News.
We analyzed how frequently Fox News mentioned the allegations in the context of memory, remembering, or “36 years” ago. And we found that the conservative cable network has ramped up this angle in talking about the allegations.
To be clear, Carlson’s point isn’t entirely off-base. Research shows that our memory is pretty bad, which is why most of us probably don’t remember a drunken night last month, much less 36 years ago, as Carlson noted.
But just because memory is flawed doesn’t mean all memories — and this specific one — are. Ford brings some specific details to bear in her accusation. In a letter detailing the alleged sexual assault, Ford writes that, at a high school party, Kavanaugh forced her into a bedroom, locked the door, and played loud music while he tried to force himself on her. “With Kavanaugh’s hand over my mouth I feared he may inadvertently kill me,” she wrote. Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
There are other things about the evening that Ford can’t recall — how she eventually got home, for instance. But her account is pretty clear in its depiction of what happened in that bedroom.
Fox News has constantly cast doubt on Ford’s memory, while avoiding a direct attack on her
Fox News pundits have been careful not to explicitly say Ford is lying. Rather, pundit after pundit has argued Ford may not be remembering this correctly — that, perhaps, she wasn’t actually assaulted.
On Fox & Friends, Jason Chaffetz, a Fox News contributor and former Congress member, said: “Well, 36 years ago, and from what I read, she can’t tell you where it was, how she got there, how she left. I don’t know that anybody can really remember 36 years ago, and she didn’t tell anybody at the time. Not a friend, not a family member, not anybody.”
On The Five, Fox News pundit Jesse Watters said, “Maybe they remember it differently. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity. It’s a very gray area and it’s very subjective. But the woman, Ford, believes something happened.”
On her show, Laura Ingraham argued that we don’t really know what happens in our teenage years — nor should that derail someone’s professional career: “When I think about — I have two sons, age 8 and 10. When I think about even young women, who are up for a big job or a big promotion. And none of us knows what happened. I went to a lot of parties, right? I don’t remember — you know, yeah, I was at someone’s house.”
But perhaps Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) captured this argument best, when he said he believed Ford was “mixed up.”
Conservatives have come to the defense of Kavanaugh amid the allegations. Pushing back on Ford’s claims by focusing on her memory — rather than accusing her of lying — allows them to cast doubt on Ford’s account without seeming too harsh on her. It’s a sustained attack on the credibility of her account, cloaked in a pose of reasoned skepticism and empathy.