Leigh Corfman mustered her courage.
Although reluctant to go public with what she says happened to her at age 14, at the hands of Roy Moore, she decided it was important to tell her story.
“I have prayed over this,” Corfman told The Washington Post. “All I know is that I can’t sit back and let this continue, let him continue without the mask being removed.”
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She and three other women decided that the voters of Alabama had a right to know about the former Alabama Supreme Court judge who, after winning the Republican primary, appeared to be headed for a U.S. Senate seat.
Their reward for this public-spirited bravery?
To be smeared as liars.
To be the objects of vicious criticism about their private lives – their marriages, divorces, and bankruptcies.
And to be described as political tools of the Democratic Party. (Corfman, now a 53-year-old customer service representative, says she voted for Republican candidates in the last three presidential elections.)
This incident happened almost 40 years ago, goes the outraged refrain. Why are these women only coming forward now?
Here’s a better question: Why would any other woman, seeing what’s happened in the past week, ever come forward again?
“This is exactly why women wait 40 years,” said Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host who sued her longtime boss, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment.
Carlson was responding not just to what Moore himself had said – that the Post story was full of scurrilous lies – but to what Breitbart News had done: Send reporters to Alabama to discredit The Post’s story.
“It’s weaponizing the fear and shame of sexual-assault victims against themselves,” wrote Seth Mandel, an opinion editor at the conservative New York Post. Even for Breitbart, he said, “this is some low stuff.”
Breitbart also gleefully claimed last week that it “outscooped” The Post by publishing Moore’s denial before the story itself was published. It doesn’t take an investigative reporting team to figure out who tipped them, given that Moore had been asked by The Post for his response to its reporting so that it could be included in their story.
What did the Breitbart reporters find in Alabama? Virtually nothing, but that didn’t keep the media company (headed by former Trump strategist, perpetual bombthrower and Moore-booster Stephen Bannon) from publishing screaming headlines, like this one: “Mother of Roy Moore Accuser: Washington Post Reporter Convinced My Daughter to Go Public.”
“She did not go to them – they called her,” Corfman’s mother, Nancy Wells, told Breitbart.
We were meant to recoil in horror, I guess, at how Post journalists committed treasonous acts of journalism. Yes, they persuaded their sources to go on the record, sometimes by making the case that there is a greater good to be served.
Portraying this as an exposé was especially absurd because The Post’s first story last week made clear that none of the women approached the reporters.
It’s worth revisiting that passage in full:
“Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore’s Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don’t know one another.”
Nor was Breitbart alone in its eager victim-blaming. Fox News’s Sean Hannity brought the network’s legal analyst, Mercedes Colwin, on his show to blast women who accuse powerful men, saying that they mostly do it for the money.
“There are victims of predators,” Hannity allowed, having given Moore’s denials plenty of airtime and emphasizing their supposedly consensual nature.
“Very few and far between,” Colwin retorted.
And WBMA in Birmingham sent a reporter out to talk to local people, coming back with the news that they didn’t believe the women’s accounts.
Then, bringing the trashing full circle, Breitbart offered the Sinclair-owned station a megaphone with this headline: “Alabama ABC Affiliate Can’t Find One Voter Who Believes WaPo Report about Roy Moore in Man-on-the-Street Segment.” (Speaking of journalism basics, it’s almost always pointless to stick a microphone in front of random people who often have only heard the general outlines of a developing story.)
Of course, it’s not The Post’s credibility that’s really under attack here. It’s that of the women themselves, who had the courage to be named, quoted and shown in photographs.
The vilifying response to Leigh Corfman’s story makes it all the more remarkable - and a testament to strength in numbers - that a fifth woman came forward on Monday, saying that Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16.
What’s not remarkable in the least is that it took them so long.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist and former New York Times public editor. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.