Why did the media downplay the latest sexual assault allegation against Trump?

Ed Pilkington in New York
Photograph: Craig Ruttle/AP

The leader of the world’s most powerful nation is accused by a prominent writer with an impeccable career in journalism of having sexually assaulted her in an act amounting to rape. Pretty big news story, you might think.

Related: Donald Trump says sexual assault accuser E Jean Carroll 'not my type'

Not so in the US, it seems. When the news broke last Friday that E Jean Carroll, a revered advice columnist, had accused Donald Trump of sexually attacking her in late 1995 or early 1996, alleging he slammed her against a wall inside a dressing room in the Bergdorf Goodman store in New York then penetrated her without consent, the response from many top media titles was strangely restrained.

The president himself has denied the claims, saying: “I’ll say it with great respect: number one, she’s not my type; number two, it never happened.”

However, for a variety of reasons – some apparently blatantly political, some technical, some as yet unexplained – news outlets decided to downplay the story or even excise it altogether. The most startling example was at the New York Post, where the tabloid ran an account of Carroll’s allegations drawn from an extract from her new book published by New York magazine, only to take the story down a few hours later.

Oliver Darcy, the eagle-eyed senior media correspondent of CNN, spotted that not only did the Post’s own story on the alleged assault vanish but so too did Associated Press copy on the same issue published by the Post. Darcy later reported that Col Allan, the Post’s pugnacious former editor who is now an “adviser” to the newspaper, had made the call to pull the stories.

This is extremely worrying and I really can’t understand how we ended up here

Barbara Davis

As Darcy and his CNN colleague Marianne Garvey pointed out, Allan is a firm Trump supporter who was photographed during the 2016 presidential race sporting a Make America Great Again hat in the Post newsroom. Allan was given an oversight role at the tabloid by his boss, Rupert Murdoch, another keen Trump admirer.

That a major newspaper should apparently suppress for political reasons a story about a sitting US president facing allegations of a sex crime was shocking enough. But some observers were even more dismayed by the generally low-energy (to use a Trumpism) approach displayed by a raft of less partisan outlets in both print and television.

The question of Trump’s sexual conduct was hardly raised among the flagship Sunday political talk shows, though MSNBC and CNN did call Carroll in for on-camera interviews within their normal run of scheduling. On the print side, Media Matters highlighted the absence or relative diminution of the charges on the Saturday front pages of many of the most august newspapers in the country, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and others.

The most peculiar editorial decision was that of the Times to locate the story on its books pages (a nod at What Do We Need Men For?, Carroll’s forthcoming book in which she lays out the allegations). Quizzed by the paper’s readers’ editor on this peculiar placement, executive editor Dean Baquet conceded “we were overly cautious” and said the basic details of the story “should’ve compelled us to play it bigger”.

Baquet went on to say that in retrospect guidelines laid down for #MeToo reporting of sexual assault allegations relating to the New York Times’s own investigations of Harvey Weinstein and others had been misapplied to a major statement by a well-known individual made in a different media outlet.

But whatever the finer details of the editorial choices made by top newspaper and TV outlets, the collective appearance of lack of enthusiasm for the story left many observers rattled.

“This is extremely worrying and I really can’t understand how we ended up here,” Barbara Davis, a best-selling women’s fiction writer, told the Guardian. “We seem to be experiencing in the entire country a desensitization towards cruelty, lawlessness and bad behavior – we are becoming numb when we should be taking to the streets.”

Trump has repeatedly and vociferously denied that he assaulted Carroll, stating that he has never even met her though a photograph of them together in a social setting has resurfaced.

Related: Trump sexual assault accuser E Jean Carroll considers police complaint

More than 20 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. Carroll is the second to allege an attack amounting to rape, the first having been his former wife Ivana Trump who is reported to have made the rape claim in a sworn divorce deposition though she later backtracked and said she had not used the word in a “literal or criminal sense”.

Trump has admitted to sexual misconduct. He was recorded in the notorious Access Hollywood tape, released shortly before the 2016 election, bragging about forcibly kissing women and using his celebrity power to “grab ’em by the pussy”.

That he was caught expressing such repugnant attitudes towards women yet went on within weeks to win the presidency is a sign of Trump’s singular ability to survive revelations that have floored many other men in the #MeToo era. The events of the past few days will only increase speculation around the media’s role in affording him a metaphorical – and perhaps even literal – get out of jail pass.