Within hours of their high school friend being accused publicly of sexual assault against a young woman 36 years ago, 65 women stepped forward to sign a letter in support of Georgetown Prep alumnus Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was now at risk.
The letter was released the morning after the allegation first got wide public attention. The letter and its roster of supporters seemed to come at supersonic speed and out of the blue.
Many in newsrooms asked themselves, how was it possible that 65 people of the opposite sex could be marshalled so quickly to attest to someone’s moral character, including some people who may not have seen Kavanaugh in decades.
In New York, researcher Rhonda Shafner used databases to locate contact information for each of the signers. Reporters in four states, Jennifer Peltz in New York, Michael Kunzelman in Baltimore, Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston and Dan Sewell in Ohio, set out to reach every single one.
What they learned was that the campaign had started with phone calls among several high-school friends of Kavanaugh, and organizers used social media to expand their search.
AP reporters in four states set out to reach all 65 women. More than a dozen described the process that led to their letter.
Contacted by the AP, many of the signers were surprised and unwilling to speak. In agreeing to sign the letter, they had not anticipated that they themselves would become minor players in the firestorm over the allegations.
More than a dozen did speak to the AP, however, providing various explanations of their degree of friendship with the nominee.
How did it come together so quickly? The women who organized and signed the letter said it was thanks to social networks that had endured decades after they graduated. They say it was easy to mobilize support: a chain of friends calling, texting and emailing other friends. It helped that they were from a Washington-area world where many still live and see each other.
Some of the women were stunned that Kavanaugh would be accused.
“Brett wouldn’t do that in a million years. I’m totally confident. That would be completely out of character for him,” said Paula Duke Ebel, explaining why she signed.
The story, demonstrating AP's ability to marshal reporters and researchers across state lines for impact on a tight timeline, was the top AP non-spot story of the week with 133,681 engaged minutes, and more than a minute of average engagement time.
For their efforts, Shafner, Peltz, Kunzelman, Richer and Sewell share the Best of the States prize.