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Court Documents Reveal Buzzfeed’s Shockingly Unethical Takedown Of Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey standing in front of a blue background waving
Image CreditPaul Hudson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0/Cropped

Buzzfeed deceived its readers with Adam Vary’s deeply unethical and intentionally incomplete journalism.

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Kevin Spacey was recently acquitted of nine sexual offense claims in a London courtroom. It was the third time on two continents that he has been acquitted in courts of law. 

This series of allegations against Spacey first emerged with a Buzzfeed News article released in October 2017. All of the cases and charges that followed that article effectively ended Spacey’s career and public life. The article was written by journalist Adam Vary and claimed Spacey had sexually assaulted actor Anthony Rapp when Rapp was just 14.

    The article came out at the height of #MeToo in the midst of a war for clicks and a “Believe All Victims” moral panic. It contained allegations of criminal and just plain creepy behavior by Spacey dating back to 1986.

    Specifically, the article claimed Spacey, then age 26, had brought Rapp, then age 14, and an unnamed 17-year-old out to dinner and then a nightclub. During this night, Spacey allegedly invited only Rapp to a party several days later. At the party, the account went, Rapp, bored by the adult vibe, retreated to a bedroom and pulled over the door to watch TV. After some time, he saw Spacey standing in the doorway drunk. Spacey then allegedly came forward, dropped him on the bed, and lay across him in a sexual manner. According to Buzzfeed, Rapp said he managed to wriggle out from under Spacey and leave the apartment.

    At first glance, the article looked damning — and it certainly was an enormous blow to his career. However, a closer look reveals a few odd things about the Buzzfeed article, specifically how quickly it made dramatic allegations while remaining rather sparse and vague about the details. 

    Narrative Collusion

    This story that brought down Spacey would have gone unquestioned except that Rapp sued Spacey for $40 million for assault and emotional trauma in 2020.

    Under the legal process of discovery, Rapp was able to subpoena documents from Spacey. However, discovery is a two-way street. Rapp had to hand over the emails and texts exchanged between him and Vary preceding the publication of the article.

    These emails and texts exposed journalist-interviewee collusion between Vary and Rapp. In Rapp’s original pre-publication interview, Rapp told Vary he had a visceral and traumatic reaction when he saw Spacey at the 2008 Tony Awards. It was a dramatic illustration of how Spacey’s alleged sexual abuse affected Rapp for decades.

    But Vary had a problem. He did some basic research and quickly discovered it could not be confirmed that Spacey even attended the 2008 Tony Awards. This was a big problem: Vary was asking readers to believe Rapp could remember, in detail, an encounter with Spacey over 30 years ago in 1986, but now knew Rapp was substantially wrong about an event less than a decade ago. 

    To save the story, Vary decided to hide Rapp’s bad memory from Buzzfeed’s readers. This is the text message he sent to Rapp, detailing his plan:

    One thing to make you aware of: We can’t seem to place Spacey at the Tony’s in 2008. He didn’t present and wasn’t nominated, and there’s no photos we can find. We don’t doubt he was there, but we don’t want to nail down a specific date that Spacey could then just flatly deny. We’re still looking, but if we can’t nail it down, we’ll likely say that you saw him at an industry event or some such.

    Rather than scrapping the story because of Rapp’s unreliable memory or letting Buzzfeed readers know of this unreliability, Vary and Rapp decided on a new year to fit “the facts.” In the published version, Buzzfeed claimed the encounter happened at the 1999 Tony Awards — when it could prove both Spacey and Rapp attended.

    Avoiding the Details

    This wasn’t the end of Vary and Buzzfeed’s unethical journalism. The rest of the texts showed Vary was worried Spacey could somehow prove he didn’t host a party or wasn’t even in the country in 1986 when the assault allegedly happened. To prevent this, Vary boasted to Rapp about a sneaky solution: He would make the date and location of the party so vague Spacey would not be able to produce solid evidence to refute the allegations.

    “(Similarly, [to the Tonys solution] we’re also going to steer away from exact specificity in the story for the party.),” he told Rapp in a text.

    That’s exactly what he did. In the article, the sexual offense is described as happening sometime “in 1986” with no description or address of the apartment.

    This wasn’t the only piece of strange journalistic vagueness in the Buzzfeed story. Vary wrote that Spacey took Rapp and “a 17-year-old” to a nightclub a few days before the alleged incident — the implication being that Spacey was prone to inappropriate behavior with young boys.

    Except this assumption is not true and easily checkable. That “17-year-old” was John Barrowman from Rapp’s hometown. It turns out he was actually a 19-year-old adult at the time and was with Rapp that night.

    Vary did not name Barrowman — now a famous actor — in the Buzzfeed article. If he had, this would have again undermined the Rapp narrative. A quick Google search is all it would have taken to confirm Barrowman was 19 at this time. His age is right at the top of his Wikipedia entry. 

    Vary also didn’t reach out to Barrowman to ask about his memories or what he saw of Rapp’s interactions with Spacey. But Spacey’s lawyers did, and it revealed a totally different story.

    In a sworn deposition, Barrowman said they all went back to Spacey’s apartment after the nightclub — and the apartment was a studio. Barrowman said there was no party, as Rapp claimed, and there was no separate bedroom where Rapp claimed the alleged sexual abuse took place. All this cast serious doubts about whether the assault could have physically happened.

    Evading the Questions

    Vary participated in a number of interviews about his journalism and the Spacey story. When asked to explain his unethical behavior under oath in a deposition, he claimed “reporter’s privilege” and refused to answer close to 100 questions. The taped recording of his response shows his refusals became almost comical at times. He wouldn’t even say if he had used Google to check Barrowman’s age. American jurisprudence has put in place much-needed protections to allow journalists to maintain confidential sources — but it’s doubtful if judges thought the scope of the privilege should extend to using Google in reporting.

    Eventually, Spacey’s lawyers took Vary to court where, after reading the messages between Rapp and Vary, federal Judge Lewis Kaplan was scathing about Vary’s journalistic ethics.

    “What calls Vary’s independence into question is the messages to Rapp and other documents indicating Vary’s willingness to shape the story to Rapp’s objectives, to overlook or massage unverified details, or to directly advise Rapp on public relations strategy. These statements go far beyond a ‘point of view’ about the subject matter. In some instances, they come close to painting Vary as a commissioned agent,” he wrote in a pretrial judgment.

    Vary has never answered questions about his relationship with Rapp or his “willingness to shape the story to Rapp’s objectives, to overlook or massage unverified details,” despite being ordered to do so by the judge.  

    But the jury didn’t take long to make up their minds about the story. After a two-week civil trial, it took only about an hour to acquit Spacey.

    Ultimately, we can’t say whether the various allegations against Spacey are true or false. What we do know is that Buzzfeed deceived its readers and that Vary’s journalism was deeply unethical. It’s unlikely that if the original allegations were properly researched and ethically reported they would have ever been published in any reputable news outlet.

    The original Buzzfeed article still remains unchanged. There is no acknowledgment of the collusion to obscure and withhold important details. And it still erroneously refers to Barrowman as “a 17-year-old friend.” 

    We sent Vary and Buzzfeed a series of questions about the contents of the communications between Rapp and Vary and the errors in the Spacey article. They both declined to comment. 


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