The Media Today

Q&A: Margaret Sullivan on the coverage of Biden’s documents

January 18, 2023
President Joe Biden speaks about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law at the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Since last week, the discovery of a batch of classified documents at an office used by Joe Biden between his spells as vice president and president—and then of further batches at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware—has driven a frenzied political news cycle. Comparisons to Donald Trump, embroiled in a classified-records scandal of his own since last year, inevitably followed, as, equally inevitably, did charges that the mainstream media was indulging false equivalence in its treatment of the two stories, which are, indeed, very different; for one, while the facts of the Biden case are still emerging, and he has faced criticism for a lack of transparency, he appears to have cooperated fully with investigators, while Trump has, erm, not.

To pick through the media’s responses to the two documents stories, I called up Margaret Sullivan, who, until last year, weighed in on coverage controversies of precisely this nature in her closely watched media column at the Washington Post. She has since published a memoir, Newsroom Confidential, and taken up a visiting professorship at Duke University. Our conversation, which took place on Tuesday, has been edited for length and clarity.

JA: I’ve called you back from your Washington Post retirement, like Cincinnatus, to discuss what has been referred to—
including by your former colleagues at the Post—as a big test for the news media: how to cover Joe Biden’s mishandling of classified documents. I guess to start out, what have been your impressions of how major outlets have been meeting that test so far? What would you be writing in your Post column this week if you were still doing it?

MS: I watched the coverage very carefully, and I detected, or felt as if I could see, a certain gleefulness on the part of the mainstream media that finally there was something they could jump on, to, legitimately or non-legitimately, create some equivalence between a pretty buttoned-down, boring administration without a lot of scandal and the ever-fascinating circus that was the Trump administration. So there was a lot of coverage of the documents being discovered and handed over. I think, absolutely, that it was appropriate to give it significant coverage. I felt in some cases the coverage was over the top.

My impressions are a bit mixed, I’d say, but they seem to be on a similar line to yours. I think that, early on in this story, there were a lot of efforts from mainstream outlets to stress the differences between this and the Trump case—there’s a CNN graphic I keep seeing popping up, for instance, that literally bullet-points the differences—and to some extent, that felt like a pointed Look, we’re not both-sidesing this! kinda thing. And, as you say, I also do think that this is a legitimate story: clearly, the documents shouldn’t have been where they were found, and I think there are also legitimate question marks around the timing of the White House disclosures around it all. Equally, there’s still a ton we don’t know about this, and I think a lot of the coverage that I saw, especially early on, defaulted to obsessing over the politics. And there I think there has been at least an implied both-sidesism, because the prevailing narrative seems to be, Whatever actually happened factually, this is bad for Biden because Republicans say it’s bad—even if the same Republicans, in many cases, just waved off Trump’s mishandling of classified documents. 

Right. It goes very quickly from substance to the political fallout, and that is speculative. And it tends to be predictive. And if there’s one thing that we should have learned, it’s that journalists are terrible at predictions, but they love to predict anyway.

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What was also pretty amazing to me about those early political predictions—in both cases, the Trump one and the Biden one—is that they were both, in large parts of the political media, considered to be good for Republicans: the first one because it would allow Trump to say he was being victimized by the deep state; the second one because it was Biden who was under scrutiny. It reminds me a bit of what our late colleague, the media critic Eric Boehlert, used to say about every Beltway news cycle starting from the premise: What are Republicans angry about today?

I think to me the coverage seemed a little bit more intent on describing the differences [between the Trump and Biden cases] before the second group of classified documents [in the Biden case] was being reported on. When it was just, sort of, Ten documents; who knows how classified they were?, it was just a small thing compared to the three hundred or so that Trump took to Mar-a-Lago. Then, when the ones were discovered at his home and stored with his Corvette in his garage, that seemed to ramp it up, and I think somewhat understandably so.

I know you said that the Biden story was worthy of “significant coverage,” but do you think there’s been too much coverage, in terms of volume? Because it strikes me that we’re getting to the stage where, to drive this story forward, there’s some nonsense flying around. I saw a bunch of headlines over the past couple of days about how there were no visitor logs at Biden’s private home in Wilmington, which made that sound shady—There are no visitor logs!—even though it’s not usual for presidents, and in this case a former vice president, to have a visitor log at their private home…

I saw that, too. I think that there’s a great desire to keep this story alive and to plumb the depths of it in a way that it may not really deserve, but that is what the news media, and particularly the political news media, tends to do, so it’s not surprising. But it is disheartening to see. Because as much as there is a contrast drawn—and as much as the coverage is about how these two things are not exactly alike—the fact remains that you come away from the deluge of coverage thinking, Wow, this is a huge story. And that’s less because of the content of the coverage and more because of the volume of the coverage and the prominence of the coverage. So when it leads the evening newscast on two of the three major networks, that sends a very strong signal. It sends a stronger signal than Ah, well, these things are not really the same. It seems to say, This is huge.

Is there a case to be made at all, do you think, that the Trump case also attracted too much hype when that blew up last year? I wrote early on about how the first week of that was driven by political blather in the absence of much factual information being known. Obviously it was important and a really big story, and a bigger one than the Biden story. But there’s also a lot else going on, including around Trump. Did that deserve to be such a central story line for so long, do you think?

I guess it’s always: Compared to what? What else was going on? It was a big story, I think very legitimately. Was too much made of it? I don’t know. I didn’t feel that way. And again, I wanna restate that I do think with this Biden story, there is a real story there. There’s a real and legitimate concern. And, it’s not at all equal. Karl Rove said as much, which was really interesting to see—on Fox, of all places—making the case that these things are not equal.

I was struck, on the subject of the Trump angle here, by something that Glenn Thrush said on The Daily, the New York Times’ daily news podcast, last week: he was asked what most stood out to him about this Biden documents story, and he said “Donald Trump’s gravitational field on American politics.” Thrush basically said that without Trump, no one would care about this sort of thing, but because of Trump’s behavior elevating this issue, it is a story. But isn’t it our job as the press to moderate that gravitational pull rather than jump in and just go along with it? 

To a large extent, we create and foster the gravitational pull. Because Trump has been such a dominant figure and such a dominant story, and continues to be, I think members of the news media feel a little bit helpless, like it’s out of their control how big a deal all things Trump turn out to be. But in fact, the media contributes to that in a huge way. And so I think that there does need to be an awareness of our role in that. But in the moment, when a story is breaking, when a special counsel is being appointed, that’s a hard thing to keep in mind, and a hard case to make, because I think the tendency is to feel like it’s pretty simple: Well, this is a great story. People say that the media has all kinds of elaborate ideas about what they’re doing, or that all editors are sitting in a room cooking something up, when that’s really not the case. It comes down to, This is a great story, let’s go with it, let’s really work it as hard as we can, let’s try to get the next scoop on it. It’s competitive, it’s related to the adrenaline rush, and it’s not particularly, I don’t think, malicious.

Finally, the coverage of the Biden story has been compared, somewhat inevitably, to Hillary’s emails, which has become a shorthand for the broader problem of media both-sidesism. I noticed a question buried at the end of Semafor’s media newsletter this week, asking: “Are the classified documents in Biden’s garage the same as Hillary’s emails? If so, what would that even mean?” And I’m curious, what do you think it would mean for this story to be the same as Hillary’s emails? To me, I think that that comparison would imply a persistence of the documents story over time—the mainstream press just gluing it to Biden as the one scandal that will stick—which is maybe not something that we can judge yet. But there are other media commentators saying that this is already Hillary’s emails redux. How do you see that?

There are some similarities to the Hillary’s email story in, again, the gleefulness and the breathlessness with which the story has been reported and embraced. But I don’t think it will ever reach that level. It has a kind of protection, in that the somewhat similar Trump story is so much bigger, so [the Biden story] can’t take on the same stature in media coverage as the Hillary emails story did. It was extremely bizarre and peculiar the way that story dominated the entire campaign [in 2016]. As much as I say that journalists should not predict, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think this will be anything like that.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.