Flooding the zone with the New York Post

It smelled like Clinton’s emails redux. Last Wednesday, the Murdoch-owned New York Post published a bizarre story, sliming Joe Biden and his son Hunter, that it said was based on files (including, yes, emails) from a laptop that a man who may or may not have been Hunter left in a Delaware computer-repair shop last year. The material arrived at the paper via a tipoff from Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager, followed by a transfer from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer. Even on its own terms, the story failed to damn Joe Biden—and, since publication, the background has only grown murkier. Other major outlets were unable to verify the authenticity of the documents in the story. The owner of the repair shop gave an interview in which he contradicted himself, referenced conspiracy theories, and expressed his support for President Trump. The Washington Post then reported that intelligence officials previously warned Trump that, in trying to dig up dirt related to the Bidens and Ukraine, Giuliani was being “worked” by Russian agents. And NBC reported that federal officials are investigating whether the material in the New York Post story, specifically, flowed from a foreign intelligence operation.

We still don’t know the exact path the supposed Biden emails took to publication, but yesterday, we learned of drama concerning the New York Post’s end of the process. We already knew that the lead author on the story, Emma-Jo Morris, previously worked as an associate producer on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. Last night, Katie Robertson, a media reporter at the New York Times, reported that the other author on the story, Gabrielle Fonrouge, had minimal involvement with it, and only found out that her byline appeared on the story after it had been published. According to Robertson, Bruce Golding, a veteran colleague of Morris and Fonrouge, was the principal author of the story but refused to put his name to it because he was concerned about its credibility, and at least one other New York Post journalist similarly refused to be named on the story, despite pressure from editors. (Col Allan, a longtime Murdoch lieutenant who formerly edited the paper and is now an “adviser” to its top editors, was reportedly a driving force behind the publication of the story. He told Robertson that the decision to publish was reached following “several days’ hard work” establishing the “merit” of the story; a New York Post spokesperson, meanwhile, said that the story was “vetted” and that the paper stands by it.) 

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Also yesterday, several anonymous New York Post reporters shared their concerns about the story with Peter Sterne, who wrote about them for New York. “It just makes you cringe and roll your eyes, and it’s hard to stomach, but at the same time we kind of know that you’re signing up for stuff like that,” one of the reporters told Sterne, addressing the paper’s pro-Trump bent. “It’s upsetting. It’s disappointing. It sucks to, like, work for, like, a propaganda outlet.”

Robertson’s Times article also contained a quote from Giuliani, who said that he took the material about the Bidens to the New York Post because “nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.” This sounded like an indictment (presumably accidental, though who really knows with Giuliani) of the laziness of his attempted smear. As Joshua Green has written in his book Devil’s Bargain, some of the anti-Clinton smears that Trump’s allies laundered, with no little success, in 2016, were legitimized by a swath of the mainstream press—part of a conscious strategy, on the part of Bannon and others, to propel their messaging beyond the right-wing fever swamp. As David Brock, a conservative operative turned Clinton ally, told Green, the Times, in particular, proved the “perfect host body” for the “virus” of anti-Clinton propaganda, due to its reputational heft. The New York Post, manifestly, does not enjoy the same measure of mainstream credibility. Other outlets—some stray credulous tweets and aggregation aside—have mostly responded to the Biden story with skepticism. As Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor (and recent CJR contributor), told CNN yesterday, “major professional media doesn’t seem to be falling for it.”

We are still talking about it, though. (Exhibit A: this newsletter.) In some quarters, eagerness not to fall for the story created its own problems: Facebook and Twitter—in limiting (and, in Twitter’s case, initially blocking) the story’s spread on their platforms, pending confirmation that it wasn’t bogus and/or based on hacked materials—set a questionable precedent, and added grist to conservative claims of social-media bias. Despite the crackdown, the story still seems to have been widely read online; in the aftermath of its publication, Zignal, an analytics company, told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that it was “the second-most shared election-related story it has tracked this month,” after the Times’s bombshell reporting on Trump’s taxes. Predictably, the story has exploded across right-wing media; as NPR’s David Folkenflik put it over the weekend, Fox News took it as inspiration “to unleash a fusillade” against Biden “across its most watched shows—like the grand finale of a fireworks display.” And it piqued Trump’s interest—fueling attack lines at his rallies that duly reinjected the story into the mainstream-media bloodstream.

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Hunter’s emails haven’t enjoyed nearly the mainstream cut-through afforded to Clinton’s in 2016, and skepticism is of course a better response than feeding the beast of bothsidesism. Nonetheless, that we’re talking about stuff like this at all doesn’t reflect well on the health of our information ecosystem as a whole. Looked at one way, Giuliani’s anti-Biden play is a lazy smear lacking in the sophistication and (relative) finesse that boosted Bannon et al’s efforts in 2016; looked at another way, it shows just how easy it is to get journalists to jump, when there are ample more important things to report.

This may not necessarily benefit Trump electorally. As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote recently, Trump benefited, in 2016, from the clarifying juxtaposition of his simple, persistent Clinton talking point—She’s Crooked—and his own parade of quickly-forgotten scandals; these days, the entire news is a parade of quickly-forgotten scandals, and it seems unlikely that the Bidens smear will durably cut through the noise. Trump, Bannon, Giuliani, and their media enablers are in no small part responsible for that state of affairs. Just because it might be backfiring on them now, though, doesn’t mean that they haven’t inflicted real, lasting damage on our collective attention span and sense of proportion.

As Bannon famously once said, “The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Such a strategy is not primarily dependent on the quality and credibility of the shit; it’s the flooding part that’s the most important. Last month, Matt Gertz, of Media Matters for America, noted, in a piece jumping off Bannon’s quote, that because the “newshole”—newspaper pages, broadcast segments, and so forth—is finite, you can game it if you can pump out more toxicity than there’s room to report. “Trump and his allies have overwhelmed the system,” Gertz wrote. “There’s just too much shit.”

Below, more on the New York Post, Trump’s allies, and the election:

  • What news is fit to share?: Late last week, CJR’s Mathew Ingram assessed Facebook and Twitter’s flawed decisionmaking around the Bidens story. The incident “highlights a broader problem with both platforms, and that is a lack of detail about their policies, and how and when they are implemented,” Ingram wrote. Facebook, in particular, “has a habit of just pointing to its algorithm as though it absolves the company of any need to explain itself, and routinely promises things that never come to pass.”
  • “Here we go again”: Over the weekend, the New York Post ran an article accusing Kristen Welker, an NBC News reporter who is set to moderate this week’s final presidential debate, of having “deep Democrat ties.” (These amount to donations made by her parents, her old voter registration, and her attendance at an Obama-era press party she also attended under Trump.) Both Trump and his son, Donald Trump, Jr., shared the article on Twitter, and Trump attacked Welker again during a rally in Wisconsin. (Trump previously praised Welker after NBC handed her a promotion.)
  • Burnett after reading: Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, argues that Mark Burnett, the producer who shaped Trump’s image via The Apprentice, is “losing his touch.” Like Trump, Burnett “seems to be struggling to keep his grip on the cultural moment,” Smith writes. Burnett’s “Trumpian gift for telling his own story—about his triumphant reinvention of a once-great studio, MGM, and his plan to bring Jesus Christ to entertainment—has foundered on the reality of corporate infighting, creative struggles and a religious streaming network that never got off the ground.”
  • Truth and reconciliation?: After commentators including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes suggested the need for a “truth and reconciliation commission” to be set up after Trump leaves office, the historian Jill Lepore argued, in the Washington Post, that that would be a terrible idea. “What the nation needs, pretty urgently, is self-reflection, not only from Republicans but also from establishment Democrats and progressives and liberals and journalists and educators and activists and social media companies and, honestly, everyone,” Lepore writes. “No commission can demand that each of us tell the truth about ourselves and reconcile ourselves to one another.”
  • A note from the Biden side: For Washingtonian, Luke Mullins profiled T.J. Ducklo, Biden’s national press secretary who, at the age of thirty-two, is living with stage-four cancer. It’s worth a read if you haven’t read it already.


Other notable stories: 

  • On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who has accused Trump of rape, and who recently interviewed other women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct for a series of articles in The Atlantic. The allegations against Trump—including Carroll’s—have reliably been undercovered by the press. Pope asked Carroll if that trend enrages her. “I don’t get mad at that,” Carroll replied. “I get mad about things that I can do something about. I can’t do anything about running the national conversation.” 
  • The fallout continues from Bret Stephens’s recent column, in the Times, excoriating his colleagues’ work on the 1619 Project. Jake Silverstein, who oversaw the project as editor of the Times Magazine, defended edits that Stephens scrutinized, casting them as routine tinkering that came with migrating a big print project online. Late last week, Times bosses held a staff meeting to address Stephens’s piece; according to Laura Wagner, of VICE, they said that Times staffers using a column to criticize colleagues is different to them doing so via Twitter or Slack. (The paper does not condone the latter.)
  • The Markup, a tech-focused investigative site, is launching the Citizen Browser Project, an initiative, based on a web browser built by the site, that will track how disinformation travels online. “A nationally representative panel of 1,200 people will be paid to install the custom web browser on their desktops, which allows them to share real-time data directly from their Facebook and YouTube accounts,” The Markup writes. The data will offer “important insights about how Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms operate.”
  • Following Trump’s hospitalization with COVID-19, CJR’s new fellows Shinhee Kang and Ian Karbal spoke with reporters who have covered health crises involving three other world leaders: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and the former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. The reporters “have learned the hard way how to cover the medical status of secretive leaders,” Kang and Karbal write.
  • In France, a terrorist beheaded Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher in the suburbs of Paris, after Paty showed students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, taken from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as part of a lesson on freedom of speech. In 2015, two terrorists killed eleven Charlie Hebdo staffers after the magazine ran the cartoons. Paty’s murder was the second attack since a trial in the 2015 case opened last month.
  • Also in France, Reporters Without Borders unveiled a giant piece of street art bearing the face of Khaled Drareni, an Algerian journalist for RSF and others who was arrested while covering a protest in March, and subsequently convicted of incitement and “endangering national unity.” (Voice of America has more on the artwork in English.)
  • Recently, Charles Moore, a former editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph and fierce critic of the BBC, was rumored to be in line to become the BBC’s new chair, but he ruled himself out. Now the Telegraph is reporting that George Osborne, who served as Britain’s finance minister, then as editor of the Evening Standard, may take the BBC role instead.   
  • Masha Gessen, of the New Yorker, spoke with Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader (and journalist of sorts) who was recently poisoned in an attack that he blames on Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. “I’ve compared it to being touched by a Dementor in a Harry Potter novel,” Navalny said, of being poisoned. “You feel that life is leaving you.”
  • And Sid Hartman, a longtime sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has died. He was 100 years old. Hartman continued to write until his death; the Star Tribune calculated that he “produced 21,235 bylined stories in his career, from 1944 until the one that ran on C2 of Sunday’s Sports section. That column was his 119th of 2020.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.