The Media Today

The Trump-Biden-Ukraine story recalls Mueller, and Clinton’s emails. Which path we take is up to us.

September 23, 2019

Last Wednesday—as the Trump administration’s refusal to let Congress see urgent whistleblower testimony bubbled below the top of the news cycle—The Washington Post dropped a big story: the testimony in question, it said, related to Trump’s own dealings with a foreign leader, including a “troubling” promise from the president. The next day, the Post and The New York Times both reported that the testimony centered on Trump and Ukraine. On Friday, it was another paper, The Wall Street Journal, that got the mother lode: on a phone call in July, it reported, Trump repeatedly pressured Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who has had business dealings in the country. The developing story recalled the height of the Mueller news cycle, as America’s top newspapers raced to fill in the murky details of a burgeoning scandal involving the president and a foreign power. As Nicolle Wallace remarked on MSNBC, “The journalism is incredible.”

Not everyone shared that sentiment. Ukrainegate put some observers in mind not of the Mueller story, but of another journalistic obsession of yore: Hillary Clinton’s emails. In much the same way that a thin “scandal” concerning Clinton’s past use of a private email server consumed disproportionate press attention during the 2016 presidential campaign, critics said, the Ukraine story has planted Biden’s name next to unsubstantiated corruption allegations in our media. Trump (and others on the right) have accused Biden of working, when he was vice president, to push out a powerful Ukrainian prosecutor who had the power to investigate a company linked to Biden’s son. But there’s no evidence Biden did anything wrong—he did move to oust the prosecutor, but, as The Intercept (which can hardly be accused of being in the tank for Biden) points out, his actions “made it more rather than less likely” that an oligarch linked to Hunter Biden would be prosecuted. This key context has been elided in some stories on the Trump–Zelensky episode; as a result, reporting that is ostensibly about Trump’s transgressions is tainting Biden by association. “Most people have no idea what this Ukraine scandal is about,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote on Friday. “That’s not a knock on them—it’s a knock on the news media machine’s tendency to blow right past the background info.”

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The Biden–Ukraine story is not identical to the Clinton–emails episode: the latter was not a direct byproduct of a story about Trump. But the specter of Ukraine is not new to coverage of Biden’s campaign—and in the wake of the Trump–Zelensky affair, it’s threatening to take on a much bigger life of its own, despite its apparent flimsiness. On Friday, the Post drew criticism for an article headlined “Scrutiny over Trump’s Ukraine scandal may also complicate Biden’s campaign.” (This, technically, is true, though the press gets to decide whether it wants to amplify that complication.) The same day, Kenneth P. Vogel, a reporter at the Times, insisted, on MSNBC, that the Ukraine story “is a significant liability for Joe Biden. Like, there is a story here.” Vogel continued that if Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, who has admitted to pushing Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, got out of the way and let reporters do their work, “potentially this story might be taken more seriously.” Vogel was savaged on social media. In an article yesterday, he stressed that “no evidence has surfaced” that Joe Biden did anything untoward.

None of this is to say that the business dealings of Democratic candidates (or their offspring) should be off limits to reporters. Nor is it to say that we know all we need to know about the whistleblower testimony or Trump’s reported call with Zelensky (though Trump did confirm yesterday that the pair discussed the Bidens in the context of corruption). This story is likely to run. If it does, it’s important that we interrogate wrongdoing based on clear evidence, and also a clear sense of proportionality.

The fear implicit in the emails/Ukraine comparison is one of false equivalence: that the press, as it did in 2016, will obsessively link a top Democrat to allegations of wrongdoing to contrive a sense of balance in its coverage. As James Fallows wrote yesterday in The Atlantic, in 2016, “much of the press presented things that were not similar as if they were”—and Biden/Ukraine looks like the “Patient Zero of the next false-equivalence epidemic.” Trump reportedly is enjoying watching the Ukraine story play out, even though he is the one credibly accused of massive wrongdoing here. If reporters continue to mention “Biden” and “corruption” in the same sentence without offering adequate context, Trump’s enjoyment will continue, too.

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As the Ukraine story moves forward, the media’s handling of the Mueller story is a much better guide than its handling of Clinton’s emails. Yes, Muellergate was accompanied by a barrage of annoying, speculative punditry and pearl-clutching (some of which seems to be returning in light of recent events). At its best, however, the Mueller story saw rigorous journalists compete to expose a very real rot at the heart of our politics; the result was outstanding, prize-winning reporting that was (mostly) vindicated in Mueller’s actual report. When it comes to Trump’s alleged attempts to solicit Ukrainian interference ahead of 2020, let’s proceed in that spirit, and not the spirit of reactionary false equivalence. We get to choose which path we take.

Below, more on Trump, Biden, and the Ukraine story:

  • Biden pushes back: Over the weekend, Biden’s campaign pushed back on reports equating his conduct with that of Trump, Politico’s Natasha Korecki and Elena Schneider report. During a campaign stop in Iowa, Biden took Fox News’s Peter Doocy to task for asking about his son’s business dealings. “You should be looking at Trump,” Biden said, adding “ask the right questions.”
  • Shamelessness as strategy: The Post’s Ashley Parker dissects a recurring Trump strategy: tamping down controversy by saying the quiet part out loud. “It is a form of shamelessness worn as a badge of protection,” Parker writes, “on the implicit theory that the president’s alleged offenses can’t be that serious if he commits them in full public view.”
  • An outsider’s perspective: A column by Lenore Taylor, the editor of Guardian Australia who visited the US to report last week, was widely shared over the weekend. “I realized how much the reporting of Trump necessarily edits and parses his words, to force it into sequential paragraphs or impose meaning where it is difficult to detect,” Taylor writes. “The process of reporting about this president can mask and normalise his full and alarming incoherence.”

Other notable stories:

  • World leaders will gather at the United Nations today for the Climate Action Summit, a meeting designed to spur quicker collective action in tackling the climate crisis. (Unsurprisingly, Trump is skipping the summit; he’ll take a meeting on religious freedom instead.) In the build-up to the summit, CJR and The Nation partnered on Covering Climate Now, an initiative that saw more than 300 outlets worldwide devote eight days to increased coverage of climate. On Friday, Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, the project leads, discussed their takeaways in this newsletter, and on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • Yesterday, Pete Buttigieg embarked on a four-day bus tour through Iowa; his campaign is granting reporters full, on-the-record access to the bus at all times. Walter Shapiro—a veteran of John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” a similar initiative during the 2000 presidential campaign—is among those on board. He tells CNN’s DJ Judd that the idea is the same, but that McCain’s bus was “a lot more crowded and a lot shittier.”
  • For the Times, Farhad Manjoo imagines what a future Tucker Carlson presidency might look like. After watching Carlson’s Fox News show for months, Manjoo sketches an “educated nightmare… that Trump was only a prelude, and that even if he loses next year, someone far more sophisticated than our current president could come along to push digitally mediated politics in an even darker direction.”
  • Three weeks after Hurricane Dorian wreaked devastation in the Bahamas, CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with reporters in the country who say they have worse access to information than major international outlets—even though residents rely on local papers and radio. “The Bahamas needs all the help with its economy it can get right now,” one journalist tells Darrach, “including letting the local media break Bahamian news.”
  • For Air Mail, the newsletter recently launched by Graydon Carter, Shawn McCreesh checks in on Hope Hicks’s second act in Hollywood, where the former Trump staffer works as a top comms executive at Fox. “The entertainment executives and journalists I spoke to in LA describe Hicks much the way the Washington press corps does: delightful and delightfully competent,” McCreesh writes. “(Just don’t quote them on it!)”
  • Craig Malin, the former administrator of Davenport, Iowa, is suing the local Quad-City Times over coverage he says unfairly cost him his job; Malin was terminated after the paper reported on his involvement in negotiations around a new casino. The trial starts today. A judge ruled Malin’s claims do not meet the threshold for libel, so he is instead suing on the unusual grounds that the paper interfered with his employment contract.
  • Charlie Rose—who was fired by CBS in 2017 after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct—faces new allegations of sexual harassment, New York’s Irin Carmon reports. Gina Riggi, his longtime makeup artist, is suing Rose and Bloomberg, where Rose filmed a show; Riggi says Rose used the show “as an instrument of his predatory sexual behavior and the Bloomberg studio… as a sexual hunting ground.”
  • In the UK, the BBC paid Caroline Barlow, a former staffer, more than $150,000 in an out-of-court settlement after she accused the broadcaster of gender-based pay discrimination. The BBC—which has faced mounting pressure over its gender pay gap—admitted that Barlow earned less than men in comparable roles, but insisted that her performance justified the discrepancy. The Guardian’s Rossalyn Warren has more.
  • And local news has a new champion: last week, Pope Francis told Italian journalists visiting the Vatican that “local news is no less important than national news.” According to Vatican News, Francis called local output more authentic because it communicates “the voice of the people.”

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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.