The Media Today

But Hunter Biden… 

January 28, 2020

“But her emails.” Following the 2016 presidential election, those words entered American media lore as shorthand for one of the most grievous errors made by the press in its coverage of the campaign: that it overhyped Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to balance out Donald Trump’s more serious indiscretions and dodge accusations of partisanship. As 2020 loomed, media-watchers feared a repeat performance. In September, when we first learned that Trump had asked the president of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, such fears started to crystallize—with “Hunter Biden had ties to a dodgy Ukrainian gas company while his dad oversaw Ukraine policy” playing the “emails” role. James Fallows fretted, in a widely shared essay in The Atlantic, that Hunter was “Patient Zero of the next false-equivalence epidemic.” Writing for The Bulwark, Tim Miller called the Bidens storyline a “nontroversy” that the media would nonetheless lap up. Some of the early coverage seemed to prove their points.

Fast forward four months, and a full-blown crisis of false equivalence has not materialized—at least, not yet. Yesterday—as Pam Bondi, a member of the defense team in Trump’s impeachment trial, laced into the Bidens on the Senate floor—the press faced a fresh test of that proposition. Its coverage was not perfect. (Some toplines relayed Bondi’s claims of corruption without noting that they’ve been debunked; others used insufficiently authoritative framing—“Trump says x, Biden says y”—to do the debunking.) Still, our media this morning is not saturated with phoney Biden claims; in many places, the ongoing drama surrounding John Bolton—the former national security adviser who will claim, in a forthcoming book, that he saw Trump doing what Democrats are impeaching him for—takes top billing.

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On Twitter and on cable news, meanwhile, pundits and anchors have been aggressive in tackling Bondi’s arguments. Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s chief legal analyst, said Bondi had aired “a parade of lies—just outrageously false in every fact, in every insinuation.” Jake Tapper pointed out that Republicans, who controlled Congress at the tail end of the Obama administration, only showed an interest in Joe Biden and Ukraine once Biden started running for president; over on MSNBC, Chris Hayes echoed the point. “How many hearings were there on Burisma? Zero,” Hayes said, referring to the gas company. “How many in the House? Zero. How many in the Senate? Zero.”

The Biden arguments, we were told, were a distraction from the Bolton story, and a transparent effort to weaponize misinformation against a candidate on the cusp of primary season. Republican senators have scarcely bothered trying to hide that rationale: talking to reporters yesterday, Joni Ernst, Republican senator for Iowa, pointed to next week’s caucuses in her state and said she was “really interested” to hear how yesterday’s Biden talk “informs and influences” voters. (A spokesperson for Biden said Ernst had “said the quiet part out loud.”)

It’s worth noting, of course, that Democratic voters—be they in Iowa or anywhere else—are not the primary audience for scandal-mongering about the Bidens. Rather, Bondi’s claims looked tailor-made for the right-wing mediasphere. Sure enough, Fox News, which has not consistently broadcast the trial since it started, stuck with Bondi yesterday; afterward, its pundits, including Jesse Watters and Sean Hannity, amplified what she said. Biden schlock pooled, too, across popular conservative websites, alongside lurid stories about Hunter Biden cruising around Beverly Hills in a Porsche despite the fact he owes child support.

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Still, with the Iowa caucuses less than a week away, we shouldn’t be complacent about the scope of the Biden-Ukraine story, or its potency. Conservatives aren’t the only direct consumers of conservative media: some 15 percent of Fox viewers, for instance, are not Republicans. Americans do increasingly dwell in partisan media siloes. Yet their walls are not rigid—and smear campaigns have a nasty habit of spilling out across the media landscape.

Nor does the mainstream press have to indulge in conscious, emails-level false equivalence to be complicit in their spread. Trump’s root impulse, in asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, was to wage information warfare ahead of 2020. Even though he got caught, he’s successfully seeded damaging word associations—“Biden” and “corruption”; “Biden” and “investigation”; “Biden” and “sleaze”; “Biden” and “nepotism”—in the collective consciousness; it is, after all, extremely difficult to report the impeachment story without using them. Even when we’ve been vigilant enough to note that there’s no evidence for the Biden claims (and that’s not been all of the time), we might be doing Trump’s work for him. Repeating misinformation, even when debunking it, can have the unintended effect of hammering it home.

It’s too soon to know whether his connection to the Ukraine affair has damaged Biden in Iowa, but as a prominent, long-running media narrative, it’s a safe bet that it’s factored into the calculus of at least some Democratic voters, one way or another. And whether or not Biden winds up as the nominee, the Ukraine story has been a wake-up call for the mainstream press: Trump and his media allies will aim to smear whoever runs against him in the fall, and fact-checking alone won’t blunt such efforts.

There are steps we can take to fight malign campaign narratives, but these will require deeper reflection than a simple pledge not to do the emails thing again. We’re faced with some deep structural questions about our coverage: If the president says it, is it really news? We can’t just ignore this, can we? What does balance look like, and should it be our central concern? The recent coverage of the Bidens hasn’t revealed any answers.

Below, more on impeachment:

  • Bolton for Biden?: The revelations in Bolton’s book manuscript, which the Times was first to report on Sunday, have increased the pressure on Republican senators to accede to Democrats’ demands that Bolton be called as a witness in Trump’s trial. (Bolton has said he’ll show up if he’s subpoenaed.) One solution that has been mooted on the right is that of a witness swap—the idea that Democrats can have Bolton testify if Republicans get Hunter Biden, for example—but Democrats say any witness in the trial must have relevant information to share. (Joyce White Vance, a former prosecutor, wrote in the Post last week that a Bolton-Biden swap can’t happen because “witness ‘reciprocity’ isn’t a thing.”)
  • Bolton wandering: Right-wing outlets—including Fox, where Bolton used to be a commentatorhave been busy impugning his motives and associations since the Times’s story appeared on Sunday. Last night, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs linked Bolton to James Comey via Javelin, a literary agency that has worked with both men. Another client of Javelin? Lou Dobbs.
  • Bolton shot first: As CNN’s Brian Stelter notes in his newsletter, Bolton’s book—which will appear in March under the Hamilton-inspired title, The Room Where It Happened—cracked Amazon’s top 10 chart within a day of it being posted on the site.

Other notable stories:

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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.