In the face of President Trump’s Biden-Ukraine smear, the Biden camp has declared a low intensity war on the press, determined to head off the false equivalency and other mind games that helped derail Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid.
When a reporter asked Joe Biden late last month how many times the former Vice President had talked to his son, Hunter, about his foreign business dealings, Biden said never, and demanded: “Ask the right questions.” A Biden campaign fund raising video posted the next day asked, “Will media see through Trump’s sleazy playbook? Or fall for it again?” followed by a clip with one commentator attacking a New York Times reporter for suggesting Hunter Biden’s work on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company, could be a political liability and another declaring that “at some point we have to ask if a lot of journalists don’t want to learn anything.”
Even the most responsible news organizations blew it in 2016. The press focused obsessively on the Clinton email stories (the conflation of Clinton’s use as Secretary of State of a private email server with the completely separate story of Russian hacks of the DNC and Clinton campaign staff was just one of several problems), and underplayed/normalized Trump’s myriad personal, business, and familial corruptions. Trump’s determination to re-up this 2016 playbook was clearly driving his and Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to suborn Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky into endorsing the lie that Biden forced Kiev to oust its top prosecutor to shield Burisma and his son. The truth is that the prosecutor was ousted for his refusal to investigate corruption.
Thanks to a highly literate whistleblower and the first-rate reporting that has followed, Trump may now face an impeachment trial for that abuse of power. But the President’s instincts on what can draw viral political blood remain unerring.
The same day Biden was pointing his finger in the face of a reporter in Iowa, the Trump campaign team was tweeting out its own video of clips from ABC, NBC, CNN, and the Times raising questions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings. As of October 11, the Trump video had been viewed 2.9 million times on Twitter, while the Biden video taking the press to task had been viewed only about 18,800 times. Earlier this month, Biden angrily brushed off another reporter’s question about a possible conflict of interest between his role as the Obama Administration’s point man on Ukraine and Hunter’s work in Ukraine (a separate issue from Trump’s baseless charges about the prosecutor). The Trump campaign quickly posted a clip on Twitter asking, “What is he hiding?” As of October 13, the “What is he hiding?” clip had been viewed almost 898,000 times, while a Trump campaign ad on Facebook falsely accusing Biden of promising Ukraine $1 billion “to fire the prosecutor investigating his son’s company” has had more than five million views. Facebook has refused the Biden campaign’s demand to take the ad down, saying its rules on false or misleading content don’t apply to political advertising.
Biden’s stonewalling is only making it easier for Trump to push out his smears and lies. He needs to explain why he looked the other way as his son traded on the family name in a long career of deals that may have been legally okay but still look sleazy. The answer will be painful. Hunter Biden has had a troubled life, including battles with alcoholism and drug abuse. And Americans may well be forgiving if Joe Biden acknowledges that, as much as he wanted to protect his son, he should have drawn a brighter line. He wouldn’t be the first politician with a difficult relative.
Still, the Biden team is right when it argues that reporters also need to be asking serious questions about lessons learned from 2016 and the years since covering the Trump circus of deflection, distraction, and lies. Biden won’t be the last candidate to get the sleazy playbook treatment.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson has written persuasively about the impact of reporters’ focusing on the embarrassing content of the DNC and Podesta emails, rather than their hacked provenance and asking why the Russians or Julian Assange wanted to bring down Hillary Clinton. Jamieson says she has yet to see even the best news organizations take responsibility for their errors in 2016 coverage: “I would feel better as a consumer of news if I saw the kind of awareness that the Times showed after the Judith Miller (Iraq WMD reporting) fiasco and read a statement that the New York Times isn’t going to get suckered again.”
With the double bill of the campaign and impeachment hearings now unfolding, there are cautions for producers and consumers of news to consider.
Reject False Equivalence (But Not High Standards)
I can already hear the complaints that Biden’s not-so-gentle scolding/stonewalling of the press isn’t in the same universe as President Trump’s “enemy of the people” authoritarian’s rhetoric, incitement of violence against reporters, stonewalling on his tax returns, or more than 12,000 false or misleading claims since entering the White House. And then there are the Trump children’s many and ongoing conflicts of interest. (Donald Trump Jr. took time out last week from pitching “grandfathered” overseas Trump Organization projects to tweet about Hunter Biden: “At the VERY LEAST, there’s the appearance of impropriety.”)
But Trump’s base behavior can’t become the standard. Politicians who usually play within the norms can’t get a pass on difficult questions or criticism because they are far better than Trump. I mean, who isn’t?
The challenge for journalists is to ensure that the reporting and writing is clear on the differences. Mortal sins (bullying or buying off a foreign leader to make up dirt on your opponent) are far worse than venial sins (choosing to look the other way while your son trades on your position). But I still want to know if the person aspiring to the White House knows that venial sins aren’t a good thing and has a plan to do better.
Editors also need to ensure that the volume of coverage of such sins merits the level of possible concern or offense. This is exactly what didn’t happen in the 2016 campaign. Here are a few of the cringe-worthy findings from academic studies of the coverage:
- On issues of “fitness for office,” Harvard’s Thomas Patterson found that Clinton and Trump got equally negative treatment (87 percent negative stories to 13 percent positive) in top newspapers and television broadcasts during the critical campaign weeks of mid-August to early November.
- A study published by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center found that, over 18 months before the election, what they deemed the top 50 media sources devoted more sentences to the various Clinton-related email scandals than all of Trump’s scandals combined—65,000 vs. 40,000—including Trump’s taxes, Trump and women, the Trump Foundation, Trump University, and Trump and Russia.
- Duncan Watts and David M. Rothschild reviewed the New York Times’ election coverage and found that “in just six days” (from the day after FBI Director James Comey reopened his investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server to five days before the vote) the paper ran as many front page “stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all the policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”
There are a variety of possible explanations, not excuses, for why all this happened.
One is that many reporters and editors, like pretty much everyone else, were convinced Clinton would win and felt a duty to judge her positions and behavior more rigorously than that of the clown show of the Trump campaign. Trump’s relentless ability to stay on message also meant that even routine coverage of the Trump campaign—whether critical or not of Trump—usually ended back on “Hillary and the emails.” Harvard’s Patterson argues that because campaign reporting is incessantly negative (the 2000 Bush-Gore campaign drew even more negative reporting), it gives a particular advantage to “deeply flawed” candidates. “When everything and everybody is portrayed as deeply flawed, there’s no sense making distinctions on that score.”
The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote recently about false equivalence in the 2016 coverage and the dangers of a replay in the Trump Ukraine-Biden story:
On the merits, Donald Trump’s finances were a hundred times as suspicious as those of other candidates, and statements about anything were a hundred times as likely to be false. But it went against the nature of most news organizations to run a hundred times as many articles about his lies and shadiness as about his opponents. Or even twice as many. By the time of the general election, it seemed “fairest” and most comfortable to aim for something more like 50-50.
Reporters and editors need to jettison what Fallows calls “procedural balance” for clear judgment. What Trump and Giuliani are trying to do to Biden is a smear. That is supported by rigorous reporting in Ukraine and Washington, a White House-released “not a verbatim” transcript, and the President’s own declarations.
The more direct the judgments, and the less procedural balance, the more we can expect to hear screams of bias and elitism from the Trump team—and even more threats from the President. The Times reported on Sunday that a video showing a fake President Trump “shooting, stabbing and brutally assaulting members of the news media and his political opponents” (including Barack Obama, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders and many others) was shown at a conference of Trump supporters at Trump National Doral resort last week. On Monday the White House condemned the video, but there is no doubt that the President’s rhetoric is feeding these violent memes.
The Democrats are not going to sit in a corner when it’s their turn. Let us be clear, there is no comparison to what we are hearing from Trump and his surrogates. In August, Bernie Sanders accused the Washington Post of biased reporting, supposedly because of his criticisms of Amazon’s tax payments and treatment of its workers (the Post is owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos). The Sanders campaign waited three days after the Senator went into a Las Vegas hospital with chest pains to announce that he’d had a heart attack. His campaign co-chairwoman called criticisms of the delay “asinine.” It is not a good trend. The voters need more information.
“Who Hacked the Emails?” and “This Is a Smear” Are Not Background Information
Readers are impatient. There will always be a temptation to shorthand information—“hacked” vs “WikiLeaks”—or to move caveats about what we know or don’t know further down in the story. There be monsters.
I can’t imagine many things more complex, or tempting to shorthand, than Ukrainian politics (remind me again which prosecutor was the good guy and which one was the crook). Except perhaps the byzantine fantasies of Trump and his Ukraine-whisperer Giuliani (now reportedly under investigation for his part in the scheme). But like the Russian-hacked Clinton campaign emails, the question of who is driving the Biden-Ukraine story—and why—has turned out to be far more important.
Last year, Peter Schweizer, the same conservative author/opposition researcher who flogged the Clinton Foundation “scandals” (the Clintons spent even less time worrying about the appearance of conflicts of interest), began pushing the idea that Biden may have abused his office to benefit Hunter’s businesses in Ukraine and China. Some of the stories highlighted by the Trump team—and tweeted out by the President—took their leads from Schweizer and his book, Secret Empires. Others had a breathlessness similar to the Clinton reporting. The headline for a now much criticized May 2019 story in the Times flags the political forces at work—“Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies”—but waits 10 paragraphs to describe those interests. In the 19th paragraph, the story finally offers this caveat: “No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.”
There was also strong reporting early on, including a May 2019 deconstruction by the Post’s Fact Checker that reported that Biden’s demand to oust Ukraine’s widely mistrusted Prosecutor General was supported by European allies, the IMF, the World Bank, and others. Since the whistleblower story broke, the reporting in the Times, Post, and Wall Street Journal has been rigorous and (on the whole) careful with wording. We are already seeing the sort of infographics, timelines, and podcasts that helped readers navigate the complex, multiplayer Russia investigations. I especially recommend a recent story in the Times that explains the alt-right origins of Trump’s bizarre belief that a DNC server was somehow spirited to Ukraine to hide the “truth” that Hillary Clinton and Ukraine were actually behind the 2016 election hacking and not Russia.
Not all of the readers will read most of the stories (or even a tiny fraction of them). But vigilant, in-depth reporting, with no short cuts, is the only way to cover an issue that could change the outcome of a presidential election or shape the debate around a presidential impeachment.
Keep Asking the Right Questions
Asking Joe Biden how many times he spoke to his son about his Ukraine business is a legitimate question. (Yes, the reporter was from Fox News, but any of us could have asked this one.) In a first-rate profile this summer, Hunter Biden told the New Yorker’s Adam Entous that he and his father only discussed Burisma once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’” According to a statement released by his lawyer Sunday, Hunter will be stepping down from the board of a Chinese investment fund by the end of this month and “under a Biden administration . . . will agree not to serve on boards of, or work on behalf of, foreign owned companies.”
There are other questions that need to be answered: Why didn’t Joe Biden press his son harder? Why wasn’t he concerned about the appearance of a conflict? Did he ever worry that the Ukrainians might read Hunter’s lucrative seat on the Burisma board as an “everybody does it” wink and nod on nepotism or favor currying?
And there are public policy questions to answer as well, starting with: After this experience, does the candidate think White House (and cabinet-level) ethics and financial reporting rules should be broadened to include close family members, including adult children? On Monday, Biden released an ethics agenda clearly meant to highlight President Trump’s many conflicts, including legislation requiring all candidates for federal office to disclose 10 years of their taxes. His proposal does not list restrictions on activities for adult children, but over the weekend Biden vowed that “no one in my family will have an office in the White House, will sit in meetings as if they’re a cabinet member, will in fact have any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country.” There was no discussion of past conflicts.
And then there is Trump. The confounding thing about reporting on, like reading about, Trump is that there are so many outrages that last year’s or even last month’s are quickly buried in this week’s avalanche. Now that the White House has made alleged familial corruption a national issue, what better moment to grab the public’s attention on the subject of the Trump family’s behavior?
There is plenty to write about: Unlike her brothers, Ivanka Trump is an official White House adviser. But last year, in the midst of U.S.-China trade negotiations, her now closed, but likely not forever, fashion brand received approval from Beijing for more than 30 trademarks (including for sunglasses, wedding dresses, and child care centers). A report from Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics in Washington lists 2,310 ethical violations resulting from “President Trump’s decision to retain his business interests.” What’s the status of Trump’s announced plan to hold next year’s G-7 meeting at his Trump National Doral resort? Why did the President have to overrule intelligence officials and his own White House counsel to get a top-secret clearance for his son-in-law? Is the Intelligence Community still worried about Jared Kushner?
Breaking Out of the Trump Agenda
Media critic Jay Rosen wrote in 2018: “One of the problems with election coverage as it stands is that no one has any idea what it means to succeed at it. Predicting the winner? Is that success? Even if journalists could do that (and they can’t) it would not be much of a public service, would it?”
Instead he has argued for a “citizens’ agenda,” in which reporters ask voters what they want candidates to be talking about—and then press the candidates to talk about those issues. While Rosen has championed the idea for years, he updated it for campaign reporters in the Trump era. “You can’t keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from you, as a campaign journalist. Who cares what you think? It has to come from the voters you are trying to inform.”
Voters may say they don’t want to hear more about Washington’s scandals, but that certainly can’t be an argument for not asking candidates to account for their alleged misbehaviors. But it is certainly a call for vigilant self-awareness, for choosing substance over Trumpian (or any other candidates’) mind games, for and remembering who we are writing for—which isn’t just each other.
UPDATED: 10/14/2019, 3:00 p.m.