On election coverage, CBS is falling for the same trap it did four years ago

CBS’ decision to question Joe Biden about suspect NY Post stories irresponsibly amplifies a right-wing-media-fueled pseudo-scandal

In the final weeks before Election Day, CBS is validating a likely foreign intelligence operation against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. In its own reporting, CBS has pointed to the suspicious smear campaign as similar to mainstream media’s obsession with the nefarious leaking of Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 -- yet its reporter still fell for the same trap years later and elevated the pseudo-scandal anyway.

During an impromptu press gaggle on October 16, CBS reporter Bo Erickson asked Biden for a response to unverified claims from a series of suspicious articles from the New York Post related to his son Hunter and business dealings in Ukraine. Biden reacted by calling the story a “smear campaign” and said he had no further response.

The nonsensical allegations in the New York Post involve personal details about Hunter Biden and alleged evidence of a long-standing conservative conspiracy theory about a Biden bribery operation in Ukraine. The purported evidence of the smear story -- a laptop from Delaware that has not been verified as belonging to Hunter Biden -- is currently being investigated by federal authorities as having potential links to a “foreign intelligence operation.”

The suspect laptop is also connected to President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, right-wing smear merchant Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani has a history of coordinating with Russian agents to promote disinformation on Biden, and Trump was personally warned that Giuliani was being used to “feed Russian misinformation” to the president in 2019. As Giuliani himself told The Daily Beast, he was literally betting on mainstream news media covering the story regardless of its highly dubious origins.

And though CBS itself repeatedly reported on many of these suspicious details about the origins of the New York Post story -- acknowledging legitimate concerns about this likely disinformation campaign and noting that the goal seemed to be to “create the air of scandal” -- its own reporter still played into Giuliani’s hand by attempting to scandalize his interaction with Biden after needlessly amplifying the smear.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent explained how just the “line of questioning” itself is problematic: 

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul criticized the question, saying “by discussing disinformation, you legitimate and amplify it.” And MSNBC’s Joy Reid praised Biden for refusing to engage with a “Russian hatchet-job” pushed by Giuliani.

Meanwhile, some of Erickson’s colleagues at CBS have joined right-wing media figures like Laura Ingraham and Steve Cortes in defending the reporter’s question.

CBS has a history of amplifying unverified smear campaigns in the lead-up to a presidential election. During the 2016 campaign, CBS joined the other networks in all but abandoning coverage of policy issues. The leading broadcast networks’ evening news shows, instead, gave nearly three times as much coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails -- with CBS leading the pack.

A graph showing that ABC, NBC, and CBS all spent more time covering emails than policy ahead of the November 2016 election

And in 2013, CBS’ 60 Minutes ran a story seemingly validating a right-wing conspiracy theory regarding the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, only to retract the story 12 days later.

Since the 2016 election, the network has shown it learned nothing from its previous experiences obsessing over bad-faith smears from the right in spite of ample evidence they should not be taken seriously.

Following his humiliating tenure as White House chief of staff, the network hired Reince Priebus as a political analyst. The network also hired former Fox News reporter and Benghazi enthusiast Catherine Herridge, who has used her new platform to mainstream right-wing “deep state” conspiracy theories. During her time at CBS, Herridge has conducted a softball interview with Attorney General William Barr and even amplified and embellished a bogus Senate Republican report against Joe Biden.

The right-wing media echo chamber will always work overtime to drum up distractions and scandals to smear Trump’s opponents at every turn; major news outlets shouldn’t waste time taking the bait.