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CNN rushed to scandalize new reporting on classified documents found at former Biden office

Between when the news broke and 11 p.m., CNN spent 107 minutes on the story, trumping MSNBC’s 14 minutes and Fox News’ 29 minutes

  • After news broke that classified documents from his vice presidential days had been found in President Joe Biden’s former office, CNN rushed to sensationalize the story and drew inaccurate parallels to the FBI’s retrieval of documents held by former President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

    On Monday night between when the news broke and 11 p.m., CNN dedicated 1 hour and 47 minutes of coverage to the story, more than sevenfold MSNBC’s 14 minutes of coverage and over three and a half times Fox News’ 29 minutes.

    Chart depicting cable news coverage of classified documents found at Joe Biden's personal office. CNN covered the story for 1 hour and 47 minutes, Fox News for 29 minutes, and MSNBC for 14 minutes

    One particularly poor example in CNN’s programming came just before prime time, on Erin Burnett OutFront. As the story was breaking, anchor Erin Burnett emphasized that Biden was legally required to return the documents when his term as vice president ended in 2017. Burnett pointed out the differences between the FBI seizing documents at Mar-a-Lago following a court-approved search warrant and Biden’s legal team immediately turning over the documents to the National Archives when they found them. But CNN’s coverage implied hypocrisy on Biden's part by playing a September 2022 clip of the president rhetorically asking “how anyone could be that irresponsible” in regard to Trump withholding classified material at Mar-a-Lago. CNN also included an image of the classified documents found by the FBI at Trump’s residence during the segment without providing context, potentially misleading viewers.

  • Video file

    Citation From the January 9, 2023, edition of CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront

  • Burnett then brought out CNN correspondent Jamie Gangel, who while mentioning the differences between the Trump story and Biden’s, framed the news as “a political nightmare for the Biden administration” and “politically something that the Republicans and Donald Trump are going to make hay in.” 

    In response to a question from Burnett about “how much of a gift” and how “transformational” the new story is for Trump, Gangel stated that this is “a huge political gift for Trump." And despite the distinct differences between the documents found at Trump’s home and Biden’s office, Gangel posited that “it is going to be very important for Justice [Department], and as much as the National Archives plays a role here, to really let the public know what was in here. Is that nuance going to cut through? I don’t think so.”

  • CNN’s other coverage on Monday evening was also rife with poor framing. On The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, which airs before Burnett’s show, senior justice correspondent Evan Perez asked, “How can you consider bringing charges against Donald Trump when something like this could have happened to Joe Biden?” He later claimed, “Just as the president made this mistake or someone made this mistake and transported these documents to the Penn Biden Center just as easily someone could have done this in the case of former President Donald Trump, and the question to the Justice Department is, you know, are you treating them differently?” Other panelists, however, noted the important differences between the cases. 

  • Video file

    Citation From the January 9, 2023, edition of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer

  • Anchor Wolf Blitzer then brought on Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), who claimed that Biden lacked the same authority as Trump to declassify information and tried to link the story back to “the Hillary Clinton email saga.” Blitzer attempted to push back on Donalds, pointing out several key differences between the cases.

  • Video file

    Citation From the January 9, 2023 edition, of CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer

  • Further, on prime-time show Anderson Cooper 360, CNN contributor Scott Jennings hyped the political value of the news story, saying that “the political usefulness of this cannot be underscored, cannot be overstated enough.” Jennings went on to say that “giving Republicans this talking point for the rest of their natural lives almost exonerates Trump.” 

    In response, anchor Anderson Cooper laughed and replied, “Scott, I haven’t seen you quite so chipper in quite a while.” Quickly after, though, CNN’s other panelist pushed back by clarifying just how different the Trump and Biden investigations are.

  • Though CNN’s coverage  has considerably improved since last night, the network’s instinct to instantly seize on the story and demonize Democrats mirrors that of Fox News host Sean Hannity, underscoring CNN’s lurch toward the right

  • Methodology

    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “Biden,” “Penn,” or “Garland” within close proximity to either of the terms “document” or “archive” or any variation of the term “classify” from January 9, 2023, when the story first broke, through 11 p.m. EST that evening. 

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the classified documents found at the Penn Biden Center were the stated topics of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the documents. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the documents with one another.

    We also timed mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the documents without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the documents scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute.