President Donald Trump and his allies are working overtime to spin a story about the president’s abuse of power into a story about alleged corruption by his political opponent Joe Biden. And in some cases the media is helping them do it.
The Biden-Ukraine “connection” is a conspiracy theory that has been circulating in right-wing media for months. Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani allege that when Biden was vice president, he pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor general -- Viktor Shokin -- who they claim was overseeing a corruption investigation of one of Ukraine’s biggest gas companies, Burisma Group. Biden’s son Hunter was serving on the company’s board at the time.
In reality, the push to get Shokin fired was a part of an anti-corruption effort by Ukrainian advocates and international supporters of the country. At the time of his removal, The New York Times reported that the “United States and other Western nations had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin, who was widely criticized for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite.” The investigation into Burisma was also long dormant by the time Biden got involved on behalf of the Obama administration. Biden and his son have not been accused of any wrongdoing; former Ukrainian government officials and anticorruption advocates have said that any accusations are a misrepresentation, and the allegations from Trump and company have been thoroughly debunked for months.
The public’s lack of awareness surrounding what happened between Biden and Ukraine is an advantage to Trump; there are a lot of details and accusations swirling around, and Trump and his allies rely on the media’s help to spread false misinformation and muddy the waters.
Here are three ways the media have helped Trump advance a false narrative about Biden and Ukraine:
Failing to note that the allegations against Biden have been debunked
Some media outlets are failing to include a key component in their coverage of the story -- that the allegations against Biden have been debunked and there is no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part. While new information and reporting continues to emerge, it is imperative that outlets emphasize that Trump’s accusation is baseless.
New York Times reporters Ken Vogel and Iuliia Mendel drew criticism for their original reporting in May that claimed Biden is facing “conflict of interest questions” but that failed until the 19th paragraph to note that “no evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.” Since then, various outlets have repeated the same mistake.
For example, articles from The New York Times and ABC News published this week discussed different aspects of the Trump-Ukraine story, but failed to explicitly mention that his allegations against Biden were baseless.
Turning a Trump scandal into a story about optics for Biden
Some media outlets are assisting the Trump administration in promoting the idea that there was wrongdoing on Biden’s part, covering the story as a scandal for Biden's campaign rather than for Trump.
On September 20, The Washington Post published an article with a headline that turned Trump’s alleged abuse of power into a scandal for Biden:
On September 20, Vogel -- who had co-authored the Times’ May story -- went on MSNBC to continue to insist that “there is a story here” and that he views Biden’s son’s work in Ukraine as a “significant liability” for his campaign.
On September 21, Politico published an article titled “Why Trump’s Ukraine scandal could backfire on Biden.”
Parroting Trump’s statements without proper context
It’s well-established by now that Trump lies at an unprecedented level, and media outlets have routinely struggled with how to handle his lies, often amplifying them in tweets and headlines, which are the only part of a news article many people consume. They haven’t done much better in their coverage of Trump’s Ukraine scandal.
On September 23, NPR published a headline that provided a false equivalence between Trump’s and Democrats’ claims, failing to emphasize that one is based in fact while the other is based in fiction.
Bloomberg posted a tweet quoting Trump’s comment that the situation is “a witch hunt” without contextualizing it.
And The Washington Post repeated Trump’s assertion that he threatened to withhold military aid only because he wanted “other countries [in the European Union] to help pay.” Over the course of two days, Trump had changed his explanation for why he withheld aid to Ukraine, but neither the headline nor the article made any note of the inconsistency coming out of the White House.