Most mainstream news outlets aren’t falling for Rudy Giuliani’s “October surprise” — at least not yet.
It’s been one week since the New York Post published the first in what looks to be a series of stories based on emails and text messages that were allegedly found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. The Post’s stories so far have tried to paint the elder Biden as being guilty of corruption, largely by resurfacing long-debunked conspiracy theories about his son’s work at Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company.
So far, nothing the Post has published is particularly damning. Despite calling one of the first reports a “smoking gun” proving that the Democratic presidential nominee abused his power while vice president, the outlet doesn’t actually provide the necessary supporting evidence to make such a conclusion. The story’s opening is framed to suggest that Biden’s involvement in coercing the Ukrainian government into firing a corrupt prosecutor was done as a way to protect Burisma. In fact, as reporting has borne out, Biden’s role in carrying out that internationally supported action actually made it more likely that Burisma would face increased legal scrutiny, not less.
The provenance of the supposed laptop has also come into question. It involves a bizarre and hard-to-believe tale involving water-damaged laptops, a Seth Rich conspiracy theorist shop owner, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
With so many outstanding questions about the context, origins, and newsworthiness of anything contained in the Post’s reports, more reputable outlets in mainstream media have thus far mostly kept a safe distance from the unsupported allegations. What mainstream media coverage exists has largely focused on the ethics of publishing stories based on this extremely questionable and unconfirmed information. One Post reporter told New York Magazine that “it was very flimsy” and another said, “It’s not something that meets my journalistic standards” and it “should not have been published.” Mediaite reported that Fox News’ “news division” passed on Giuliani’s stories for their lack of credibility.
Good journalism requires verification, which is why good journalists haven’t taken the bait.
According to The New York Times, Giuliani said that he gave the data trove to the Post because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.” In that quote, Giuliani inadvertently explained why serious news outlets shouldn’t run the story.
Spending “all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out” is basic journalism. It’s unethical for newspapers to simply dump information of a dubious origin onto their front pages under the principle of “big, if true.” Reputable news outlets take gigantic risks when they publish something before independently confirming the details of a story, especially right before an election.
Prior to the 2016 election, Slate published a story about whether a server owned by Trump was “communicating” with Russia. It was a story that, according to a piece debunking the article’s core claims at The Intercept, had “been circulating through the dark web and various newsrooms since summertime.” The Intercept noted that the information at the core of Slate’s story had been shared with a number of news organizations including the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, the Daily Beast, and Vice. Those outlets “all examined these materials to at least some extent and did not publish the claims.”
In a statement provided to The Washington Post, New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller said that the paper had investigated the claims made by the source for “close to six weeks,” and while the paper saw promise in the story at first, “Many of our sources became less confident over the weeks that it was something nefarious.” In other words, to again quote Giuliani, the Times spent “all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”
A number of other news outlets slammed Slate for publishing the story without first confirming its accuracy. Then, like now, mainstream news outlets showed restraint. The same can’t necessarily be said about how these outlets covered the leak of hacked emails during the 2016 campaign, but that’s another story for another time.
People in right-wing media and conservative politicians have been seething over mainstream media’s restraint on the Hunter Biden story, a common tactic when their propaganda doesn’t take.
Boston Herald columnist and Trump supporter Howie Carr compared the fact that mainstream news outlets didn’t run with the Post’s story to George Orwell’s 1984. At The Federalist, Tristan Justice lamented that “legacy outlets so eager to publish incriminating content on the Trump White House have gone silent.”
Right-wing media advocacy website Newsbusters went into overdrive, cranking out articles slamming news outlets for not providing enough coverage of the Post’s story, for questioning whether making the Trump campaign’s closing message all about Hunter Biden is a good choice, for noting that Giuliani was working with someone designated by the Treasury Department as a Russian agent, for not more forcefully condemning Biden for supposedly being rude to a reporter who asked about the story, for discussing the strategy behind the Post’s story, and for questioning the origin of the emails.
On Monday, Trump called on the FBI to investigate Joe Biden. When Reuters’ Jeff Mason asked Trump what crime Biden had committed, Trump called Mason “a criminal for not reporting it.” So that’s where things are these days.
It makes sense that conservatives would try to berate mainstream outlets into providing their desired coverage. It’s been successful in the past.
In 2010, right-wing media outlets were obsessed with a story involving the so-called New Black Panther Party and the Justice Department’s decision not to pursue voter intimidation charges against two men standing outside of a Philadelphia polling station in 2008, one of them holding a nightstick. It was a massive story in conservative media, but it wasn’t really breaking through to the mainstream. At Mediaite, Steve Krakauer vented his frustration that “the story has not been discussed on FNC's cable news competitors or any of the broadcast networks.”
At the time, Media Matters’ Simon Maloy described the seven-step pattern playing out:
- Right-wingers shout loudly about bogus story.
- Fox News picks up bogus story, reports on it incessantly.
- Right-wingers and Fox News start complaining that “liberal media” are ignoring bogus story.
- Other outlets are shamed into covering bogus story, mini-frenzy ensues.
- Pundits credit Fox News for “being ahead of the curve.”
- Responsible media outlets determine bogus story is bogus long after damage is done.
A decade later, little has changed about how the right launders information through mainstream outlets by complaining. Back then it was right-wing hectoring about community activist group ACORN, “Climategate,” and Bill Ayers. More recently, we see this play out in topics like Uranium One, “unmasking,” and Benghazi. Conservatives have asked why mainstream media outlets won’t devote what Fox News deems a sufficient amount of coverage to a deceptively edited 2012 video of President Barack Obama saying “You didn’t build that.” And why won’t mainstream news outlets report on terrorist attacks (that they had actually reported on quite extensively)? And why weren’t Trump’s coronavirus press briefings getting wall-to-wall coverage?
The success of right-wing media as a propaganda apparatus is often reliant on buy-in from mainstream news organizations. Conservative claims can be buoyed by mainstream coverage. “Even The New York Times …” is a common line trumpeted by the right whenever they’re able to get one of their preferred narratives into traditional news outlets.
What’s striking about this latest push from the right about Hunter Biden and Ukraine is that this is really little more than a warmed-over version of a narrative they’ve tried and failed to push before. “Media ignoring Bidens' Ukraine dealings to protect ex-VP, Corey Lewandowski alleges,” reads a Fox News headline from October 2019. “Media plays defense for Joe Biden amid Ukraine scandal,” says a December 2019 Fox headline. “CNN, broadcast networks ignore Hunter Biden revelations, others downplay Senate report,” reads another from last month.
If at first right-wing outlets don’t succeed, they certainly do try again.
The hope with these things is that eventually other outlets will feel a need to cover the right-wing media story through conservatives’ preferred framing. What the story about Hunter Biden and Ukraine shows is how different the standards are for right-wing media compared to their more reputable counterparts. If the basis of the story doesn’t meet the confirmation requirements of mainstream outlets, they resort to crying out for coverage in hopes of wearing the bigger outlets down. “Big, if true,” may be enough for a place like the New York Post to send a story off to print, but journalists with ethical standards know better than that. But now’s the hard part: they have to ignore the pressure campaign from Trump propagandists to run with it anyway.