As details continue to emerge regarding the recovery of a number of classified documents from among President Joe Biden's stored personal papers and effects, some mainstream press outlets are struggling to resist the urge to insert political drama and speculation into their straight news reporting — even pushing a false equivalence between this new story and former President Donald Trump’s scandalous mishandling of government records and his defiant refusals to return them.
Earlier this week, CBS News reported that Biden's legal team had discovered some documents that ought to have been in government custody at a Washington, D.C., office formerly used by Biden. While cooperating with the Department of Justice in efforts to search for and return any other documents, Biden’s legal team informed the DOJ this week that additional documents were also found in a locked garage at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, as well as a single additional document found in his personal library. During a press conference Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he is appointing Robert Hur, a former U.S. attorney appointed during the Trump administration, as a special counsel to fully investigate the matter.
Right-wing media outlets have already pushed a series of false comparisons and outright conspiracy theories about the Biden documents case, in an attempt to discredit the ongoing investigation into Trump’s monthslong refusal and possible obstruction against government efforts to reclaim hundreds of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. (Biden has publicly committed to cooperating in the case, in direct contrast with Trump who publicly threatened more violence by his supporters if he got into further legal trouble.)
It is no surprise that right-wing media outlets would try to gin up a scandal against Biden, particularly now that their House Republican allies have a majority and are poised to launch a series of politically motivated investigations in advance of the 2024 election. But mainstream outlets should know better than to repeat those same misleading conservative talking points, and avoid simply inserting political posturing into their reporting in the name of a false sense of balance.
When the story broke, The New York Times inserted political drama
When the story first broke on Monday regarding documents found at the Penn Biden Center, The New York Times ran an article noting that “while Mr. Trump tried to suggest a parallel” with the investigation of his own mishandling of documents, “the circumstances of the Biden discovery as described appeared to be significantly different” due to the Biden team’s cooperation.
But despite those obvious differences, the Times seemingly argued that politics were relevant to its reporting in forming a false equivalency in Trump’s favor:
Still, whatever the legal questions, as a matter of political reality, the discovery will make the perception of the Justice Department potentially charging Mr. Trump over his handling of the documents more challenging.
The Times continued, “Moreover, the discovery will fuel the fires on Capitol Hill, where Republicans who have just taken the House majority were already planning multiple investigations of the Biden administration, including the decision to have the F.B.I. search Mar-a-Lago.”
The Associated Press delivered a both-sides narrative, even after disproving it
In an article Thursday, one report from The Associated Press declared that the Biden documents case would affect the DOJ’s ability to continue its investigation of Trump, despite the vastly different facts at hand:
The appointment of yet another special counsel to investigate the handling of classified documents is a remarkable turn of events, legally and politically, for a Justice Department that has spent months looking into the retention by Donald Trump of more than 300 documents with classification markings found at the former president’s Florida estate.
Though the situations are factually and legally different, the discovery of classified documents at two separate locations tied to Biden — as well as the appointment of a new special counsel — would almost certainly complicate any prosecution that the department might bring against Trump.
Almost as if responding to its own false equivalency, a separate AP explainer piece, titled “A side-by-side look at the Trump, Biden classified documents,” clearly laid out the many crucial distinctions between the two cases, ranging from the number of documents at issue to the drastically different sets of behavior. However, the final section asked the question, “What are the political implications of the discovery of the documents?”
Biden’s document disclosure could intensify skepticism among Republicans and others who are already claiming that politics is the basis for the probes of the former president.
There are also possible ramifications in a new, GOP-controlled Congress where Republicans are promising to launch widespread investigations of Biden’s administration.
The Wall Street Journal ran with political analysis in reporting new developments
In an running article that has been variously updated in light of recent developments, including Garland’s announcement of the special counsel to investigate how the documents ended up outside of government archives, The Wall Street Journal inserted political drama starting at the second paragraph:
The appointment came after Mr. Biden’s lawyer said aides found classified records, likely dating from Mr. Biden’s time as vice president, at his Wilmington, Del., garage and at an office he used at a Washington-based think tank that bears his name. It heightens political pressure on the White House and sets up the unusual prospect of three concurrent Justice Department special counsels, two of whom are investigating the actions of the president or his chief rival for office. Lawmakers from both parties in Congress have also demanded details on the discovery of the documents.
By contrast, the Journal only buried the context of Trump’s serious infractions much further down, at the 26th paragraph:
FBI agents found hundreds of classified and other government documents at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in August in boxes mixed in with clothing and news clippings. Mr. Trump’s lawyers had previously said they had turned such documents over to authorities.
And despite the knowledge that the circumstances of the Biden and Trump stories bore only superficial similarities to one another, the Journal still dignified the misleading accusations from newly-minted Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as well as Trump himself, claiming that the government’s handling of the Biden and Trump situations revealed “hypocrisy” and “a double standard.”