The 2020 presidential contest has been surrounded by dramatic events, by plague, protest and economic collapse, but as a campaign it’s been remarkably devoid of twists and turns. The polling has been mostly stable, the challenger has run the virtual equivalent of a front-porch campaign and mostly suppressed his own pugilistic instincts, and the incumbent has been unsurprisingly himself.
Which makes it fitting, maybe, that the most interesting controversy of the campaign’s final week is a news media meta argument about how a story should be covered. That story is based on the claims of Tony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Hunter Biden and James Biden, respectively Joe Biden’s son and brother, and on a trove of emails and text messages of uncertain provenance. There are new details about the son and brother’s attempts to cut deals in China based on their family brand, but the key allegation is that Joe Biden himself was pulled into his son’s Chinese negotiations.
On Sunday, my colleague Ben Smith produced the fascinating back story on the story: how the scoop was supposed to go to The Wall Street Journal, with Trump allies mediating, but then another Trump ally, Rudy Giuliani, handed some of the same emails to The New York Post, with a strange back story about Hunter Biden’s laptop, which in turn led to a Post story, accusations of Russian disinformation and an attempted social-media blackout of The Post. Meanwhile, Journal reporters were unable to pin down if Joe Biden had any role in the deal, Bobulinski threw the story to the wider press, and only right-wing outlets ran with it. In the end, both the Journal and this newspaper covered the story in a dry and cautious fashion, describing the Bobulinski allegations while also stressing the lack of definite evidence of the former vice president’s involvement in any deal.
If you’re still with me after that tangle, you can see that this isn’t a subject that lends itself to straight-ahead polemics. But let me try to perform punditry and draw out three provisional conclusions.
The first is that the decision by Twitter to attempt to shut down the circulation of the New York Post story, which looked bad when it was made, looks even worse now that we have more of the back story and more evidence in view. At this point we can posit with some certainty that The Post’s story was not some sort of sweeping Russian disinformation plot but a more normal example of late-dropping opposition research, filtered through a partisan lens and a tabloid sensibility, weaving genuine facts into contestable conclusions. It was, in other words, analogous to all kinds of contested anti-Trump stories that various media outlets have run with across the last four crazy years — from the publicity around the Steele dossier’s wilder rumors to the tales of Michael Cohen’s supposed Prague rendezvous to the claims that Russians hacked Vermont’s power grid or even C-SPAN.
In none of these cases did social-media minders step in to protect the public from possible fake news. As Matt Taibbi and other gadfly press critics have pointed out, it’s hard to come up with any reasonable social-media rule that would justify the suppression of The Post’s story that couldn’t just as easily be applied to all the pieces of conspiratorial Trump-Russia reportage that didn’t pan out, or the Julie Swetnick allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, or various scoops based on technically illegal leaks. That capriciousness is a bad sign for the project of harnessing social media giants to filter out disinformation; it suggests that any filter would inevitably feel partisan, partial and obviously reverse-engineered.
In this case the intended reverse-engineering was basically, “don’t let 2016 happen again,” with “2016” being a stand-in for how the media covered the WikiLeaks revelations and the late-October surprise of Jim Comey reopening an F.B.I. investigation into Hillary Clinton based on material from Anthony Weiner’s laptop. But in neither of those cases was Russian “disinformation” crucial: The hindsight critiques revolve around how much play mainstream outlets gave those stories relative to others, and around Comey’s own self-interested and inconsistent decision-making. And there is no clear logical chain that runs from “the F.B.I. director made bad choices because he assumed Clinton would win and The New York Times gave those choices too much front-page space” to “we need to censor late-breaking allegations that appear in right-wing media on the chance that they might have been ginned up by the Russians.”
Especially because of the second conclusion that we can draw from this episode, an insight I’m stealing from Smith’s piece: The power of media gatekeepers (like this newspaper) to shape political coverage is still significant, and just because some charge or scoop circulates in the right-wing ecosystem doesn’t mean that it has any impact beyond the realm of people who are already voting for Donald Trump.
This is an important point because so much liberal analysis of why we might need things like Twitter blackouts assumes that mainstream media institutions have no power anymore — that “the elite level of national news, the places that have traditionally set the agenda,” as Hamilton Nolan wrote recently for The Columbia Journalism Review, have seen their power simply dissolved by technological change.
But that’s not exactly right. The internet has certainly created new spaces for eccentric ideas and conspiratorial narratives to flourish, and the transformation of the Republican Party into a populist formation with its own distinctive media ecosystem has weakened the power of national newspapers to influence Republican politicians. But the G.O.P. speaks for a minority of Americans and fewer and fewer American elites, and the internet has also expanded the audience for certain media institutions at the expense of the rest of the media industry, giving them arguably more influence over the non-Fox News-watching portion of the public than in the recent past. This means institutions like The Times or the Washington Post have a different kind of power than they did 30 years ago, but they have power all the same — including the power to contain almost any story that initially circulates on the right, and to shape the way the non-right-wing portions of the country receive it.
This, in turn, makes it reasonable for conservatives to fear the concentric circles of tech and media power — the possibility that social-media censorship, carried out “neutrally” by companies overwhelmingly staffed by liberals, will expand its reach with the vocal support of an increasingly consolidated and liberal group of mainstream-media gatekeepers.
But it also makes it reasonable for people who are not conservatives to worry about what stories they might be missing, if those same gatekeepers have an incentive to treat anything that originates outside those concentric circles as some combination of disinformation and partisan distraction.
Hence my third conclusion — that for those who feel this worry, the Hunter Biden controversy provides a clarifying case study. On the one hand, the new information is not the Biden-slaying blockbuster suggested by the New York Post headlines and some Trump supporters. But neither does it fit the description offered by NPR’s managing editor for news last week, explaining why they were only covering it as a media story: “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions.”
In fact, it’s not a distraction to have new insight into a potential First Son’s business dealings — especially given that the saga of the younger Biden is a prime example in how a milder-than-Trump form of corruption pervaded the American elite long before Trump came along, with important people and their families constantly finding ways to get rich in the shadow of the Pax Americana without ever taking anything so crass as a bribe.
It is not a coincidence, as some of my Times colleagues note in their story, that “the countries that Hunter Biden, James Biden and their associates planned to target for deals overlapped with nations where Joe Biden had previously been involved as vice president.” Nor is it a coincidence that the areas of Hunter Biden’s particular interest, China’s and Russia’s near abroad, were particularly important foreign policy zones under recent Democratic presidents. And given that pre-Trump American foreign policy in these regions was a conspicuous failure — with China tilting totalitarian and Vladimir Putin outmaneuvering the West — the fact that Biden’s nearest relative was trying to influence-peddle in both places is a useful reminder of why the establishment that’s likely to reclaim the White House next week lost power in the first place.
More specifically, Bobulinski’s story and the email evidence both suggest that Joe Biden took at least enough interest in his son’s dealings to have a meeting during the Trump presidency with his business partners. This isn’t proof that he partnered with Hunter or profited in any way, but it seems like evidence that he wasn’t particularly worried about keeping his son’s sketchy salesmanship at arm’s length. That seems like information worth knowing: not a scandal on a par with some of Trump’s, not a front-page bold-type screaming headline, but something that belongs in the pages of a newspaper, because it’s interesting news.
This is the problem with Twitter’s censorious choices, and with an expanding mainstream-press definition of what counts as disinformation and distraction. They compromise the first duty of an independent press, which is to ground any moral crusading in the most capacious possible portrait of the world as it actually exists.