The New York Times invents a Biden scandal -- and the public's reaction
This has all happened before
When New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker tweeted yesterday that the discovery of classified documents at Joe Biden’s personal office and home, though “markedly different” from Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents, would nevertheless inoculate Trump from criticism, it wasn’t hard to spot the flaw in Baker’s reasoning. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen responded to Baker:
Rosen’s critique of the “savvy style,” is spot on — as far as it goes. But here it’s missing an essential element. Baker isn’t just telling us perception matters more than truth — he is actively shaping perception, not merely observing or predicting it.
Look back at Baker’s tweet: “Democrats will now have a hard time using Trump's mishandling of classified papers against him, even though the particulars of the two cases are markedly different.” Stop and think about that for a second. Why would this be true? If the two cases are “markedly different,” why would Democrats “have a hard time using Trump’s mishandling of classified papers against him”? The only way that makes sense is if the public wrongly perceives the two cases to be similar, rather than markedly different. And how does the public learn about the two cases? Well, in large part from journalists like Peter Baker. So if journalists like Peter Baker treat the cases as markedly different (as Peter Baker knows they are), the public will perceive them as markedly different, and Democrats won’t have any trouble using Trump’s mishandling of classified papers against him. But of course Baker isn’t treating them like they’re markedly different. He’s treating the Biden discovery as a huge problem for Biden, and a reprieve for Trump. And by doing that, he might indeed help cause the public to wrongly perceive the two cases to be similar. Baker is, in effect, both predicting the consequences of Baker’s own bad journalism (though he of course omits his role and treats the consequences as things that will just inevitably happen all on their own) and helping bring them about.
It isn’t just Peter Baker, of course. Baker’s tweet reflects the core thesis that has driven the New York Times’ coverage of the Biden documents from the very beginning. From January 9 to January 24, the Times’ news side has generated 19 articles plus four videos, a podcast, and a slideshow1 about the discovery of classified documents at Biden’s home and foundation office. More than an article per day for two weeks — a volume of coverage that itself misleads the public about how important this is. I reviewed each one of those articles this morning, and two things immediately jumped out:
From the very beginning — literally from the first article to the most recent, and nearly every piece in between — the Times has grudgingly acknowledged that the Trump and Biden document situations are very different. Because they are.
From the very beginning — literally from the first article to the most recent, and nearly every piece in between — the Times has asserted that the Biden document discovery, although entirely different from the Trump document scandal, will be politically damaging to Biden and inoculate Trump from criticism.2
Rather than dedicating themselves to making the truth (that the Biden & Trump situations are not alike) clear, Baker and his fellow New York Times journalists are blurring the differences between them. They do this by treating the Biden document discovery as a massive scandal — more than an article per day, for more than two weeks — and through their repeated assertions about the political fallout of the discovery.
The typical Times article about the Biden document discovery consists of paragraph after paragraph of attacks by Republicans and assertions by Times reporters of the political damage this all does to Biden and cover it gives Trump, along with a grudging acknowledgement somewhere around paragraph 15 that the Trump and Biden situations are not at all similar, followed by several more paragraphs of Republican attacks and Times assertions of the political damage this does to Biden and help it provides Trump.
And, sure, if the media is going to cover the Biden documents like that, it might prove to be a headache for Biden and a boon for Trump. And, sure, the media probably will cover the Biden documents like that. We don't need two weeks’ of New York Times articles to come to that conclusion. But the media shouldn’t cover the Biden documents that way. And they certainly shouldn’t build unstated assumptions of their own irresponsibility into their assessment of the political impact of the documents, as though their own decision to produce flawed journalism is an inevitability — and an unquestionably correct decision.
It’s worth noting that in all those articles, amid all those assertions of political impact, the Times only once actually reports on the public’s reaction, as opposed to asserting it. In the January 24 article Baker tweeted yesterday, he acknowledged a poll that found “Many Americans do make a distinction on the degree of the wrongdoing — 43 percent said Mr. Trump’s conduct was a ‘more serious concern’ compared with 20 percent who said Mr. Biden’s was more serious.” But that didn’t stop him from writing a whole article whose thesis was that the public would see no such distinction. Why report what the public thinks when you could simply assert what you think the public will think?
In short, even while having to acknowledge at virtually every step of the way that the Biden document discovery is nothing like Trump’s mishandling of classified information, the Times is going all-out to make it look like a scandal, giving it the full but-her-emails treatment and trying to speak into existence a political and legal exoneration for Donald Trump.
Even setting aside the breathless, wall-to-wall coverage of something that, at this point, appears to be much ado about nothing, there are three other big problems with the approach to journalism the Times is taking here:
The observer effect problem. Political fallout and public sentiment aren’t things that just happen, they happen in part as a result of media coverage. The effect of the news media repeatedly asserting that Event X will have some sort of significant political impact — and, circularly, using that asserted political salience as an excuse to give Event X wall-to-wall coverage — is to make the asserted political impact more likely. In physics, when the act of measuring a thing changes the thing being measured, it is known as the “observer effect.” In journalism, this is known as — hahaha, just kidding, journalists don’t have a name for it, they prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist.
The they-aren’t-any-good-at-this problem: If I had a nickel for every time some reporter-playing-pundit asserted a political outcome that never came to pass, I could buy the New York Times. Not a copy of the New York Times … the New York Times itself.
The this-adds-no-value problem: Peter Baker’s assessment of the likely political fallout of something is of absolutely no value to you, the consumer of news. It’s empty calories. Except that even empty calories help keep you alive, at least in the short term. You can’t say that for punditry.
That last one is important. And it’s not a new problem, or a new critique. Nobody’s paying me for this, so rather than putting a bunch of effort into elaborating on it, I’ll just quote myself, from way back in 2006:3
The typical explanation -- from journalists and observers alike -- for why news stories should not state that a claim made by a political figure is false is that to do so would be to make an inappropriate judgment that is best left to the reader. As [Jim] Lehrer said: “I'm not in the judgment part of journalism. I'm in the reporting part of journalism.”
While shying away from making judgments about matters of fact, of readily-discernable truth, journalists do make judgments all the time. In particular, judgments about how events and actions are likely to be received by the public are a regular feature of political reporting.
In other words, reporters often refuse to offer their judgment about matters of fact, but they do offer their judgment about the potential political effects of events and actions.
This is completely backwards.
Consumers of news lack the time, expertise, and, in many cases, ability to determine which of two contradictory statements by competing political figures is true. They often lack the resources to determine if, for example, President Bush's claim to have “delivered” on the promises he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is true. That's where news organizations should -- but, with depressing frequency, have not -- come in. They have -- or should have -- the expertise and the time to assess those claims, and to report the facts. That's what readers, viewers, and listeners need. That's what journalism should be all about.
On the other hand, as consumers of news, we don't need journalists telling us what the “political impact” of something is going to be; how it will “play at the polls.” It's our job to decide that. It's our job to decide who we'll vote for and why; how we'll assess the parties' competing agendas and approaches to the problems we face.
Instead of telling us how they think we'll react, we need journalists to give us the information upon which we can make an informed decision. To tell us the facts, and the truth, and the relevant context. Then we'll tell them the political impact.
The New York Times telling you the facts of the Biden document discovery — what happened, how unusual (or not) it is, what the relevant procedures and laws are, how Biden and his staff and investigators reacted, how all of is similar to or different from Trump’s behavior, etc etc — that provides value to you, the news consumer. You can weigh that information and assess for yourself how Trump & Biden stack up when it comes to handling classified information. The New York Times simply telling you over and over again that the conclusion the public (that is, you) will reach is that it’s all the same … that doesn’t provide you any value. That’s the Times trying to do your job, instead of doing the Times’ job. Reading that doesn’t make you better informed, it misleads you.
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Below are links to The New York Times’ news-side coverage of the Biden document discovery, with my occasional notes from me about the articles’ acknowledgment that the Biden and Trump cases are quite different and about the articles’ assertions about political impact. I have not catalogued the articles’ inclusion of Republican attacks, which are voluminous.
Paragraph 14: “while Mr. Trump tried to suggest a parallel, the circumstances of the Biden discovery as described appeared to be significantly different.”
Paragraph 19: “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. “
Paragraph 3: “The revelation has created a political headache for Mr. Biden, who has called former President Donald J. Trump irresponsible for hoarding sensitive documents at his private club and residence in Florida, and a tactical opportunity for Republicans who had been badly divided in the aftermath of the 2022 midterm elections.”
Paragraph 19: “The circumstances of the two cases are starkly different, however. Unlike Mr. Trump, who resisted months of government requests to return the material stored at Mar-a-Lago and failed to fully comply with a subpoena, Mr. Biden’s team appears to have acted swiftly and in accordance with the law, immediately summoning officials with the National Archives to retrieve the files. The archives then alerted the Justice Department, according to the White House.”
Paragraph 22: “But the inevitable comparison of the Trump documents case with the Biden matter has put new pressure on Mr. Garland, who decided in November to assign both Trump investigations to a special counsel, Jack Smith, to avoid accusations of a political vendetta against the former president.”
“There are key gaps in the public record about both, but the available information suggests there were significant differences in how the documents came to light, their volume and — most important — how Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden responded. […] These apparent differences have significant legal implications.”
Biden Addresses Classified Documents Found at Private Office (January 10, video via AP)
Paragraph 1: “It was the second such disclosure in three days, and it was sure to intensify Republican attacks.”
Paragraph 2: “Republicans reveled in the new disclosures, accusing Mr. Biden of hypocrisy in calling former President Donald J. Trump irresponsible for hoarding sensitive documents at his private club and residence in Florida. “
Paragraph 13: “the circumstances of the two cases appear strikingly different.”
Paragraph 21: “But the inevitable comparison of the Trump documents case with the Biden matter has put new pressure on Mr. Garland to appoint a special counsel to investigate Mr. Biden’s handling of government files.”
Paragraphs 24-25: “If the legal implications of this week’s revelations remain unclear, the political implications are more obvious. Republicans, eager to move on from the rancor of their recent House leadership fight, hope to spin the Biden matter into an attack that sustains a protracted congressional investigation that damages Mr. Biden and blunts the effects of Mr. Trump’s troubles on the party.”
Lede: “…opening a new legal threat to the White House and providing ammunition to its Republican opponents.”
Paragraph 3: “the decision to open a full investigation put both the president and the attorney general in awkward positions at the same time another special counsel appointed by Mr. Garland considers whether to charge former President Donald J. Trump or his associates with mishandling sensitive documents and obstructing efforts to retrieve them.”
Paragraph 4: “The circumstances in the Biden and Trump cases are markedly different. Mr. Trump resisted requests to return documents for months, even after being subpoenaed, while as far as is known, Mr. Biden’s lawyers found the papers without being asked and turned them over promptly. But as a political matter, the new investigation will muddy the case against Mr. Trump, who is already using it to argue that he is being selectively persecuted by the administration of a president he plans to challenge in 2024.”
Garland Names Special Counsel in Investigation Into Biden Documents (January 12, video)
Biden Says He Is ‘Cooperating Fully’ With Justice Department Review (January 12, video)
Classified Files: How Biden and Trump Differ (January 12, slide show)
Subhed: “The new investigation is sure to muddy the waters politically as former President Donald J. Trump cries persecution over his own documents inquiry, although the cases differ significantly.”
Paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8 quote or characterize Republican reaction, including direct quotes from Reps. James Comer, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Kevin McCarthy.
Paragraph 12: “Although the circumstances of the cases involving Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump are decidedly different, as a political matter, the new inquiry will almost certainly muddy the case against Mr. Trump. Already Mr. Trump is arguing that he is being selectively persecuted by the administration of a president he is almost certain to challenge in 2024.”
The Presidents and the Classified Documents (January 13, podcast)
Presidents and Their Prosecutors (January 13)
How Classified Information Is Handled (January 13)
Paragraph 2: Republicans demand visitor logs
Paragraph 8: “The demands by Republicans for transparency in the case of Mr. Biden’s classified documents highlight the political danger for the president.”
Paragraph 13: “Mr. Biden’s Republican critics, like Mr. Comer, are seeking transparency in ways they have not for Mr. Trump.”
Paragraphs 20-21 (literally the last paragraphs of the article): “Administrations do keep visitor logs for the White House. During Mr. Obama’s tenure, officials released those records several times each year in an effort to be candid about who was meeting with Mr. Obama and other top officials, though the names of some visitors were excluded. Mr. Trump’s White House did not release visitor logs. Mr. Biden restarted the practice when he took office.”
Paragraph 8: “Mr. Biden’s team appears to have acted swiftly and in accordance with the law upon the discovery of the documents, immediately summoning officials with the National Archives to retrieve the files.”
Biden Has ‘No Regrets’ About Not Disclosing Documents Earlier (January 19, video via AP)
Paragraph 4: “Mr. Biden’s silence while cooperating with investigators did not forestall the appointment of a special counsel, as his aides had hoped, but still resulted in a public uproar4 once it became clear that the White House had hidden the situation from the public5 for more than two months.”
Paragraph 5: “In the meantime, though, the strategy has left Mr. Biden open to withering criticism for concealing the discovery for so long. And now, after a productive year that had seemed to leave the president in a strong position to announce a re-election campaign, the handling of the documents case has eroded his capacity to claim the high road against Mr. Trump, while also raising questions about his team’s ability to navigate Republican attacks from Capitol Hill.”
Paragraph 4: “The discovery of classified documents at Mr. Biden’s home and private office prompted his own attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, to appoint a special counsel to look into the matter, much as Mr. Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, felt compelled to authorize the independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate her president’s efforts to hide his encounters with Monica S. Lewinsky, the former intern. No one thinks the two are equivalent,6 but in the post-Clinton-and-Starr Washington every such moment is measured against the history of that turn-of-the-century spectacle.”
Paragraph 23: “News of the lengthy search, and the discovery of more classified materials, is certain to provide new ammunition to the president’s critics, including Republican members of the House, who have already demanded information about the documents and their potential impact on national security.”
Notably, while the article notes that “Mr. Pence is considering a presidential campaign for 2024,” it does not in any way suggest that the discovery of classified documents at his home will constitute a political challenge for Pence or for Republican efforts to attack Biden. Apparently the observation of political inconvenience is reserved for Democrats.
Subhed: “The cases are markedly different in their particulars. But they are similar enough that as a practical matter, Democrats will have a hard time using the issue against former President Donald J. Trump.”
Second paragraph: “the most significant cost to the president may be the opportunity cost: Even if nothing comes of the new special counsel investigation into his team’s mishandling of classified documents, politically it has effectively let former President Donald J. Trump off the hook for hoarding secret papers.”
Third paragraph: “The cases are markedly different in their particulars, as has been noted repeatedly. Mr. Biden has cooperated with the authorities, inviting them to search his home, while Mr. Trump defied efforts to recover documents even after being subpoenaed, prompting a judge to issue a search warrant. But they are similar enough that as a practical matter Democrats can no longer use the issue against Mr. Trump politically, and investigators may have a harder time prosecuting him criminally.”
Paragraphs 11-12: “A new poll indicated that most Americans think both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden did something wrong. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed by ABC News and Ipsos said Mr. Trump acted inappropriately in handling classified documents, while 64 percent indicated that Mr. Biden has. Many Americans do make a distinction on the degree of the wrongdoing — 43 percent said Mr. Trump’s conduct was a “more serious concern” compared with 20 percent who said Mr. Biden’s was more serious.7 But 30 percent found them to be equally serious.”
Paragraph 14: “Moreover, at the end of the day, Mr. Garland will still make the final call on what to do about both cases, inviting attacks for a double standard if he were to issue charges in one instance and not the other.”8
Paragraph 18: “That cost them in the public sphere9 because they concluded that it would be more advantageous not to publicly disclose the discoveries, so as not to antagonize Justice Department officials examining the situation and ultimately persuade them that the incident was nothing more than a good-faith mistake.”
Paragraph 25: “For the moment, though, it is the court of public opinion that the cases are being waged in, and Republicans and Democrats agree that Mr. Trump has caught a break. After all the furor over Mr. Trump’s brazen resistance to returning documents — and his insistence that he could declassify them simply by thinking about it — the attention has turned to Mr. Biden.”
Paragraphs 27-28 quote Republican strategist Tim Miller, identified generously as “a leading critic of the former president,” asserting “Trump has a championship-level ability to muddy the waters and create false equivalencies between his own illicit behavior and other people’s more mundane mistakes.”10
At least. I did not conduct a comprehensive search of the Times’ webpage for all articles mentioning the matter. There are likely more.
Others have noted that few professional Democrats are likely expecting Trump’s mishandling of classified information to be the central critique of him should he be the Republican nominee in 2024, so the Times’ assertions that the Biden document discovery damages him by taking this critique off the table is overblown even if true. I think there’s a good deal of validity to that, though it is not my focus here.
There is absolutely nothing that is fundamentally new in politics or media, ever.
The Times provides no evidence of an “uproar” from the public, only from Republican politicians. There has also been considerable uproar from the Times itself, though of course the Times does not acknowledge this.
“hid the situation from the public” is loaded language. There is a difference between not proactively announcing something and hiding it. I am not currently hiding my dinner plans, though I have not told you what I plan to eat. The Times’ routinely uses the “hidden” construct throughout its reporting on the Biden documents.
This article is a particularly neat trick: Place the Biden document discovery alongside one of history’s most infamous presidential scandals — one that resulted in an impeachment — even while acknowledging that nobody thinks the situations are equivalent. One thing they have in common is the Times’ own commitment to milking them for all they’re worth (and more): 25 years on, the Times will still find any excuse it can to remind you of Clinton’s affair.
Note that this is the first time the Times has actually reported on the public’s reaction to the Biden documents, as opposed to predicting or simply asserting how the document discovery will play out. And … the poll numbers do not suggest equivalence! By a greater than 2-1 margin, Americans are more likely to say Trump’s handling of documents was worse than Biden’s. But the fact that the public does not share the Times’ certainty that the public will see the situations as equivalent doesn’t stop the Times from continuing to assert that Trump is “off the hook” politically.
Here the Times itself is inviting such attacks, and all but begging Republicans to misuse the concept of “double standard.”
No evidence is provided in this article or any previous article to support the assertion that this actually “cost them in the public sphere.” It’s an unknowable and unfalsifiable assertion — the kind journalists make as a parlor game to second-guess the actions of others and create an excuse for further coverage.
As, of course, does the New York Times.