The Bad Faith GOP, the Both-Sides Press, and the Biden Documents
Just like in 2016, the press is once again echoing bad faith GOP attacks on Dem Presidential candidate
Attorney General Merrick Garland has assigned the U.S. attorney in Chicago to review documents marked classified that were found at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, two sources with knowledge of the inquiry told CBS News. The roughly 10 documents are from President Biden's vice-presidential office at the center, the sources said. CBS News has learned the FBI is also involved in the U.S. attorney's inquiry.
Well, this isn’t good. And it closely mirrors what caused the FBI to raid Donald Trump’s beach house last year — or maybe not. As it turns out, the situations could not be more different. But that won’t stop all of the players in our political drama from playing their roles.
The traditional media went into overdrive — issuing push alerts and tweets about a criminal investigation into President Biden. The both-sides pundits foolishly drew false equivalence between Biden and Trump, and speculated about the political impact on an election that occurs in more than a year and half. And the Republicans (of course) engaged in performative outrage — demanding answers and accountability.
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It was all predictable and eerily reminiscent of the initial reaction to the reports in 2015 stating Hillary Clinton used a personal email server. And much like the Clinton situation, absent strong pushback from Democrats, the Republicans — aided and abetted by the political media — will shape the narrative, do damage to President Biden, and let Trump off the hook with a bunch of whataboutalism bullshit.
Why Biden ≠ Trump
If you are simply skimming Twitter or watching cable with one eye, you may have missed the specifics of the situation and how it differed dramatically from the Trump situation.
Here’s what happened with Biden: fewer than a dozen classified documents were found among a bunch of other documents at an office where Biden worked in the years between serving as Vice President and becoming President. After the documents were discovered, they were immediately turned over to the national archives. As Attorney Mark Zaid said on Twitter:
According to all reports, Biden and his team are cooperating with the investigation.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, absconded with well over a hundred documents, refused to turn them over, lied about turning them all over, lied about having declassified the documents, accused the FBI of planting them, and continues to attack the DOJ and FBI on false pretenses.
These situations could not be more different, but the public will not know that if Democrats do not tell them. We know the press won’t do it for us.
Bad Faith GOPers and the Both-Sides Press
For all of the 2016 election cycle, Republicans cared passionately about email protocols and protecting classified secrets. When Donald Trump was President, they couldn't care less about Trump officials using personal email accounts and Trump vomiting up the nation’s most deeply held secrets. When the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago to recover the pilfered classified documents, Republicans attacked the FBI and the DOJ and truly couldn't give a shit about protecting the classified documents they feared were on Hillary’s private server (they weren’t).
In the 24 hours since the CBS News story broke, House Republicans have held multiple press conferences slamming Biden. Fox and the MAGA media went into overdrive with conspiracy theories. Trump was “truthing” up a storm with false accusations and false equivalence. Jim Comer, the new Republican chair of the Government Oversight Committee, promised investigations, hearings, and subpoenas.
While some in the press did a good job outlining the differences between Trump and Biden, many of them ran with the story without contextualizing the Biden situation. Others simply echoed the bad faith critique from the Republicans without pointing out the inherent hypocrisy.
I fear that the traditional political media is incapable of covering this story correctly. There are two reasons for this. First, much of the press continues to prioritize balance over accuracy. After their failure to meet expectations in the midterms and the messy fight over the Speaker’s gavel, the Republicans received a decade’s worth of bad press in the last two months. You can almost feel a lot of traditional media entities looking for some bad news for Democrats — and Joe Biden in particular. Even when the stories contain the right information, the headlines and tweets don’t. The vast majority of voters only see the headlines as they scroll through Facebook and Twitter and never, ever click to read the article.
Second, the true bias of the media is not ideological; it’s a bias for conflict. The “investigation” into Biden, the Republican reaction, and the ensuing hearings and Congressional contretemps are what cable producers and Twitter personalities can’t resist. CNN is one egregious example of this dynamic. According to a report from Media Matters, the network, which has recently struggled with low ratings, dedicated an hour and 47 minutes to the Biden documents story in a 6-hour period on Monday night. This was 5x the amount of time that Fox News spent on the story.
Unfortunately, when focus is on the conflict, context is lost. This is what happened with the coverage of Hillary’s emails in 2016 and it could very well happen again.
Why hasn’t the press learned the lessons of 2016? It’s simple. They cannot learn those lessons without fundamentally altering the strictures of putatively objective journalism.
What to Do About It
It’s incumbent on Democrats — from the White House down to social media — to push back on the BS and push out the actual context. Each and every one of us can share the above graphic from the Congressional Integrity Project. We can screenshot the key paragraphs from outlets like the Wall Street Journal that may be persuasive with more moderate and conservative voters.
Democratic politicians need to rebut the Republicans. Instead of engaging in whataboutalism or yelling about hypocrisy, seize the opportunity to explain what the Republicans are doing. Instead of playing the game, call out the game. Here’s one example of how to do that:
Instead of trying to lower prices and raise wages, Congressional Republicans are focused on sham investigations and taxpayer-funded, partisan fishing expeditions. President Biden, unlike Trump, immediately turned over the documents to the archives. The MAGA Republicans in Congress are trying to distract from the fact that their first votes in the new majority aim to cut Social Security and Medicare, make it easier for billionaires to cheat on their taxes, and ban abortion.
It’s possible that the documents issue will fade away before too long. But this is a fire drill for 2024. The Republicans are coming for Joe Biden. They want to use their new investigative powers to harm him like they harmed Hillary. We can’t let that happen. The press may not be able to learn the lesson of 2016, but we must.