All the News that’s Fit to Print?

In the days since the January 6 attempted takeover at the Capitol Building, I’ve been seeing the news media, even Fox News, mostly condemn what happened and condemn the President’s (and Rudy Giuiliani’s) obvious instigation of it. I wrote a post talking about it and the rise of conspiracy theorists who believe they are poised to “take back their country.” At the time, I was not convinced that Article 25 or impeachment was the best thing for the country, because it would further alienate people who already felt alienated, but Trump’s refusal to back down (although he’s now denounced the mayhem) makes me think that impeachment is probably the right course, although I’m still not sure—it’s largely symbolic and likely to further the divisions that exist, but he has left Congress with very little alternative. Had there not been a contingent that had been trying to impeach him since before he took the oath of office, I’d say yes, obviously this is an impeachable offence. The problem is that to the half of the country that voted for him, the left has been trying to get him forever, so the government has lost all credibility.

An even bigger problem is that the press and social media have lost credibility with that same group of people. My first post was about Trump and the doomsday people because Trump is the person who represents a clear and present danger, although I think even he has lost control of the narrative. But I think if we want to move forward and try to heal divisions, as President-elect Biden has said, we need to look at the left as well. Twitter, probably rightly, shut down Trump’s account when he continued to tweet provocatively following the events at the Capitol. But that was closing the barn door after the horse had bolted. As I said two days ago, people who’d been closed off from this avenue had already started sending emails to one another and trying to find other media in which to communicate. When Parler, the right-wing alternative to Twitter, was shut down, motivated people started to find still more ways to communicate that are not so obvious to those of us who stay in the mainstream. An iTV documentary directed me to My Militia, a pro-gun, pro-militia forum where people are now sharing messages they may have previously shared on Twitter or Parler. Clearly, this was the kind of crisis that demanded immediate steps, and I’d have shut them down, too. But now we need to take a step back and see how we got there.

During the run-up to the election, Trump was a tweeter on steroids, seemingly never sleeping and very often retweeting suspect tweets from the likes of QAnon. Many of these retweets, as well as many of his original tweets, contained falsehoods or disputed claims, and in May, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer, Twitter started to label those tweets, notifying people that they were false, disputed, glorified violence, or were in some way inappropriate to the office of the Presidency and in violation of Twitter’s rules. Facebook started doing something similar, although there wasn’t as much of a Trump presence on Facebook. Instead, they took down mostly right-wing posts that they said were inaccurate or inflammatory, but pretty much completely ignored left-wing purveyors of misinformation. Granted, most of these were on a smaller scale, like asserting that Betsy DeVos was OK with 14,000 children dying of COVID (that’s not what she said) or stating that the Hunter Biden emails were the result of Russian interference (that’s a theory, but it’s never been confirmed, and Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins professor and expert in disinformation says it’s unlikely). These were disseminated without comment, except by people like me when I posted responses to the misinformation. People on the left, even the extreme left, could seemingly tweet whatever they wanted without citing sources and it was OK, but on the right, you’d get a label or a removal.

What is the truth about Hunter Biden? The truth is we don’t know. If you don’t know the story the New York Post broke on October 14, John Paul MacIsaac, a computer repairman in Wilmington, Delaware, provided the Post with files including emails he’d retrieved from the hard drive of Hunter Biden’s laptop. These emails seemed to confirm that something was fishy about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the Ukraine and China, and may have implicated his father, since Hunter supposedly set up meetings with him. If I were a betting woman, I’d put money on the laptop being a set-up job, but at least some of the emails and information being legitimate and the result of hacking. The problem is that this was just the “smoking gun,” and a rather convenient smoking gun. Hunter Biden’s incredibly lucrative positions for which he appeared to do very little, have been raising red flags since 2015, according to the BBC. When the stories of Hunter’s dealings started appearing during the primary season, I said Biden should go, because they were a liability—and precisely what people had been voting against when they voted for Trump. Never mind that Trump’s family is not only involved in some shady dealings themselves but also an official part of the administration, the left needed to distance themselves from suggestions of cronyism and corruption.

They didn’t. Quite the reverse. Did the mainstream press, with a few exceptions like the New York Post, ignore the Hunter Biden issue? Not exactly. When I went back through their archives, I found that searching for “Hunter Biden” produced 1,074 stories in the NYP and 2,623 in the Washington Post, 884 of which were in the last year. The NYP, too, had a habit of doubling down on each bit of intel. Almost every news story had one or more editorials on the same subject. Most of the editorials, written mostly by conservative Australian columnist Miranda Devine, but also by Rich Lowry, editor-in-chief of the National Review, and others, castigated the mainstream media (except, one assumes, the NYP) for bias against Donald Trump. The problem is that there’s a fair amount of evidence they’re right. In the Washington Post’s collections of articles about Hunter Biden, we get opinion pieces like this plea for sympathy for Joe Biden, who is “obviously” just a more caring father than Donald Trump. Biden himself, when asked about Hunter, prefers to dwell on Hunter’s addiction (although he’s helped in this by Trump’s attacking the addiction instead of sticking to the influence peddling). And yes, any addict in any circumstances is going through hell and deserves our sympathy. I cringed when I read the personal texts between Hunter and Joe, thinking how violated I would have felt if they were mine. But that’s deflection. Most addicts don’t make $50,000 a month without having to go into the office—and don’t promise they can set up meetings with the Vice President.

Part of the problem the Washington Post and the New York Times have is that they try to make absolutely sure before they print a story as fact. I have been frustrated many times by hearing some “breaking news” and tuning in to the BBC, another cautious media outlet, to find out the story, only to have to wait hours before it’s mentioned even as a rumor. But that’s only a very small part of the story. Project Veritas, a right-wing organization, surreptitiously recorded CNN head Jeff Zucker’s morning meetings. In the recordings they released, Zucker can be heard making a decision to bury the Hunter Biden story. CNN is suing Project Veritas, and the language is less clear than Project Veritas suggests, talking about “unsubstantiated stories” and “rumor,” but you still get the idea that there’s a bit of a slant in the CNN briefing room.

Is it any wonder that the right abandoned the left-leaning mainstream media and went with, first, Fox News, and now online journals with titles like American Greatness? Is it a problem? The British press are pretty clearly defined as left or right. Yes, I think it is a problem, first, because, except for the Wall Street Journal, all of the widely respected and carefully edited news outlets are left-leaning. If the New York Times wants to continue to advertise itself as “all the news that’s fit to print,” it can’t ignore the opinions of half of the electorate. The Times was involved in one of the more egregious snafus when the printed an opinion column by Senator Tom Cotton following some Black Lives Matter protests. After Times reporters expressed outrage, the Times inserted a long explanation before Cotton’s column. To its credit, the Times did not remove the piece and did accept blame, saying that Cotton had been open to any changes the editor had made and should have been asked to qualify or remove certain assertions. But the damage was done and the wrong-footedness was obvious. The Opinion page editor resigned. The tone of the opening paragraph was along the lines of “we let this guy write on our page because we thought you should hear what the other side is saying.” That’s not an even-handed treatment of the two arguments. I don’t think the New York Times or the Washington Post print inaccuracies, but I do think they curate the news according to a worldview that tends left.

For the record, I mostly agree with Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who has reported on Edward Snowden and other stories around internet hacking and leaked documents. There is probably no big scandal in the Hunter Biden emails, but they do point to the usual sleazy back-room political dealings. I’m not sure if Joe ever knew anything about the emails or Hunter’s deals until after the fact. There is probably also no Russian interference, but the waters are so muddy right now that Biden, with the complicity of the press, can pretend like there’s nothing there at all. But “probably” doesn’t mean the news media should refrain from asking the tough questions. Until they do, they shouldn’t be surprised that half the country feels left behind.

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