Biden coverage and the But her emails! trap

A week or so ago, as President Joe Biden wrapped up a two-legged diplomatic trip to India and Vietnam, numerous reports in major outlets focused less on what the trip said about the war in Ukraine or China’s global ambitions and more on a drearily familiar domestic topic: Biden’s age, and the extent to which it’s weighing on his nascent campaign to win back the White House in 2024. (In case you’ve been living under a rock: he’s eighty.) Communications staff at the White House pushed back on the coverage, sometimes aggressively so; one aide referred to a CNN article about the trip as “BS” and its author as a “desk jockey.” Meanwhile, media critics and liberal pundits saw in the coverage the specter of three haunting words: But her emails!

Later in the week, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House, announced the opening of an impeachment investigation into Biden (without a promised vote of the full chamber) over the president’s supposed ties to shady business dealings on the part of his son Hunter—despite not having presented any actual evidence of any wrongdoing on Biden Sr.’s part. Reports in major outlets often centered the lack of evidence, but they didn’t always. Communications staff at the White House pushed back on the coverage; one aide wrote to a variety of news organizations asking that they ramp up their scrutiny of Republicans’ intentions in launching the probe and not lend credence to their claims. Meanwhile, media critics and liberal pundits saw in the coverage the specter of three haunting words: But her emails!

Those words refer, of course, to what many critics view as the cardinal media sin of the 2016 presidential election, when mainstream news organizations disproportionately hyped a story about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, drawing a false equivalence with the many demerits of her opponent, Donald Trump. Since then, they have been invoked whenever those same critics (myself sometimes included) perceive a similar dynamic emerging around an opponent of Trump’s—most recently, of course, Biden. Last week, the claim that it’s happening again reached fever pitch, or something approaching it. “The big problem is that the mainstream media wants to be seen as non-partisan—a reasonable goal—and bends over backwards to accomplish this. If this means equalizing an anti-democratic candidate with a pro-democracy candidate, then so be it,” Margaret Sullivan wrote in a widely shared column for The Guardian. “It’s fearful, it’s defensive, it’s entertainment- and click-focused, and it’s mired in the washed-up practices of an earlier era.”

Whatever the driver—and I’d add a failure of journalistic imagination to Sullivan’s list—a dynamic of false equivalence is coming through in some current coverage of Biden and Trump as the prospect of a 2020 rerun heaves, ever more inevitably, into view. In that sense, the invocation of But her emails! is fair. But the comparison is also worth unpacking a bit. As I see it, there are crucial differences between the political and media climate in which the emails furor played out and the present moment. We’re nearly a decade further into Trump and his allies’ efforts to erode faith in American democracy. And, unlike Clinton, Biden is an incumbent president—one whose term is far from over, even if political reporters and pundits are increasingly discussing the next election like kids who just want it to be Christmas already.

The comparison between coverage of Clinton’s emails and Biden’s age do strike me as valid, in several ways. As one observer who drew the comparison, Ian Millhiser of Vox, put it, both involve “genuinely suboptimal” facts about a Democratic candidate; if Clinton’s use of a private server was a legitimate story, then Biden’s age is, if anything, more so, not least as part of an important broader debate about stunted generational turnover in American politics and the role of elderly people in American life. (See: Lucy Schiller’s recent feature in CJR.) The problem, in both cases, is one of proportion: just as the emails story was blown up, at times, into an all-consuming scandal, so the current focus on Biden’s age feels excessive at best, petty and prying at worst. (When is Biden going to bed? What does it mean that he’s joking about going to bed? When is he waking up?) Meanwhile, Trump is guilty of the same thing—in this case, being old—and yet that fact takes up far less of the public discussion around him, not least because of all the crimes he’s accused of. The latter focus doesn’t reflect well on Trump, of course, but it also splashes back on Biden when that and his age get conflated. (“Biden’s age v. Trump’s alleged crimes,” a recent NBC headline blared: “Poll finds liabilities for both frontrunners.”)

To the extent that But her emails! had an impact in 2016, it did so, in my view, by indulging Republican efforts to crisply define Clinton as “crooked,” whereas Trump’s brain-exploding litany of scandal perversely defied such easy definition. Overdoing the focus on Biden’s age risks abetting a similar dynamic, with the crisp narrative this time being that Biden is frail. Except this time, Republicans are also trying to paint Biden as crooked. Which brings us to the impeachment probe, and what I see as a more nuanced comparison with Emailgate.

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Again, the basic comparison here is valid; indeed, an unnamed senior Republican lawmaker practically admitted to Politico that the goal of the impeachment probe is not to remove Biden from office (which won’t happen) but to equate it with the many Trump investigations in the minds of voters. But there are differences here, too. The root story here is not genuinely suboptimal for Biden—his son’s business dealings merit scrutiny on their own terms, but there is no evidence yet implicating Biden in impeachable conduct. And Republicans have weaponized their control of the House to institutionalize a campaign talking point using the gravest tool in their oversight arsenal—one that the press can hardly avoid covering. If some of the coverage so far has failed to center the lack of evidence at the heart of the probe, I’ve seen plenty of other coverage that has done so, instead situating the probe as a ploy to resolve unrelated, intramural Republican squabbles, or even as an abuse of power. Even clear-eyed scrutiny, though, can’t help but tag Biden’s name to unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, in much the same way that diligent fact-checking can sometimes spread disinformation even while trying to debunk it.

Ultimately, Republicans are able to leverage the impeachment process to spread narratives about Biden because he is the sitting president—a fact that complicates the emails comparison in other ways. His current negative coverage—or “September struggles,” as Politico put it yesterday—hasn’t been confined to the issues of age and his son, but a host of burdens that come with his office, from rising gas prices to the nascent autoworkers’ strike. Taken together, this coverage can certainly be interpreted through an electoral prism: it’s tied up not only with Republican attacks, but also legitimate concern/“bedwetting” (delete as appropriate) among Democrats and liberal pundits as to Biden’s electability in 2024. But it can also be read as typical of coverage of any presidency, which trades in the perception of narrative momentum over time. Sometimes, Biden is up. Often, he is down—and right now, he is clearly down.

If there’s a lesson from all this, it’s that blurring, even blitzing, the line between coverage of campaigns and coverage of governance serves us all poorly. One solution to false equivalence between Biden and Trump isn’t to keep Biden coverage some arbitrary fraction more positive than Trump coverage, but to decouple both from the permanent horse race, which is the frame that insists, in the first place, on the sort of direct, one-to-one comparison that can morph into But her emails! We should scrutinize Biden aggressively, but on his record and not, foremost, on thin scandals or perceived electoral liabilities. We should cover the cases against Trump and his ongoing threat to American democracy. Clearly, this involves laying out the stakes of the next election; the topic shouldn’t be off limits. But it is also incumbent on us (no pun intended) to cover the presidency as more than one long campaign to win the presidency again. Age is part of the Biden story, as is the impeachment probe, but neither primarily matters as some imagined counterweight to the omnivorous Trump story. Not with a third of Biden’s term still to go, at least.

If Republicans are pushing a But her emails! media strategy in an attempt to tar Biden, the primary motivation, as I see it, is to foster cynicism; the aim is not a false equivalence that equally apportions credit, but one that conveys a sense that everyone in politics is just as old, just as corrupt, just as bad as each other, and that consequently, integrity doesn’t really matter and anything goes. Journalists who indulge this effort can convince themselves that they’re only asking questions, or covering what voters think or what politicians are saying. But to do so is to be complicit in the cynicism. It’s the logical endpoint of a media ecosystem that approaches every story through the prism of elections—an approach that has always been cynical itself.

Other notable stories:

  • In the UK, The Times of London, its Sunday sister paper, and Channel 4 published a yearslong investigation outlining claims of rape, sexual assault, and emotional abuse—including from a woman who was sixteen at the time—against the entertainer and media personality Russell Brand. “Multiple newspapers and broadcasters had looked into various allegations against Brand in recent years, but several failed to get their stories to a position where they could be published,” The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports. The allegations, Waterson notes, raise questions as to what Brand’s onetime media employers, including the BBC and Channel 4, knew of his conduct. (He has more recently cultivated an alternative-media presence rooted in distrust of the press.)
  • On Friday, the New York Times published an interview with Jann Wenner, the cofounder of Rolling Stone, about a forthcoming book collating his interviews with various iconic rock musicians, all of them white men. Asked about the book’s lack of diversity, Wenner suggested that Black and female artists he could have included were not “articulate” enough for him at “an intellectual level”—comments that sparked a furious backlash and led the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation to drop Wenner from its board of directors. Wenner has since apologized for diminishing “the contributions, genius, and impact of Black and women artists,” and acknowledged that his words were “badly chosen.”
  • Semafor’s Max Tani has a dispatch on the media landscape in Maine, which “has emerged as an unlikely and asymmetric battlefield for big American political money.” Two “key left-leaning political spenders, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and the medical device billionaire philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, played a central—and previously unreported—role in the nonprofit purchase of nearly two dozen respected local newspapers,” Tani reports. Meanwhile, the “conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo’s political network has been partially financing a local right-wing publication.”
  • Barry Svrluga, a sports columnist at the Washington Post, bemoans the decline of “the great American newspaper sports section.” While such sections aren’t dead, “I can’t help but think that something is being lost—something has been lost—in all of this,” Svrluga writes, including the idea that “sports are a valuable and vital part of culture, worthy of being packaged with international and national news” and cultural journalism, and the idea that “deep reporting and elegant writing can elevate the understanding of sports.”
  • And Chelsea Hylton, of De Los, wrote about a new exhibit, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, that pays tribute to seven Latina journalists who blazed a trail in Spanish-language TV in the US. The seven—Ilia Calderón, Dunia Elvir, Marilys Llanos, Gilda Mirós, Lori Montenegro, María Elena Salinas, and Blanca Rosa Vílchez—exhibited a “dedication to community-centered journalism,” Hylton writes.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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