Submitted by Charles Lipson
If you’re waiting for an apology from partisan journalists, you’ll wait in vain.
Well over a year after the presidential election, long after all mainstream media outlets killed a legitimate story about Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop, the New York Times finally announced it had “authenticated” the computer and its messages. The computer, left amid a drug-filled haze at a Delaware computer repair shop, is filled with damning information about Hunter’s pay-to-play operations, which monetized his family’s political power.
His only marketable skill was opening doors with his last name. It’s still unclear how deeply and directly Hunter’s father, Joe, is implicated in this sleazy business, which went on for years. Not that the Times wanted to know any of this when it mattered most, before the 2020 election.
As NPR’s managing editor for news put it on October 22, 2020, after the New York Post had broken the 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.”
NPR and the Times were hardly alone in killing the story. The Post was the only major paper that investigated and ran the damning news. Fox News was the only TV source that reported on it. For that investigative work, the Post deserved a roomful of journalistic prizes but, predictably, it received none. Why “predictably”? Because the folks who award prizes are the same hall monitors who try to control public discussion. They were the ones who suppressed the laptop story.
The media malfeasance doesn’t end there. While major new outlets were killing the story, two of the biggest social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook, were making sure you couldn’t read it. Users on Twitter and Facebook were not permitted to display or share the Post story, the same story the Times now confirms. In the crucial days leading up to the election, Twitter even suspended the Post’s Twitter account. Consider it an in-kind donation to their favorite candidate.
Even now, after the Times story, the most prominent mainstream outlets still won’t mention Hunter’s laptop, its damning information, or their role in covering it up. NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC and CNN have all maintained radio silence. Brian Stelter, who passes as a media analyst at CNN, and who highlighted the laptop story as “Russian disinformation” before the election, refused to mention it in his latest newsletter. His focus was on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s upcoming podcast.
Leslie Stahl, a correspondent for CBS’s 60 Minutes, hasn’t apologized either, despite her now-discredited interview with Donald Trump in October 2020. When Trump said the laptop was a major scandal, Stahl repeatedly slapped it down. CBS had no intention of reporting it, she kept saying, because it couldn’t be verified. The implication was that it was all disinformation. Of course, the New York Post had already verified it, using independent computer analysts.
Faced with the Times’s admission, the Washington Post tried a different tactic to avoid blame. On late Friday afternoon, graveyard time for news stories, the WaPo ran a piece saying their paper had very good reasons to avoid reporting on the laptop story. They offered no mea culpa. Their message to readers: “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along quietly.”
Why all this effort to evade, suppress and stop the spread of genuine news? Why work so diligently to bury a story that mattered to voters? Because those media outlets wanted Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump. They had no intention of publishing a story that would damage Biden’s chances.
There’s nothing wrong with partisanship, including partisan media, but that should be the job of editorial pages and opinion shows, not news sections, at least not at outlets that purport to offer unbiased coverage. The best practice is to label editorials and analysis as such and ensure they are separated from hard news.
When partisan goals become central to news judgment, journalists have lost their way and morphed into political activists. They are no longer shy about helping their preferred candidates or hurting their opponents. Again, that’s fine on the editorial pages and opinion shows (ideally with facts to back up their claims and a platform for some countervailing views). But that kind of partisanship is not appropriate on “hard news” pages or programs.
When strong opinions suffuse that coverage, when they dictate which stories are covered and how they are reported, as they did the Hunter Biden laptop case, the standard of unbiased journalism is corrupted. That is exactly what has happened to American journalism. And that’s why public trust in its coverage has collapsed.
This mounting distrust of media and, indeed, of all public institutions, intersects in troubling ways with the new technology of delivering news and opinion. Today, there are virtually no barriers to creating blogs and very low costs to creating strongly opinionated news sources online. Such technology makes it easy for readers to seek out sites that confirm preexisting views and avoid those that challenge them. Our leading news organizations now compete in that same space, producing content that confirms and reinforces the prior views of their readers and viewers. We’ve turned the feedback in this echo chamber up to eleven.
If you are waiting for apologies from the reporters, anchors and editors who blew the Hunter Biden laptop story, you will wait in vain. If you expect them to reflect seriously on their egregious errors or try to remedy them, you will have a cappuccino with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy before that happens. But the media’s silence cannot hide their shameful failure.
Submitted by Charles Lipson. He is the Peter B. Ritzma professor of political science emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security.