Media Lingers on Biden Documents Story, ‘Both-Sidesing’ with Trump

by | Jan 20, 2023 | News

Last week, the discovery of classified documents at Joe Biden’s former office and later his home sparked a flurry of news coverage, including comparisons to Donald Trump’s ongoing classified-records scandal.

Critics called out false equivalency in mainstream media’s framing of the two stories, which are different in that Biden failed to appear fully transparent at first but has now cooperated with investigators, while Trump has not.

To explore media’s responses to these document stories, Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop spoke with Margaret Sullivan, whose column in the Washington Post until last year addressed just this sort of controversy.

In watching Biden’s mishap unfold, Sullivan detected gleefulness from mainstream media because “finally there was something they could jump on, to, legitimate or non-legitimately, create some equivalence between a pretty buttoned-down, boring administration without a lot of scandal and the ever-fascinating circus that was the Trump administration.”

Sullivan said the situation deserved significant coverage, though it went over the top at times. Allsop agreed, and added that early on, outlets like CNN stressed the distinctions between the two cases, almost as if pointing out that they weren’t both-sidesing the stories.

But Allsop identified an “implied both-sidesism” in the apparent prevailing narrative that “Whatever actually happened factually, this is bad for Biden because Republicans say it’s bad — even if the same Republicans, in many cases, just waved off Trump’s mishandling of classified documents.”

Sullivan added that coverage quickly slides from substance to speculation of political fallout. “And if there’s one thing that we should have learned, it’s that journalists are terrible at predictions, but they love to predict anyway.”

A desire to keep the story alive led to nonsense, such as stressing the lack of visitor logs at the former vice president’s private home, clouding the news cycle. Sullivan pointed out that this volume of coverage is disheartening, among other reasons because it generates the impression that “Wow, this is a huge story,” not because of the content of the news, but the amount.

Allsop brought up a remark by Glenn Thrush saying his biggest takeaway from the Biden documents story was “Donald Trump’s gravitational field on American politics,” since, without Trump, no one would care about this sort of thing. Allsop asked if it wasn’t the press’s job to moderate that pull; Sullivan said the press in large part creates it. And for all the talk of the media having elaborate ideas of what they’re doing, Sullivan said it comes down to “This is a great story, let’s go with it, let’s really work it as hard as we can, let’s try to get the next scoop on it.”

The conversation closed by touching on another inevitable comparison that the Biden documents story engendered: Hillary Clinton’s emails, which Allsop noted has become a shorthand for media both-sidesism.

Sullivan said Biden’s story has some protection in the form of Trump’s similar, bigger ongoing controversy, but it does share “the breathlessness with which the [Clinton emails] story has been reported and embraced.” Sulivan assured, “As much as I say that journalists should not predict, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think this will be anything like that.”

 

Header Photo by Lisa Ferdinando/Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.

 

More from The Edge

The Racism of American Capital Punishment

The death penalty in America always incites controversy. Last year, Alabama took three hours to administer their lethal injection drugs. Idaho had to pause an execution for the lack of those drugs. And two people on death row were exonerated. The larger long-term...

Academic Austerity Survival Kit: 15 Ways to Make It Through

It’s bad, really bad, in higher education these days. Whether the pandemic is over or ongoing, its continuing impact has catapulted colleges and universities into a maelstrom of student disengagement, faculty quiet quitting, outright resignations, and draconian budget...

The Traumas of the Buffalo Winter Blizzard of 2022

I was 1 year old when the legendary blizzard of ’77 struck Buffalo, NY. This coincidence made me a “blizzard baby,” as my late mother Gail frequently recalled with a fond, nostalgic smile. She shared the Buffalo folklore tales of snowbanks towering to the height of...

Investigation Points to FBI Conspiracy to Silence Martin Luther King Jr.

In the years following his death, documents related to Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder case were destroyed, and all files of FBI surveillance on King were sealed for 50 years. The suppression of information prompted human rights lawyer Dr. William Pepper and the King...

Ukrainian Journalists Reporting Amidst Bombs to Document War

On February 24, 2022, a full-scale Russian military attack changed the destinies of millions of people. Journalists overnight became, in addition to their specialization, war correspondents and war victims, mostly unprepared for reporting amidst bombs. Some...

Struggles, Solutions, Solidarities: Julia Reichert (1946-2022)

Julia sat in the basement of the Student Union at the University of Iowa engulfed in a circle of women college students wearing flannel shirts, jeans, and work boots, drinking coffee to power them through a study night at the university library. It was 1976. I was a...

A Brief Political Travelogue of an American Abroad

Traveling outside of the country poses great privileges and special challenges for Americans, given the influence that the U.S. has over the global economic and political order.  It comes with responsibilities, which all Americans should take seriously but,...

Artificial Intelligence: Everyone’s Life, a Work of Art

In September 2022, “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” (“Space Opera Theater”) by Jason M. Allen won a blue ribbon at the Colorado State Fair. Outrage ensued. The involvement of an AI software called Midjourney offended many critics. Allen never wielded a paintbrush or mixed...