The Hunter Biden “scandal” that divided an American newsroom
The conflict between the reporting and editorial sides of news organizations was recently laid bare in the scandal around Hunter Biden.
While it is common to sort news organizations into partisan boxes – Fox News is conservative, MSNBC is liberal – those simplistic divisions rarely tell the whole story. It is routine for two members of the same organization to view the same news story through diametrically opposed lenses. This division often plays out most plainly between journalists and opinion writers.
The conflict between the reporting and editorial sides of news organizations was recently laid bare in the scandal around Hunter Biden. The Wall Street Journal, traditionally considered right-leaning among the national newspapers, recently found itself in the position of pushing the scandal in its opinion pages, even as the paper’s journalists undermined key aspects of it.
This division was just the latest instance of a news organization’s reporting not aligning with its editorial perspective.
The Wall Street Journal’s Hunter Biden investigation
In October, The New York Post published a series of articles allegedly based on emails related to Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. The emails appeared to reveal Hunter attempting to make business deals in China and Ukraine. They also purportedly showed that Joe Biden was involved in those deals, suggesting he could be financially tied to China.
Multiple aspects of the story raised concerns among journalists, including the fact that the emails somehow landed in the hands of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. It was also reported after the Post published the stories that Fox News had passed on the story because it could not confirm the details.
As it turns out, though, before the Post or Fox were given the story, members of Trump’s campaign had presented it to one of the nation’s leading newspapers, The Wall Street Journal.
That is according to a New York Times report from October 25. As the Times explains, the Trump campaign had hoped The Wall Street Journal would help expose the scandal and give it credibility (more so than the tabloid Post could hope to do). Instead, the Journal’s investigation of the details, including evidence from Hunter’s purported business partner, Tony Bobulinski, undermined the story.
Before the Journal published their investigation into the story, Trump was apparently under the assumption that the paper’s reporting would validate the Post’s stories. On October 19, Maggie Haberman, the Times’ White House correspondent, tweeted that Trump had told her paper’s staff that The Wall Street Journal was “working on an important piece.”
When the Journal article came out four days later, it clearly wasn’t the bombshell Trump’s team had anticipated. There was no evidence, the journalists concluded, that linked the former vice president to his son’s business dealings. Per the Journal:
“The venture [between Hunter Biden and CEFC China Energy]—set up in 2017 after Mr. Biden left the vice presidency and before his presidential campaign—never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter. Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.”
Nonetheless, in the Journal’s editorial section on October 20, Holman Jenkins Jr., a regular contributor to the paper, wrote as if the scandal was verified fact. The piece, titled “A Laptop Window on the Oligarchy” was premised on the assumption that “Hunter Biden was for sale to anybody who wanted influence with his father.”
While both the reporting and editorial sides of the Journal conclude Hunter Biden may have traded on his surname, it’s only in the opinion pages that the veracity of the larger story goes unquestioned. Jenkins chastises the “mainstream media” for not taking the scandal seriously enough, yet even he acknowledges that “Nothing may be illegal here.”
This division has played out along partisan divides in the media. Right-leaning news organizations, including Fox, have continued to report on the details of the scandal. Left-leaning news organizations have generally ignored it, while nonpartisan organizations like The Associated Press have presented the details of the story while acknowledging the lack of verified evidence.
Fox News’ journalists versus pundits
Since it launched in 1996 with the slogan “Fair and Balanced,” Fox News has presented itself as a corrective to the supposed liberal bias of mainstream news organizations. Its early success was built on the strong performance of its conservative opinion pundits, including Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and, later, Glenn Beck (O’Reilly and Beck have since left the network, Hannity remains).
Having chiseled out its place as the most watched and most trusted news network among Republicans and American conservatives, Fox is frequently criticized for being overtly partisan. Yet, despite its right-leaning perspective, the journalistic side of the network has shown itself willing to challenge prevailing conservative views, including criticizing Trump.
Fox’s reporting side has, as a result, butted heads with its popular opinion hosts. In 2019, one of Fox’s biggest stars, Tucker Carlson, openly criticized Shephard Smith, the network’s chief news anchor. Smith had frequently criticized and challenged Trump on-air, which, in addition to provoking attacks from his colleague, earned the ire of the president.
“Watching Fake News CNN is better than watching Shepard Smith,” Trump tweeted in August 2019, “the lowest rated show on @FoxNews. Actually, whenever possible, I turn to @OANN!”
(OANN, or OAN, is a burgeoning far-right conservative news network whose coverage of Trump is overwhelmingly positive, at times even fawning. When Trump is displeased with his coverage on Fox, he often takes to Twitter to recommend his followers watch OANN instead.)
Smith left the network shortly after Carlson criticized him, partly due to feeling unsupported by his superiors there.
Meanwhile, Carlson, who hosts the highest-rated show on cable news, retains the network’s full support. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” occasionally breaks news, as when Carlson recently interviewed Tony Bobulinski, but the show is firmly opinion, not journalistic.
That is according to the network’s lawyers who recently defended Carlson in a defamation case by stating “any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statement he makes.” The judge, who ruled in Carlson’s favor, conceded that his viewers should understand he is not “stating actual facts” and therefore he could not have defamed his accuser.
While Fox’s current roster of opinion hosts – including Hannity and Laura Ingraham – are firmly pro-Trump in their tenor, the news side of the network still ruffles the president’s feathers, even after Smith’s departure. No host has received as much vitriol from Trump than Chris Wallace, who recently hosted the first debate between Trump and Biden.
“Just watched Mike Wallace wannabe, Chris Wallace, on @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted this April. “I am now convinced that he is even worse than Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Meet the Press(please!), or the people over at Deface the Nation. What the hell is happening to @FoxNews. It’s a whole new ballgame over there!”
Wallace has criticized the president on multiple occasions. One of his most pointed criticisms came last year when Wallace took on Trump’s tactic of attacking the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”
“I believe that President Trump is engaged in the most direct sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history,” Wallace said at the now-closed Newseum media museum in Washington, DC on December 11, 2019. “He has done everything he can to undercut the media, to try to delegitimize us, and I think his purpose is clear: to raise doubts when we report critically about him and his administration that we can be trusted.”
Regardless of these criticisms, Fox News coverage of Trump has remained noticeably positive, even during the COVID-19 pandemic and an election cycle in which the president has never led in the polls.
The New York Times’ editorial page
A battle between journalists and the editorial page broke out at The New York Times earlier this year. On June 3, the paper published an op-ed by sitting Republican Senator Tom Cotton. In the piece, Cotton advocated for using military force to quell growing unrest in American cities. Throughout the summer, Black Lives Matters protests have erupted over the police killings of multiple Black people.
Outrage was swift, with Cotton’s editorial being denounced by readers, politicians and the paper’s own journalists. Some Times journalists reportedly told their editors that they had lost sources over the opinion piece.
After the backlash, the Times offered an apology for “a significant breakdown in our editing processes.” The op-ed remains on the site but now includes a five-paragraph disclaimer that claims, “the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved.” One such senior editor, James Bennet, resigned days later.
It wasn’t the first time Bennet’s brief tenure as the editorial page’s top editor caused discord with the Times’ journalists.
In March 2017, Bennet published an editorial by a British conservative politician, Louise Mensch. In her editorial, Mensch referenced her own reporting on a story involving the alleged spying on Trump’s campaign by then-President Barack Obama’s administration (those claims have since been dismissed by the Department of Justice).
Journalists at the Times had previously investigated Mensch’s claims and found them baseless. BuzzFeed reported that the publishing of Mensch’s editorial caused “a civil war between news and opinion” at the Times. Nonetheless, the op-ed remains up on the Times’ site and does not include any disclaimer or indication that it relies on information debunked by the paper’s own reporting.
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