Charles Lipson

    The shameful silence about the Hunter Biden laptop story

    The shameful silence about the Hunter Biden laptop story
    Joe and Hunter Biden (photo: Getty)
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    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 at a Delaware computer repair shop, is filled with damning information about Hunter’s operations, which appeared to take advantage of his family’s political power. Hunter’s only proper 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 in October 2020, after the New York Post broke the story, ‘We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories,’ he said, ‘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 New York Post was the only major paper that investigated and ran the damning news. Fox News was the only TV source that reported 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 good folks who suppressed the laptop story in the first place.

    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 New York Post story, the same story which the Times has now backed up. In the crucial days leading up to the election, Twitter even suspended the New York 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 since the Times story broke. Brian Stelter, who passes for 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, understandably, was on Prince Harry and Meghan’s upcoming podcast. Leslie Stahl, the CBS 60 Minutes correspondent, hasn’t been heard apologising, either, despite her now-discredited interview with Donald Trump on October 20, 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. The Times now admits they were right.

    Faced with the Times’ admission, the Washington Post has tried a different tack to avoid blame. On late Friday afternoon, when news stories come to die, the WaPo ran a piece saying their paper had very good reasons to avoid publishing the laptop story in the first place. 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 a genuine news story? Why work so diligently to bury a story that mattered to voters? Oh, go ahead and guess. Right, 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. Why dig into a story that could only hurt your guy?

    There’s nothing wrong with partisanship, including partisan media, but that’s the job of editorial pages and opinion shows, not news sections, at least not in papers, websites, and TV channels that purport to offer unbiased coverage. For those sites, the best practice is to clearly label editorials and analysis and ensure they are separated from hard-news coverage.

    When partisan goals become central to news judgment, as they have at the New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, those outlets 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 programmes.

    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 their 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. That technology makes it easy for readers to seek out sites that confirm pre-existing views and avoid those that challenge them.

    Our leading news organisations now compete in that same space and have raced down that same path, producing content that confirms and reinforces our prior views. We’ve turned the feedback in this echo chamber up to 11. One result is the refusal of liberal outlets to run stories on Hunter Biden’s laptop or apologise when their coverup is finally discovered.

    If you are waiting for apologies from reporters, anchors, and editors who blew the 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.

    Written byCharles Lipson

    Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the programme on International Politics, Economics, and Security.

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