Last week, the New York Post published a dubious story about Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Post story claims Hunter Biden helped arrange a meeting between Joe Biden and an executive at a Ukrainian energy company Burisma in April 2015. The series of stories contained hacked materials and personal email addresses, so Twitter (TWTR) initially prevented people from posting links to the article, sending it via direct message and retweeting it.
As CNN’s Chief Media Correspondent Brian Stelter noted on “Reliable Sources” Sunday, “We are not talking about fully reliable sources here,” referring to the New York Post’s story.
Yet the story behind the story is a familiar one: The Post said it was tipped off to the story by former Trump Administration staffer and former head of Breitbart Steve Bannon. A hard drive containing the emails was supplied by former New York Mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, according to the Post. (Giuliani incidentally has openly coordinated with a known Russian agent to promote disinformation about the Bidens.) A former producer for Sean Hannity’s Fox News show co-wrote some of the stories for the Post. Giuliani then went on Fox News to discuss the story, and President Donald Trump has been tweeting and discussing it for days.
CNN hasn’t been able to authenticate emails and the New York Post declined to comment.
“This is a classic example of the right-wing media machine,” Stelter said. “Fox and Trump have this in common: They want you to stay mad and stay tuned.”
The story is a “manufactured scandal,” Stelter said, meant to feed “whataboutism” – an opportunity for the right-wing media to shift the conversation from Trump’s record to Biden’s.
“The strategy is to deflect attention, to attack the opponent, and the same propaganda pipeline is there all the time,” said Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School told Stelter on “Reliable Sources” Sunday.
Benkler noted that when Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the FBI investigation into her handling of classified information that ultimately recommended no charges, and the Clinton foundation became the subject of right-wing media talking points, serious journalists dug into her emails.
“I think, this time, unlike what we saw with Clinton, where serious journalists fell for the Bannon-produced Clinton Foundation nonsense trivially, where serious journalists dug into the e-mails, and Gallup shows us, the only thing people thought about when they thought about Clinton was e-mails and foundation,” Benkler said.
Right-wing media is trying for the same strategy again as Election Day grows closer.
But unlike previous “closing argument” stories, the media world has largely ignored the Post’s Hunter Biden story.
“They’re so confident that the story’s just going to be too much fun for serious journalists not to pick up,” Benkler said. “They’re trying to produce it now, but the media at the moment – major professional media – doesn’t seem to be falling for it.”
That might be because the details of the story have been denied by a credible former Joe Biden staffer and the Biden campaign, and US authorities are investigating whether the emails are part of an ongoing Russian disinformation effort.
It doesn’t help that the source of the story is truly bizarre: A laptop repairman in Delaware claims he copied the emails from what he says was Hunter Biden’s laptop after a person claiming to be Hunter Biden brought it into the shop in April of 2019.
The repairman has contradicted himself several times in interviews: The Post reported the repairman “couldn’t positively identify the customer as Hunter Biden,” and said someone claiming to be Biden brought it in.
Stelter called the Post’s story “political entertainment,” written by a newspaper run by Rupert Murdoch and promoted by another Murdoch property: Fox News, which Stelter called “a producer of this serialized drama.”
Anne Applebaum, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” noting that Joe Biden’s legacy in Ukraine is about promoting democracy, rule of law and creating a better legal system, said, “There’s no ‘there’ there.”
Hunter Biden has in the past admitted to poor judgment about his ties to Burisma.
Conservative media might have another reason to push the Hunter Biden story, notes The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman, and it has little to do with Trump winning reelection.
Last week, The Daily Beast reported that Murdoch is predicting a landslide win for Biden. So why run the Biden story if they think Trump’s election chances are doomed?
“They’re positioning themselves for the next few years where they can be the kind of conservative resistance to Biden,” Shachtman said.