Hunter Biden, the Wall Street Journal and the decline of media gatekeepers

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

The thing about “fake news” is that it suddenly seems authentic when it’s on your side.

For all of President Trump’s attacks on the “enemy of the people”--and some criticism from the Bernie Sanders wing that derides the corporate-controlled media--nonpartisan journalists can still be useful in the role of umpire. And that’s why the president, and politicians of all stripes, try to orchestrate favorable coverage, especially on controversial issues.

This enables them to point to a news story as validation of whatever political charge they’re hurling at the moment. Such stories give their rhetoric a certain gravitas, a patina of credibility.


But--and here’s the rub--nowhere near as much as in the past. A huge swath of the country no longer trusts the elite media, which has been battered by Trumpian attacks as well as their own increasingly blatant biases and blunders. Many people no longer believe the fact-checkers will deliver the facts. Many reflexively dismiss a story in the New York Times or Washington Post, no matter how well-documented, as trash because of the perception of political animus. 

They were once the gatekeepers, the big papers, networks and magazines who mainly controlled what you read, saw and heard. But the rise of the web and social media destroyed their stranglehold on the news. And that, despite the vitriol and misinformation that are part of the Twitter and Facebook culture, was a healthy thing.

The downside of their forced abdication is the absence of neutral referees, the inability to agree on a common set of facts, that has been a hallmark of the Trump era, as major news outlets have turned sharply left. Who, in the past, could imagine a president walking out on “60 Minutes”?

And that brings us to Hunter Biden.

Ben Smith, in his New York Times column, describes how Trump campaign operatives tried to give the story--the batch of emails and a former Hunter business partner accusing Joe Biden of involvement--to a Wall Street Journal reporter. “The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president,” who told one crowd the Journal was working on an exciting story.


But when Journal reporters--who operate separately from its conservative editorial page--took too long with their digging, the Trump folks, who wanted the story out before the final debate, got antsy. Rudy Giuliani delivered some of the same documents to the New York Post, which like the Journal and Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch but operates independently. The Post’s story, alleging the former vice president was involved in Hunter’s foreign dealmaking, drew plenty of criticism (and was censored by Twitter and Facebook, which have essentially become the new virtual gatekeepers).

The ex-business partner, Tony Bobulinski, issued a statement implicating Biden the night before the debate, and the Trump campaign brought him to Nashville for an appearance the next day. Breitbart, which used to be run by Steve Bannon, the ex-White House aide who was working with Giuliani, published the entire statement.  

The result is the latest Hunter stories were birthed in a hyperpartisan storm, rather than with the imprimatur of the Journal news pages.

Worse, from the Trump campaign’s point of view, is that the Journal ran a short news story saying “corporate records reviewed by the Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.” Fox’s news division, reviewing the same records, reached the same conclusion. At both outlets, conservative opinion people disagreed.

There was a barrage of online denunciations from Trump supporters after I laid out these facts on “Media Buzz.”

On one side, you have Bobulinski’s account and an email saying that “H” (presumably Hunter) would reserve 10 percent of the millions of dollars from China for the “big man” (presumably Joe).

On the other side, another ex-partner says Joe Biden was not involved, while two news organizations failed to find evidence to contradict that. And in any event this happened in 2017, when Biden was out of office, and the China project never went anywhere.

Conservative partisans don’t want to hear this; they’re convinced the former VP is guilty as hell. Liberal partisans don’t want to hear this; they think the media shouldn’t even touch the subject. That includes NPR, whose managing editor said last week that “we don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories.”

Of course it’s a story, with many unanswered questions. Overall, Hunter Biden’s foreign influence-peddling looks awful and is an embarrassment to his father. But we already knew that.

Smith writes that the last two weeks have proved “that the old gatekeepers, like the Journal, can still control the agenda.”

I wouldn’t use the word control. A blue-chip newspaper like the Journal carries more weight than a highly partisan website, but it’s a vast echo chamber out there, and no news organization has the clout to either certify or shut down an allegation that’s “out there.” There are too many ways for a shaky charge, a video snippet or a conspiracy theory to go viral, too many audiences that believe the establishment press is lying to them.

That’s why the gatekeepers are a shadow of their former selves, just some brand-name voices in the national cacophony.