The incredible decision by Twitter and Facebook to block access to a New York Post story about a cache of emails reportedly belonging to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter, with Twitter going so far as to lock the 200 year-old newspaper out of its own account for over a week, continues to be a major underreported scandal.
The hypocrisy is mind-boggling. Imagine the reaction if that same set of facts involved the New York Times and any of its multitudinous unverifiable “exposes” from the last half-decade: from the similarly-leaked “black ledger” story implicating Paul Manafort, to its later-debunked “repeated contacts with Russian intelligence” story, to its mountain of articles about the far more dubious Steele dossier. Internet platforms for years have balked at intervening at many other sensational “unverified” stories, including ones called into question in very short order:
The flow of information in the United States has become so politicized – bottlenecked by an increasingly brazen union of corporate press and tech platforms – that it’s become impossible for American audiences to see news about certain topics absent thickets of propagandistic contextualizing. Try to look up anything about Burisma, Joe Biden, or Hunter Biden in English, however, and you’re likely to be shown a pile of “fact-checks” and explainers ahead of the raw information:
Other true information has been scrubbed or de-ranked, either by platforms or by a confederation of press outlets whose loyalty to the Democratic Party far now overshadows its obligations to inform.
Obviously, Fox is not much better, in terms of its willingness to report negative information about Trump and Republicans, but Fox doesn’t have the reach that this emerging partnership between mass media, law enforcement, and tech platforms does. That group’s reaction to the New York Post story is formalizing a decision to abandon the media’s old true/untrue standard for a different test that involves other, more politicized questions, like provenance and editorial intent.
Take the example of the taped conversations between Joe Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, which Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrei Derkach has been rolling out in press conferences for some time now.
Derkach is a highly suspicious character to say the least, a man even Rudy Giuliani assessed as having a “50/50” chance of being a Russian agent. He has for some time now been disseminating information that is clearly beneficial to Russian interests.
Nonetheless, the Biden/Poroshenko recordings he’s released appear to be real. Still, Atlantic columnist Edward-Isaac Dovere this summer bragged about how media members learned their lesson after the experience of 2016, when (real) emails from the DNC suspected of being hacked by Russians were released by Wikileaks. The correct path instead is for a priesthood of “mainstream” outlets to assess whether or not the material has enough news value to publish:
It’s hard not to feel some déjà vu here. In 2016, Russian intelligence agents hacked the emails of Democratic National Committee staffers and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and delivered them to WikiLeaks, as a way to get them into the American media. Some outlets learned a lesson from that episode, and have treated new Biden recordings out of Ukraine with care…
Most mainstream-media outlets have decided that the recordings that have emerged so far offer “little new insight into Biden’s actions in Ukraine,” as The Washington Post’s Carol Morello wrote after the recordings were first released.
However they came to reach the public, the Biden-Poroshenko tapes are a newsworthy window into how America leverages its power to impact the lives of every single person in countries like Ukraine. One amazing exchange came on May 16, 2016, when Poroshenko pleaded with Biden to approve an aid package:
Poroshenko: I think that within the last three weeks, we demonstrate real great progress in the sphere of reforms. We voted in the parliament for 100% tariffs despite the fact that the IMF expected only 75%… We are launching reform for the prices for medicine, removing all the obstacles.
Biden: I agree.
Poroshenko was telling Joe Biden that in order to get an American aid package, he’d gone beyond even what the I.M.F. asked for and raised energy prices for ordinary Ukrainians not by 75%, but by 100%, as well as taking steps to curtail subsidized medicine prices.
This is clearly newsworthy, but the few outlets like the Washington Post that even bothered to report on these tapes only did so to convey their distaste for the source, and to relay news that the Biden camp believed it all to be “a continuation of a long-standing Russian effort to hurt the former vice president.”
Press outlets began some time ago to describe such material as “misinformation” or “disinformation,” even though items like the Derkach tapes (or the leaked calls between State Department officials Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt discussing who should be Ukraine’s interim leader after the Euromaidan revolution) are neither. By definition, both terms normally require an element of “false information.”
In one recent AP story, reporters spent more time asking Twitter and Facebook why they’d allowed material from the Derkach tapes to be spread than they did weighing the truth of the information in the tapes. Their conclusion was a warning from “disinformation fellow” Nina Jankowicz from the “non-partisan Wilson Center,” about Twitter and Facebook rules that allowed some of this information through:
That’s a loophole foreign and domestic troublemakers are inclined to continue exploiting before Election Day, Jankowicz said.
“If you get a piece of information in the hands of the right American, it can absolutely spin out of control and make the national news in a couple of days,” she said.
Connecticut Senator Senator Chris Murphy, racing past Adam Schiff in his candidacy to become this era’s more odorless and colorless version of McCarthy, went even further this week, telling CNN that Russian disinformation efforts are “more problematic” than in 2016. He said this was because “this time around, the Russians have decided to cultivate U.S. citizens as assets. They are attempting to try to spread their propaganda in the mainstream media.”
Note that unlike the Derkach tapes, where the foreign interference issue is obvious, the New York Post material hasn’t been conclusively tied to Russia (it has also been denied by the Director of National Intelligence, not that blue-state audiences care). Nonetheless, politicians and pundits alike freely make such accusations.
In an interview with Yahoo!’s “On the Move” program, anchor Adam Shapiro became one of the only members of the press — think of how shameful that is — to ask a prominent Democrat to make a statement about the veracity of the New York Post story. Shapiro asked Murphy:
Even if it’s an outright lie, or Russian… some kind of interference… We haven’t heard the Bidens say it’s absolutely not true. We haven’t heard Hunter Biden say that or the Senator say that. Do they need to say that?
To which Murphy replied, “I mean, what a victory for Russian propaganda, that we’re talking about this right now.” He went on to non-answer the question, which has essentially been declared illegitimate, by the press first of all. The least curious people in the country right now appear to be the credentialed news media, a situation normally unique to tinpot authoritarian societies.
If the problem is “American citizens” being cultivated as “assets” trying to put “interference” in the mainstream media, the logical next step is to start asking Internet platforms to shut down accounts belonging to any American journalist with the temerity to report material leaked by foreigners (the wrong foreigners, of course – it will continue to be okay to report things like the “black ledger”). From Fox or the Daily Caller on the right, to left-leaning outlets like Consortium or the World Socialist Web Site, to writers like me even – we’re all now clearly in range of new speech restrictions, even if we stick to long-ago-established factual standards.
As has been hinted at by several prominent journalists, controversies erupted within newsrooms across New York and Washington in the last week. Editors have been telling charges that any effort to determine whether or not the Biden laptop material is true, or to ask the Biden campaign to confirm or deny the story, will either not be allowed or put through heightened fact-checking procedures.
On the other hand, if you want to assert without any evidence at all that the New York Post story is Russian interference, you can essentially go straight into print.
Many people on the liberal side of the political aisle don’t have a problem with this, focused as they are on the upcoming Trump-Biden election. But this same press corps might be weeks away from assuming responsibility for challenging a Biden administration. If they’ve already calculated once that a true story may be buried for political reasons because the other “side” is worse, they will surely make that same calculation again.
What happens a month from now when an ambitious Republican like Tom Cotton leaks a document damaging to a President-Elect Biden? Or two years from now, if in the weeks before midterm elections, we get bad economic news, or a Biden/Harris administration foreign policy initiative takes a turn for the worse? Are we sure those stories will be run?
The Republican version of Burisma story – essentially, that former General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin was Elliott Ness, and Joe Biden intervened to fire him specifically to aid his son’s company – is also not supported by evidence. What Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his cohorts have done to date is take a few unreported or under-reported facts and leap straight to a maximalist interpretation of corruption on Joe Biden’s part.
This isn’t right, but the room to make that argument has been created by the ongoing squelching of information coming from Ukraine. The suppression story is almost certainly a bigger scandal than the Hunter Biden affair itself, but it’s all become part of the same picture.
As I learned from sources in Ukraine this week, the biggest misconception has to do with the question of whether or not investigations of Burisma were ongoing at the time of Joe Biden’s intervention in 2015.
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