The Fourth Estate

Media’s Lust for Conflict Is Failing the Public

In their depiction of Trump’s and Biden’s “markedly different” classified document situations, journalists are muddying the waters and confusing readers.

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Last month, the New York Times published a front-page story by Peter Baker, the paper’s chief White House correspondent, headlined, “Biden’s Errors On Files Blur Trump’s Case” (the online version of the story ran with the headline, “Biden’s Handling of Secret Documents Complicates the Case Against Trump”). On Twitter, Baker matter-of-factly stated that “Democrats will now have a hard time using Trump’s mishandling of classified papers against him, even though the particulars of the two cases are markedly different.”

Upon reading this, a single, one-word question came to mind: Why? Why, if “the particulars of the two cases are markedly different,” will this be an issue? Why won’t the public understand the difference between former President Trump’s refusal to turn over documents he knowingly kept at his Mar-a-Lago resort and President Biden’s people discovering and alerting authorities that he had a slew of classified documents of his own?

Baker’s piece notes the differences between Trump’s and Biden’s situations but concludes that the issues “are similar enough that as a practical matter Democrats can no longer use the issue against Mr. Trump politically, and investigators may have a harder time prosecuting him criminally.” Again, I ask: Why?

Among the many metrics by which news organizations (publicly) measure their worth—you’ll frequently see papers like the Times touting their subscriber numbers and award-winning reporting, for example—you don’t hear much about how well informed their readers, listeners, or viewers are. If, as I believe, one of the goals of journalism should be to cultivate and maintain an informed society, acknowledging that the public won’t understand the difference should serve as an acknowledgement that the press isn’t doing a great job as an institution. 

Now, of course, individual journalists and media organizations have an easy out on this, as they can’t control what other journalists and news outlets people read or watch. That’s fair, to a point. At the same time, it can be argued that mainstream news organizations like the Times, CNN, or the Washington Post haven’t done much to fight for a world where the public can understand that the scandal in the Trump situation was that he refused to cooperate with authorities and tried to hide documents that the National Archives sought. Instead, by just framing this as an issue about “documents,” it can be argued that journalists are contributing to the public’s confusion about the differences. 

Trump’s “documents” ordeal wouldn’t have necessarily been a scandal. It probably should have been, given that Politico reported way back in 2018 that Trump had a habit of ripping up documents that he was legally obligated to preserve. In January 2022, the National Archives arranged the return of 15 boxes of documents from Mar-a-Lago. This didn’t really reach “scandal” level of concern until August 8, when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago after, as NPR put it, the Justice Department’s “efforts to retrieve the records had failed, and that it resulted from law enforcement suspicion that additional documents remained inside the property despite assurances by Trump representatives that a “diligent search” had accounted for all of the material.” That is the scandalous part, not the fact that sloppy file-keeping seems to be a pretty widespread issue.

News outlets could make all of this clear to their readers, but choose not to. Baker and others can include all the “to be sure” asides they want to note that these are different issues, but the problem lies in the framing of the stories. When a Democrat does something careless, it gets treated like a scandal; when a Republican does something outright malicious, it doesn’t seem to reach the level of “scandal” until the FBI has to show up at their door after months of politely asking for the return of classified material, only to find that they were right that the Republican had been doing the malicious thing they thought was happening.

Nowhere was this more evident than in how papers like the Times covered Trump’s information security breaches, and leaks of classified info (remember the time Trump tweeted out a classified photo of an Iranian missile site?). Five days into his presidency, fresh off of a brutal election that centered on the question of which of the two candidates could be trusted to handle classified information, the Times buried a stunning admission in the 12th paragraph of a puff piece about Trump’s “ultimate home office”:

Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, went back to New York on Sunday night with their 10-year-old son, Barron, and so Mr. Trump has the television—and his old, unsecured Android phone, to the protests of some of his aides—to keep him company. That was the case after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, when Mr. Trump appeared to be reacting to Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, which was airing a feature on crime in Chicago.

This was, of course, the same newspaper that published ten front-page stories about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server in the week leading up to the election. By comparison, the paper only ran ten front-page stories about policy in the final ten weeks of the campaign. Shouldn’t Trump’s continued use of his “old, unsecured Android phone” have been a bigger story? Especially since this new discovery contradicted the Times’ (and this particular reporter’s) reporting from just days earlier that “staff members have swapped out a new encrypted phone for his Android cellphone”? Apparently not, burying it in the 12th paragraph of one story and on page 14 of the only story the paper ran specifically about the phone.

Every day, newspapers hit users with push notifications highlighting the latest in Biden’s “documents” scandal. As I write this, I just got another from USA Today, pushed from the Apple News app: “FBI searches Joe Biden’s Delaware beach house as part of classified documents investigation.” Okay. And? The story doesn’t say whether or not new documents were found. What is the news here, and why am I receiving a push notification for it?

Margaret Sullivan, who recently started writing a media, politics, and culture column for The Guardian, argued in her most recent essay that even moments of throat-clearing and clarification—citing Chuck Todd’s unusually defensive recent interview with Rep. Jim Jordan, in which Todd repeatedly pushed back on Jordan’s attempts to equate the two scandals—”are no match for the vast over-coverage of what isn’t all that much of a story, and which is only getting so much attention because of the media’s defensive desire to appear fair and because of its ratings-driven lust for conflict.” Sullivan is right.

Good journalism necessitates that news outlets inform the public rather than mislead it. By churning out story after story about Biden’s “documents” ordeal, individual journalists and outlets they work for are actively making the public understanding worse, even if they include prerequisite disclaimers highlighting the differences between his situation and Trump’s. People won’t remember those, but they will remember the firehose of “FBI searches Biden home!!!”–style headlines and push notifications.

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