The GOP is about to go wild with phony Biden investigations. The media must not take the bait

Republicans know how to manipulate the "both sides" impulse of the press. Hunter Biden's laptop is not a story

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 3, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Dark Brandon strikes again! Republicans have been drooling openly for weeks now over the small House majority they will have in the new year, and not because they have plans for legislation that will improve the lives of Americans. Nah, the blueprint for 2023 is all revenge on Democrats, all the time. Republicans are still salty over House Democrats investigating Donald Trump for minor transgressions like attempting to overthrow democracy and sending a murderous mob after Congress and his own vice president. The main form this revenge will take will be endless, stupid "investigations" into the various conspiracy theories about President Joe Biden that have been dredged up from the bowels of right wing media. 

But Biden is not interested in making it easy for them. On Thursday, White House lawyer Richard Sauber metaphorically crumpled up Republican requests for materials on various fake scandals, telling them they don't have the authority yet and will have to redo all the paperwork in the new year. 

"Should the Committee issue similar or other requests in the 118th Congress, we will review and respond to them in good faith, consistent with the needs and obligations of both branches," he wrote. "We expect the new Congress will undertake its oversight responsibilities in the same spirit of good faith."

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One can smell the sarcasm dripping off the letter, of course. Even a cursory review of the requests shows that "good faith" is not a concept that holds much meaning for House Republicans. As Reuters reports, "lawmakers requested documents related to probes into the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which started during the previous administration; and the federal government's response to threats against members of local school boards over pandemic-era restrictions and curriculum disputes."

They didn't ask for Hunter Biden's laptop, but then again, they don't need to. That's already been stolen for them, under shady circumstances involving Rudy Giuliani. But this list gives us a general idea of the B.S. that will be pouring out of the House Oversight Committee for the next two years: Conspiracy theories smearing White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci, who will likely be pulled out of retirement to testify while Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, screams false accusations at him. Faux outrage over Biden ending the expensive, go-nowhere war in Afghanistan, coupled with hypocritical whining over military aid to Ukraine. And, perhaps most troubling, winking encouragement of domestic terrorism by portraying those who were investigated for seditious scheming as victims. 

And, because Republicans have no limits to their pettiness, we can expect two years of taxpayer money being used to show off pictures of Hunter Biden's penis, excused with the vague pretext that it's necessary to investigate his "business dealings." 

Republicans no doubt are aware that they look like a bunch of clowns when they do stuff like this, but they don't care for one reason: Traditionally, these antics work to bait the mainstream media into giving credulous coverage to fake scandals about Democrats. The gold standard, of course, is how the phony Whitewater investigation in the '90s took a winding road to the discovery that President Bill Clinton had an affair with a young White House employee named Monica Lewinsky, leading to months of lavish, embarrassing coverage of Clinton's sex life. Even more preposterous pumped-up scandals have followed, from President Barack Obama's birth certificate to Benghazi, which became a national catchword, even though no one can really explain what was supposed to be so scandalous about it. 

Republicans understand all too well the Achilles heel of the mainstream media: The cavernous longing for "balance." Journalists want desperately to be seen as objective and the cheapest way to achieve that is to present "both sides" as equally corrupt. The problem, of course, is that simply isn't true. Democrats, like all political parties, have their problems, and when they mess up or engage in corruption they should be held accountable. But their issues at the moment are a pittance compared to the endemic lying and corruption of the party of Donald Trump. One way for the press to achieve "balance" is to make mountains out of Democratic molehills — or worse, to cover flat-out fake or unimportant stories as if they were for-real scandals. 

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For instance, Republicans are undertaking a truly despicable defamation campaign against Fauci because they believe the mainstream media will give airtime to false accusations that the doctor somehow caused COVID-19. Sadly, they have good reason to believe this, because in 2021, outlets that really should know better — including the New York Times and The Washington Post — gave lavish coverage to a conspiracy theory claiming that COVID-19 was invented in a Chinese lab. (Most scientists believe it mutated in an animal-to-human transmission.) They were bullied into it by internet trolls like Matt Yglesias who basically insinuated that the press was covering up for the Chinese government out of some anti-Trump bias. (For reasons that take too long to recount here, there was a perception that it was somehow better for Trump politically if the disease was manufactured instead of evolved.) Sure enough, even though the press largely covered the conspiracy theory as "questions are being asked," the idea that the pandemic was man-made took off in the public imagination. 

Despite that debacle, there are some hints that some in the mainstream press are finally starting to prioritize truth and relevance over "balance." We see this most with the bogus Hunter Biden story. Initially, Trump and Giuliani did have some success getting the New York Times to run a story misleading readers into thinking that Joe Biden had used his time as vice president to assist his son's money-making schemes. (These accusations are flat-out false.) But the conspiracy theory was swiftly eclipsed by a very real conspiracy between Giuliani and Trump to leverage military aid in a plot to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into announcing an investigation into the Bidens and Hunter's dealings with a Ukrainian gas company. Trump was impeached, though the New York Times still has not apologized for its role in amplifying Trump's smears. 

Since then, there have been many efforts by right wing media to turn Hunter Biden's problems into a mainstream news story. So far, it's largely failed, as the press has correctly assessed that "the president's son has a substance abuse problem and his father has tried to support his recovery" is not a scandal. Still, Republicans are betting that the imprimatur of congressional hearings will convert this non-story into a media maelstrom. The good news is that, generally speaking, Biden stories have a harder time getting traction in the mainstream news marketplace than Trump stories did and still do, as many readers apparently assume anything the president does is hella boring. Capitalism may save us from this particular faux scandal, even if the urge to "balance" the endless-but-real Trump controversies with a spurious Biden one is still kicking. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Fauci, or the various colorful characters who threaten school board officials and get a call from law enforcement as a response. Those folks are reliable attention magnets. There's a not-small chance that the media will take the bait and let Republican lies convert the former into a villain and the latter into victims. 

It's probably pissing in the wind to write this, but I would implore the editors at the New York Times, CNN, and other such outlets to resist the bait. Just because Republicans cast aspersions doesn't mean they need lavish coverage for doing so. The role of the press is not to "balance" very real, bad stories about Trump and other Republicans with fictitious nonsense about Democrats. The first duty should be to the truth. And the truth is there's no equivalence between Biden and Trump, or, at this point, Republicans and Democrats, broadly speaking. Plus, Trump is probably going to keep committing crimes, lying, plotting another coup, and being extremely and loudly racist. Cover that instead. It's way more relevant and entertaining than trying to manipulate right wing conspiracy theories into something that looks like "news."

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Anthony Fauci Commentary Donald Trump Hunter Biden Jim Jordan Joe Biden Rudy Giuliani