Inside the White House's secret, last-ditch effort to change the narrative, and the election — and the return of the media gatekeepers.
By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Donald Trump's re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men allied with the president gathered at a house in McLean, Virginia, to launch one.
The host was Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations man close to Trump's eldest son, Donald Jr. The guests were a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and a former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
Herschmann knew the subject matter they were there to discuss. He had represented Trump during the impeachment trial early this year, and he tried to deflect allegations against the president in part by pointing to Hunter Biden's work in Ukraine. More recently, he has been working on the White House payroll with a hazy portfolio, listed as "a senior adviser to the president," and remains close to Jared Kushner.
The three had pinned their hopes for re-electing the president on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden's business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden's named Tony Bobulinski. Bobulinski was willing to go on the record in The Journal with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had been aware of, and profited from, his son's activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president.
The Journal had seemed to be the perfect outlet for a story the Trump advisers believed could sink Biden's candidacy. Its small-c conservatism in reporting means the work of its news pages carries credibility across the industry. And its readership leans further right than other big news outlets. Its Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, recently remarked at a virtual gathering of Journal reporters and editors that while he knows that the paper often delivers unwelcome news to the many Trump supporters who read it, The Journal should protect its unique position of being trusted across the political spectrum, two people familiar with the remarks said.
As the Trump team waited with excited anticipation for a Journal exposé, the newspaper did its due diligence: Bender and Beckett handed the story off to a well-regarded China correspondent, James Areddy, and a Capitol Hill reporter who had followed the Hunter Biden story, Andrew Duehren. Areddy interviewed Bobulinski. They began drafting an article.
Then things got messy. Without warning his notional allies, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now a lawyer for Trump, burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of the McLean crew's carefully laid plot. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — but containing some of the same emails — to The New York Post, a sister publication to The Journal in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favoured right-wing outlets. Giuliani's complicated claim that the emails came from a laptop Hunter Biden had abandoned, and his refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post's reporting, which alleged but could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son's activities.
While the Trump team was clearly jumpy, editors in The Journal's Washington bureau were wrestling with a central question: Could the documents, or Bobulinski, prove that Joe Biden was involved in his son's lobbying? Or was this yet another story of the younger Biden trading on his family's name — a perfectly good theme, but not a new one or one that needed urgently to be revealed before the election.
Trump and his allies expected the Journal story to appear Monday, October 19, according to Bannon. That would be late in the campaign, but not too late — and could shape that week's news cycle heading into the crucial final debate last Thursday. An "important piece" in The Journal would be coming soon, Trump told aides on a conference call that day.
His comment was not appreciated inside The Journal.
"The editors didn't like Trump's insinuation that we were being teed up to do this hit job," a Journal reporter who wasn't directly involved in the story told me. But the reporters continued to work on the draft as the Thursday debate approached, indifferent to the White House's frantic timeline.
Finally, Bobulinski got tired of waiting.
"He got spooked about whether they were going to do it or not," Bannon said.
At 7:35 Wednesday evening, Bobulinski emailed an on-the-record, 684-word statement making his case to a range of news outlets. Breitbart News published it in full. He appeared the next day in Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the debate as Trump's surprise guest, and less than two hours before the debate was to begin, he read a six-minute statement to the press, detailing his allegations that the former vice president had involvement in his son's business dealings.
When Trump stepped on stage, the president acted as though the details of the emails and the allegations were common knowledge. "You're the big man, I think. I don't know, maybe you're not," he told Biden at some point, a reference to an ambiguous sentence from the documents.
As the debate ended, The Wall Street Journal published a brief item, just the stub of Areddy and Duehren's reporting. The core of it was that Bobulinski had failed to prove the central claim. "Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden," The Journal reported.
Asked about The Journal's handling of the story, the editor-in-chief, Matt Murray, said the paper did not discuss its newsgathering. "Our rigorous and trusted journalism speaks for itself," Murray said in an emailed statement.
And if you'd been watching the debate, but hadn't been obsessively watching Fox News or reading Breitbart, you would have had no idea what Trump was talking about. The story the Trump team hoped would upend the campaign was fading fast.
The gatekeepers return
The McLean group's failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation — a far cry from the coordinated "disinformation" machinery feared by liberals.
But it's also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.
It has been a disorienting couple of decades, after all. It all began when The Drudge Report, Gawker and the blogs started telling you what stodgy old newspapers and television networks wouldn't. Then social media brought floods of content pouring over the old barricades.
By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn't control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides. Television networks all but let Donald Trump take over as executive producer that summer and fall. In October 2016, Julian Assange and James Comey seemed to drive the news cycle more than the major news organizations. Many figures in old media and new bought into the idea that in the new world, readers would find the information they wanted to read — and therefore, decisions by editors and producers, about whether to cover something and how much attention to give it, didn't mean much.
But the past two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it, even between an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal suggesting Joe Biden had done bad things, and a news article that didn't reach that conclusion.
Perhaps the most influential media document of the past four years is a chart by a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Yochai Benkler. The study showed that a dense new right-wing media sphere had emerged — and that the mainstream news "revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set."
Bannon had known this, too. He described his strategy as "anchor left, pivot right," and even as he ran Breitbart News, he worked to place attacks on Hillary Clinton in mainstream outlets. The validating power of those outlets was clear when The New York Times and Washington Post were given early access in the spring of 2015 to the book Clinton Cash, an investigation of the Clinton family's blurring of business, philanthropic and political interests by writer Peter Schweizer.
Schweizer is still around this cycle. But you won't find his work in mainstream outlets. He's over on Breitbart, with a couple of Hunter Biden stories this month.
And the fact that Bobulinski emerged not in the pages of the widely respected Journal but in a statement to Breitbart was essentially Bannon's nightmare, and Benkler's fondest wish. And a broad array of mainstream outlets, unpersuaded that Hunter Biden's doings tie directly to the former vice president, have largely kept the story off their front pages, and confined to skeptical explanations of what Trump and his allies are claiming about his opponent.
"SO USA TODAY DIDN'T WANT TO RUN MY HUNTER BIDEN COLUMN THIS WEEK," conservative writer Glenn Reynolds complained October 20, posting the article instead to his blog. Trump himself hit a wall when he tried to push the Hunter Biden narrative onto CBS News.
"This is 60 Minutes, and we can't put on things we can't verify," Lesley Stahl told him. Trump then did more or less the same thing as Reynolds, posting a video of his side of the interview to his own blog, Facebook.
The media's control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can't actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden's knowledge of his son's business. But what Benkler's research showed was that the elite outlets' ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.
We should have known it, of course. Many of our readers, screaming about headlines on Twitter, did. And Trump knew it all along — one way to read his endless attacks on the establishment media is as an expression of obsession, a form of love. This week, you can hear howls of betrayal from people who have for years said the legacy media was both utterly biased and totally irrelevant.
"For years, we've respected and even revered the sanctified position of the free press," wrote Dana Loesch, a right-wing commentator not particularly known for her reverence of legacy media, expressing frustration that the Biden story was not getting attention. "Now that free press points its digital pen at your throat when you question their preferences."
On the other side of the gate
There's something amusing — even a bit flattering — in such earnest protestations from a right-wing movement rooted in efforts to discredit the independent media. And this reassertion of control over information is what you've seen many journalists call for in recent years. At its best, it can also close the political landscape to a trendy new form of dirty tricks, as in France in 2017, where the media largely ignored a last-minute dump of hacked emails from President Emmanuel Macron's campaign just before a legally mandated blackout period.
But I admit that I feel deep ambivalence about this revenge of the gatekeepers. I spent my career, before arriving at The Times in March, on the other side of the gate, lobbing information past it to a very online audience who I presumed had already seen the leak or the rumour, and seeing my job as helping to guide that audience through the thicket, not to close their eyes to it. "The media's new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it," my colleague John Herrman (also now at The Times) and I wrote in 2013. In 2017, I made the decision to publish the unverified "Steele dossier," in part on the grounds that gatekeepers were looking at it and influenced by it, but keeping it from their audience.
This fall, top media and tech executives were bracing to refight the last war — a foreign-backed hack-and-leak operation like WikiLeaks seeking to influence the election's outcome. It was that hyper-vigilance that led Twitter to block links to The New York Post's article about Hunter Biden — a frighteningly disproportionate response to a story that other news organizations were handling with care. The schemes of Herschmann, Passantino and Schwartz weren't exactly WikiLeaks. But the special nervousness that many outlets, including this one, feel about the provenance of the Hunter Biden emails is, in many ways, the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience.
I'd prefer to put my faith in Murray and careful, professional journalists like him than in the social platforms' product managers and executives. And I hope Americans relieved that the gatekeepers are reasserting themselves will also pay attention to who gets that power, and how centralised it is, and root for new voices to correct and challenge them.
Written by: Ben Smith
Photographs by: Erin Schaff
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES