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The Hunter Biden witch hunt

The US media seemingly cannot resist even the most obvious of bait when it is delivered by the Republicans

Hunter Biden leaves a House Oversight Committee meeting at Capitol Hill last month. The committee met to consider citing him for Contempt of Congress. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Getty

There is nothing like spending a few days ill in bed to make you think about the role of your immune system, and quite how finely tuned a system it is. When the body is invaded by a virus or infection, the sickness takes hold by imitating parts of regular cells – and then, once in, turning the body’s cells to its own ends.

The immune system is what is supposed to kick in, identify the impostors, and return you to health. If it’s under-responsive, even a simple illness that most of us would fight off without noticing can be deadly. 

But if it’s overactive, then that can be just as bad – most allergies are the result of an overzealous immune system reacting to something that’s not intrinsically harmful, while an immune overreaction can make a survivable disease fatal.

The media – or at least the high-minded public interest parts of it – likes to think of itself as society’s immune system, part of the fabric of the nation that acts outside of politics-as-usual to spot the threats in a bid to protect what’s good about civil society.

As the USA prepares for this third general election in a row with Donald Trump at the centre of attention, it’s hard not to wonder whether the US media is simultaneously over- and under-reacting to the unique threats to democracy Trump poses. Certainly, looking at the last few weeks it can often seem like the country’s major outlets have learned almost nothing since 2016.

Mainstream US media is certainly easily taken in by impostors. Anything that has the rough shape and features of “real” news is assumed to be real news, no matter what is actually contained within the wrapper.

American journalists grow up on tales of McCarthyism and of Watergate, and successive scandals after them, all of which in one way or another had Congressional committees, hearings and inquiries at their heart. Early on, then, if such committees are used to push nonsense stories it is understandable that the media would fall for them – having been so used to such things being substantive and important. As a result, when what we now know as MAGA Republicans first perverted that system, extensive media coverage was forgivable.

Perhaps the first truly outrageous abuse of the committee system was the Benghazi inquiry, which turned a tragic attack on a US embassy into a byzantine, baseless, years-long assault on Hillary Clinton’s personal integrity. 

Seeing the miles of column inches this generated, Republicans repeated and extended that attack again and again, first into her use of a private email server, and then into conspiracy theories around the release of emails from her campaign advisors – which had in reality been exposed by Russian state hackers.

Real scandals on the 2016 campaign trail, most of them bad for Donald Trump, were drowned out or at least muted by the confected scandals generated by Republicans and then gleefully, endlessly dissected by mainstream newspapers and TV news.

For a brief moment after Trump’s 2016 victory, there was a period of sombre reflection during which it seemed the media had learned it had played a role in relocating Trump to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – but that moment was quickly turned into a chance to pick up subscriptions from the afraid and outraged. 

The Washington Post even changed its masthead slogan to “Democracy Dies In Darkness”. The paper has had little to say as to what the subsequent disappearance of the slogan meant – is democracy safe now, or has it already died?

It’s easy to say 2016 is ancient history, but the tenor of the 2024 campaign – which has more than six months left to run – suggests that almost nothing has changed in the meantime. Republicans have been endlessly pushing a scandal relating to the president’s son, Hunter Biden, that is so complex it makes the Benghazi affair look simple.

Hunter Biden, who has battled substance-abuse issues, was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by a major Ukrainian company – doubtless because he was related to Joe Biden. The relatives of politicians cashing in is a dismal but regular part of US politics, in this case escalated on the flimsiest of evidence to suggest all manner of huge geopolitical conspiracies, culminating in a risible “movie” starring Laurence Fox as Hunter Biden.

In recent weeks, one of the key “whistleblowers” against Hunter Biden has been charged with federal offences over allegedly fabricating his accusations, while the vendor who leaked the content of Hunter’s laptop to Trump’s former lawyer Rudy Giuliani is facing a privacy lawsuit. The case, flimsy though it always was, continues to collapse.

There is something distasteful in targeting a president who has outlived two of his children through the actions of his surviving son, but leaving that aside, the media seems to have been as willing as ever to treat the Biden scandal with almost equal reverence as those dogging Donald Trump.  

Trump is facing 91 criminal charges in several jurisdictions this year, and has had more than $450m of civil rulings against him in recent months, but the both-sidesism of US media is so deeply ingrained that outlets seem to be trying to cover Biden’s various shortcomings in a similar tone.

A Trump-era prosecutor recently recommended no criminal charges be brought against Biden over his own retention of classified documents – meaning he found there was almost no prospect of victory should a prosecution be brought. As a spiteful last barb, that prosecutor mentioned Biden’s poor memory in his report.

Yet again, the bait proved irresistible. The fact Joe Biden is 81 is not a new fact to the American public, but because it came in the form of a statement from a prosecutor, it received blanket coverage. Biden’s age is an issue for the election, of course, but the media seemingly cannot resist even the most obvious of bait when it’s delivered by the GOP.

In that way, it is both under- and overactive. So relentless is the grind of Trump’s outrageous statements, his corruption charges, his endless court dates, that the media underreacts and treats it just as part of the same old narrative – not interesting enough to cover at length. By dint of needing a counter-narrative, any hint of a Biden story is elevated so it plays at the same volume as Trump’s.

The US election is already at fever pitch, and no one can survive a fever that lasts for six months. The media is doing nothing to lower the patient’s temperature.

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