Tapped to handle damage control on the stunning revelation that Donald Trump aggressively tried to pressure a foreign country to dig up dirt on his possible 2020 Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo engaged in reckless bouts of misinformation during appearances on Sunday morning shows yesterday—and the hosts did nothing to stop him. In the process, those hosts joined a growing group of journalists who are leaning on “both sides” and false-equivalence journalism in order to both help Trump smear Democrat Joe Biden and to make it seem as if both men are under a cloud of Ukraine suspicion. (Only one of them is.)
Appearing on CBS’ Face the Nation, Pompeo was gently prompted about whether Trump's stunning outreach to Ukraine was "inappropriate." He responded by stressing, "If there was election interference that took place by the vice president, I think the American people deserve to know." The new allegation, that Biden interfered with elections in 2016, prompted virtually no response from the CBS host, who simply moved on with the interview.
Over at ABC's This Week, Pompeo pushed more baseless attacks: "If Vice President Biden behaved inappropriately, if he was protecting his son and intervened with the Ukrainian leadership in a way that was corrupt, I do think we need to get to the bottom of that." The response from host Martha Raddatz? "We've seen no evidence of that yet." Rather than pressing Pompeo and the administration to produce a single piece of evidence to support its Biden smear campaign, Raddatz suggested the Biden corruption evidence simply hasn't been produced "yet."
Caught red-handed trying to collude for his re-election, Trump is trying to turn the Ukraine story into a problem for a prominent Democrat, and the press is helping. Hapless reporters are helping by not unequivocally stating that the conspiracy theory launched against Biden and his son has already been thoroughly debunked (see here, here, and here). And they're helping by treating the debunked smear as newsworthy and somehow equivalent to Trump's egregious colluding.
"What's Going on With Trump and Biden and Ukraine," proclaimed a Sunday CNN headline, immediately presenting Trump's possibly treasonous behavior as equivalent to the bogus allegations Biden faces. The New York Times, which got caught last May peddling the anti-Biden storyline, presented a similar framing with its recent headline "Trump, Biden and a Whistle-Blower Complaint: Here Are the Basics." Somehow the Times doubled down with an even worse, more White House-friendly headline on Sunday night: "Biden's Work in Ukraine: What We Know and Don't Know."
Do you see the problem with that? By tying the two events together, the press is doing the White House a huge favor, suggesting that both Trump and Biden are being sullied in the process. But Biden is the victim of a GOP smear campaign, while Trump was caught trying to collude with a foreign government to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival.
Oh, and that Times article that described the "basics" of the controversy? The paper waited until the final two paragraphs to include this nugget: "There is no evidence that Mr. Biden" did anything that Trump and Republicans are accusing him of doing with regard to his son Hunter and his business dealings in Ukraine. My question is, why was that critical information not at the top of the story? Indeed, here's a key phrase, the likes of which didn't appear in any of the news coverage that I saw on the manufactured Ukraine conspiracy: A number of news organizations have already debunked the allegation.
News consumers might be confused to learn that the Ukraine claims against Biden were actually first aired months ago, and that several news outlets aggressively debunked the story. We're currently in the surreal position where reporters from news outlets that previously debunked the Ukraine claims are now pressing Biden to explain and defend the Ukraine claims.
Because Trump has once again raised the hollow claims against Biden, journalists who know the allegations were gutted months ago feel the need to suddenly treat them as newsworthy. That's utterly ridiculous. Journalists, quite obviously, should trust the news outlets that debunked the Ukraine claims instead of privileging Trump's lies by treating them as legitimate, and constantly repeating the hollow outlines of his attacks on Democrats.
The Biden campaign over the weekend issued a statement regarding the news coverage, and it's completely correct: "Any article, segment, analysis and commentary that does not demonstrably state at the outset that there is no factual basis for Trump’s claims, and in fact that they are wholly discredited, is misleading readers and viewers."
Did I mention that the Times teamed up with Republicans last May and tried to turn their Ukraine conspiracy into a thing? Worse, the Times once again helped peddle a dopey conspiracy theory promoted by conservative author Peter Schweizer, who in 2015 wrote the wildly dishonest Clinton Cash, a book the Times helped hype and promote. Back then, Schweizer concocted a wild tale that Clinton, as secretary of state, sold America's uranium supply to the highest bidder. She did not.
The right-wing media feasted on the Times' handiwork last May, and presented it as confirmation that Biden is corrupt. “NYT Confirms Hunter Biden Was Paid by Ukrainians While Father Was VP," blared a Breitbart headline, while Schweizer was quickly ushered onto Fox News to hype the Times report and spread more bogus claims about Biden. Problem was, days after the Times' May hit piece on Biden was published, a Bloomberg report that included more details about the Ukrainian timeline demolished the smear campaign.
Four months have passed since the Ukraine story got buried. With no new information, just more Trump lies and misdirection, there's no reason that the press should be digging it up now.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.