The muted response to leaked emails purportedly belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter suggests the old rule book has been thrown out the window. But is the lack of coverage reflective of skepticism or partisanship.
In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, American media outlets were fixated on the supposed scandal surrounding Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The former secretary of state was accused of using her personal email server for classified information instead of a server secured by US federal officials.
Clinton’s carelessness, as determined by FBI investigators, was seized upon by the Republican nominee and eventual winner of the race, Donald Trump, who openly accused the former first lady of committing a criminal offence worthy of imprisonment.
Trump further claimed that tens of thousands of emails deleted from Clinton’s personal server contained further evidence of her criminality.
The complex scandal was reduced by US media outlets into a debate about whether Clinton was morally fit for office.
For the Democrat candidate, the tipping point came when then FBI chief James Comey warned members of Congress about a ‘pertinent’ trove of emails found on the laptop of disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner.
While nothing specific in the trove proved any allegation of criminality leveled against Clinton, the development is believed by many to have helped Trump get elected, including Comey himself.
Department of Justice officials would later criticise Comey for what they saw as interference by a law enforcement official.
Given their role in sensationally promoting the scandal to the top of the news agenda in the run up to the election and the inadvertent help this may have given Trump, many US news outlets seem keen to avoid a repeat.
Clinton Emails 2.0
This election cycle’s Clinton Email reboot centres around Joe Biden’s son Hunter and the purported trove of emails found on a laptop that once belonged to him.
The story briefly caused a sensation earlier in October when social media giants Facebook and Twitter censored a New York Post story claiming that emails belonging to Biden the younger revealed that he had used his father’s position as vice president to secure preferential treatment for a Ukrainian company he was involved with.
Hunter had allegedly convinced his father to have a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating the company removed from his position.
Trump has seized upon the accusations in very much the same way he did with the Clinton emails but the US president is having a harder time convincing media outlets to play to his tune.
Joe Biden has rejected the accusations and most major US outlets seemingly agree with him.
Media skepticism stems from the manner in which the leaks were obtained. The story goes that Hunter Biden gave the device to a laptop repair shop owner in Los Angeles, who alarmed by its contents contacted federal officials but not before making copies of the data.
The information was then handed over to Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who fed the emails to the New York Post during election season.
But the campaign seems to have fallen flat on its face and has struggled to get the coverage that the Clinton debacle got.
That may be in large part due to an almost immediate response from the US intelligence community effectively throwing cold water over the issue.
FBI officials are looking into whether there was foreign involvement in the leak of the emails and have so far resisted calls to investigate Hunter Biden.
Former intelligence officials have been more outspoken, openly voicing their suspicions that the email leak was an attempt by Russian officials to influence the outcome of the November 3 vote.
Given those suspicions, most US outlets, even those usually supportive of Trump have taken a cautious approach when covering the issue.
The staunchly pro-Trump Fox News channel reportedly passed up the opportunity to publish the leaks while the Wall Street Journal, which like Fox and the New York Post is also owned by the pro-Trump magnate Rupert Murdoch, chose not to publish over fears that they were being used to make a political point.
Nevertheless, the issue has led to some introspection in US media circles. Specifically whether fears of being duped by a foreign intelligence operation is preventing media outlets from investigating what could be an example of high level corruption.
Writing for The Hill, former federal prosecutor Andrew C McCarthy said that the claims being by the Trump side are entirely plausible and do not necessitate foreign involvement.
In an article, written earlier in October, McCarthy wrote:
“The evidence is that the laptop was taken to a repair shop and then abandoned — entirely plausible, given that the shop was in Delaware, which is Biden-central, and Hunter Biden’s behavior is notoriously erratic because of his admitted drug abuse. The hard drive wasn’t hacked; it was quite intentionally given to the shopkeeper.”
With the US media largely silent on the Biden issue, many of Trump's supporters see the signs of a cover up designed to help get their man out of office.
That belief might harden should Trump lose the election.