Journalists’ efforts to sanitize President Biden’s scandals extend beyond what they do or don’t cover. Take, for example, the media’s use of the term “bombshell” to describe political scandals. Journalists almost never use this descriptor in reference to scandals which are politically damaging to Democrats. Meanwhile, they apply the term liberally when discussing Republicans.
MRC analysts examined all regular coverage on liberal cable (CNN and MSNBC) and broadcast (ABC, CBS, and NBC) networks from January 1 through August 23, 2023 for all cases in which the term “bombshell” was deployed (see methodology for a full list of what shows and time slots were included). Of the 536 instances found, only seven of them (about 1.3%) were in reference to unflattering news about Biden, whereas there were 147 supposed bombshells about Trump during the same stretch of time.
Below are the rankings of what TV journalists thought were most deserving of the explosive descriptor:
1) Donald Trump (147)
2) Dominion’s lawsuit against FOX (57)
3) Prince Harry’s new book (48)
4) Ethics questions about Justice Clarence Thomas (45)
5) Various murder cases (38)
16) President Biden and/or his family (7)
Based on the data, the media apparently felt there were seven times more bombshells in Prince Harry’s book than there were in eight and a half months’ worth of news about President Biden. Even Alec Baldwin got the bombshell treatment more than the President did (10 times).
Of the seven cases in which journalists did apply the label to Biden, four dealt with the President’s mishandling of classified documents, while the other three involved the numerous corruption allegations against him and his family. When those two topics were considered separately, they ranked below or tied with the following use cases:
- “Bombshell” used to mean “an attractive woman” (5)
- An FBI whistleblower being “outed” as conservative (5)
- Rep. George Santos (4)
Journalists were much more likely to declare a story a bombshell if it was political, with just over two-thirds (367 mentions, or 68.4%) of the use cases involving American politics. Of those, the overwhelming majority (274, or 74.6%) were stories that were damaging to Republicans, while just 11 instances (3%) could be seen as harmful for Democrats. The remaining 82 political stories did not have a decidedly partisan spin in either direction — for example, Georgia Democratic Congresswoman Mesha Mainor switching her party affiliation.
In a sizable subset of cases, the term was used in a negative manner, in order to indicate that the revelation or news being discussed was not deserving of much attention. For example, during the May 17 edition of MSNBC’s Alex Wagner Tonight, the show’s titular host said of Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation: “It was supposed to be a bombshell, but it fizzled.”
Analysts found 61 such negative uses: 27 about Durham’s findings, 22 about President Biden, and 11 about Trump. This means that journalists discussing Biden were three times more likely to deny that something was a bombshell than they were to declare it one.
Unequal labeling is a persistent feature of biased media coverage. Journalists repeatedly have been shown to favor extreme or dire-sounding labels for Republicans, whereas for Democrats they prefer either terms with positive connotations, or even no labels at all. In the case of "bombshells," the discrepancies reveal a journalistic class that is downright allergic to any scandal involving their favored political party.