New York Times Columnist Commits Hunter Biden Laptop Heresy

October 28th, 2020 7:30 AM

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat should be thankful that most people at his newspaper are now working from home. Otherwise he could risk being surrounded by the Red Guards types there angrily enforcing the prevalent leftist orthodoxy.

So what was Douthat's sin? Well, he actually criticized the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story by social media and the mainstream media. Yes, there is a certain very grudging toleration for conservatives in name only such as David Brooks but Douthat might have gone too much over the line for the Times' Red Guardians despite putting in a few obligatory shots at President Trump on Tuesday in "The Media’s Hunter Biden Conundrum."

...the most interesting controversy of the campaign’s final week is a news media meta argument about how a story should be covered. That story is based on the claims of Tony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Hunter Biden and James Biden, respectively Joe Biden’s son and brother, and on a trove of emails and text messages of uncertain provenance. There are new details about the son and brother’s attempts to cut deals in China based on their family brand, but the key allegation is that Joe Biden himself was pulled into his son’s Chinese negotiations.

And now Douthat provides three "provisional conclusions" about the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story.

The first is that the decision by Twitter to attempt to shut down the circulation of the New York Post story, which looked bad when it was made, looks even worse now that we have more of the back story and more evidence in view. At this point we can posit with some certainty that The Post’s story was not some sort of sweeping Russian disinformation plot but a more normal example of late-dropping opposition research, filtered through a partisan lens and a tabloid sensibility, weaving genuine facts into contestable conclusions. It was, in other words, analogous to all kinds of contested anti-Trump stories that various media outlets have run with across the last four crazy years — from the publicity around the Steele dossier’s wilder rumors to the tales of Michael Cohen’s supposed Prague rendezvous to the claims that Russians hacked Vermont’s power grid or even C-SPAN.

In none of these cases did social-media minders step in to protect the public from possible fake news. As Matt Taibbi and other gadfly press critics have pointed out, it’s hard to come up with any reasonable social-media rule that would justify the suppression of The Post’s story that couldn’t just as easily be applied to all the pieces of conspiratorial Trump-Russia reportage that didn’t pan out, or the Julie Swetnick allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, or various scoops based on technically illegal leaks. That capriciousness is a bad sign for the project of harnessing social media giants to filter out disinformation; it suggests that any filter would inevitably feel partisan, partial and obviously reverse-engineered.

GASP! He wrote "fake news." That first conclusion definitely puts Douthat deep into heresy territory but his second conclusion drives him even deeper into the forbidden zone:

The power of media gatekeepers (like this newspaper) to shape political coverage is still significant, and just because some charge or scoop circulates in the right-wing ecosystem doesn’t mean that it has any impact beyond the realm of people who are already voting for Donald Trump.

This is an important point because so much liberal analysis of why we might need things like Twitter blackouts assumes that mainstream media institutions have no power anymore — that “the elite level of national news, the places that have traditionally set the agenda,” as Hamilton Nolan wrote recently for The Columbia Journalism Review, have seen their power simply dissolved by technological change.

...institutions like The Times or the Washington Post have a different kind of power than they did 30 years ago, but they have power all the same — including the power to contain almost any story that initially circulates on the right, and to shape the way the non-right-wing portions of the country receive it.

And now for Douthat's final conclusion that could put him on the fast track to a Times pink slip:

On the one hand, the new information is not the Biden-slaying blockbuster suggested by the New York Post headlines and some Trump supporters. But neither does it fit the description offered by NPR’s managing editor for news last week, explaining why they were only covering it as a media story: “We don’t want to waste our time on stores that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions.”

In fact, it’s not a distraction to have new insight into a potential First Son’s business dealings — especially given that the saga of the younger Biden is a prime example in how a milder-than-Trump form of corruption pervaded the American elite long before Trump came along, with important people and their families constantly finding ways to get rich in the shadow of the Pax Americana without ever taking anything so crass as a bribe.

It is not a coincidence, as some of my Times colleagues note in their story, that “the countries that Hunter Biden, James Biden and their associates planned to target for deals overlapped with nations where Joe Biden had previously been involved as vice president.” Nor is it a coincidence that the areas of Hunter Biden’s particular interest, China’s and Russia’s near abroad, were particularly important foreign policy zones under recent Democratic presidents.

...More specifically, Bobulinski’s story and the email evidence both suggest that Joe Biden took at least enough interest in his son’s dealings to have a meeting during the Trump presidency with his business partners. This isn’t proof that he partnered with Hunter or profited in any way, but it seems like evidence that he wasn’t particularly worried about keeping his son’s sketchy salesmanship at arm’s length. That seems like information worth knowing: not a scandal on a par with some of Trump’s, not a front-page bold-type screaming headline, but something that belongs in the pages of a newspaper, because it’s interesting news.

This is the problem with Twitter’s censorious choices, and with an expanding mainstream-press definition of what counts as disinformation and distraction. They compromise the first duty of an independent press, which is to ground any moral crusading in the most capacious possible portrait of the world as it actually exists.

Throwing in those shots against Trump (about which he doesn't get into specific detail) might not be enough to preserve Douthat's job security at the Times but if he does go, at least it will be due to breaking away from his image over the years as just a mini-me of "conservative" David Brooks.