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Is the Media About to Screw Up Coverage of Biden’s Vice Presidential Pick?

The press hasn’t taken the bait on Trump’s attacks on Biden. That doesn’t mean that it has learned the right lessons from the 2016 election.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s attacks on Joe Biden aren’t working. The president has sought to portray Biden as a closet Antifa member out to abolish everything: the police, the suburbs, god. Those attacks aren’t working because they’re preposterous. Voters have a good idea of who Biden is—a moderate former vice president—and know he doesn’t throw on a Che Guevera T-shirt before working on his Corvette. “In lobbing such extravagant attack on Biden, Trump has concocted a profile of the presumptive Democratic nominee at odds with much of Biden’s personal and professional life—a cartoonish depiction so distant from the reality of Biden that the hits don’t always resonate,” wrote The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker on Monday.

Voters aren’t the only ones who haven’t bought these efforts to rebrand Joe Biden as an uber-woke Trojan Horse for the left. One reason why they’ve failed to stick is that the press hasn’t taken them seriously, either. Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton worked because they were widely legitimized by the media. Without credulous attention from outlets like The New York Times and CNN, overheated partisan scandals like Benghazi and Clinton’s emails would have lacked mainstream credibility.

All of this is partly why Trump and his campaign are eager to turn their attention to the Democratic nominee for vice president. Stories about Representative Karen Bass’s trips to Cuba as a young woman and praise for the Church of Scientology already appear to have damaged her standing with the Biden camp. Republicans are dusting off the Benghazi playbook they’ve used to turn tremors into major political earthquakes. The press has been a key ally for the GOP in amplifying these fake scandals. They have been treated as seriously as Trump’s shady finances, lengthy history of sexual misconduct, and demagoguery. In 2020, there is a danger that the media is about to get it wrong again—this time about Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick.

If Biden chooses former national security adviser Susan Rice as his running mate, Benghazi will be dredged up by the Republicans. That scandal originated with Rice’s appearances on several Sunday shows in 2012, shortly after the United States consulate in Libya was attacked by terrorists. Standing in for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rice repeated the best intelligence she had at the time: that the attack on the embassy began as a protest against a video of an American pastor burning a Quran, then spiraled out of control. That intelligence was wrong—as initial intelligence often is. But Republicans held Rice’s statements up as evidence of a cover-up, launching a nakedly partisan investigation that jammed up their political rivals, particularly Clinton, for years.

Republicans spent millions of dollars investigating the Benghazi scandal, culminating in a report that cleared Clinton of blame. Despite its nakedly partisan intent, the Benghazi investigation was treated respectfully by the media, which covered all its twists and turns. Roughly the same dynamic played out in the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server: A minor story became a damaging months-long saga in large part because it was covered as front-page news.

Trump in 2016 greatly benefited from the GOP’s ability to get the media to legitimize the half-baked scandals they were using to discredit Clinton. The strategy worked because of the press’s persistent inability to distinguish between good and bad faith political attacks. The stories were also grounded in real scandals, even if those scandals weren’t earth-shattering. The response to Benghazi was sloppy. Clinton really did use a private email server (as did Colin Powell when he was in the same role). The attacks on Biden haven’t landed because they’re so outlandish that even the most naive Beltway hack isn’t paying them any heed.

That will almost certainly change when Biden selects his running mate, whoever she may be. Tucker Carlson has already previewed how Trump and Republicans will attack the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Rice did Benghazi and is the personification of the Deep State. “Susan Rice knows exactly what she wants and she understands the system well enough to get it,” Carlson said earlier this month. “Bass is a lunatic Fidel Castro acolyte, who praised Scientology and once belonged to an armed revolutionary group.” Kamala Harris, meanwhile, will get raked over the coals for her record as a prosecutor and her deep connections to California’s political machine. As Osita Nwanevu argued in The New Republic last week, Harris’s relationship to former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, whom she dated in the 1990s, will almost certainly be used as grist for Trump should she be the nominee.

Citing polls suggesting that half of the country believes that Biden will not serve his full term, Republican National Convention operatives have already begun priming the press to treat the eventual nominee as a de facto president-in-waiting. The scandal imbalance at the moment—Trump is overrun by bad press, while Biden sits peacefully in his basement—will be an incentive for tough coverage of the Democrats. Eager as ever to show they’re not the “liberal media,” reporters will see any Biden-adjacent scandal as red meat.

But balanced reporting is also about perspective. The various negatives for every Democratic vice presidential finalist pale when placed next to the horrors that emanate from the Trump White House on a practically hourly basis. The story of this moment remains the president’s disastrous handling of a deadly pandemic and the subsequent economic collapse. Repeating some bad intelligence on a Sunday show eight years ago doesn’t compare to that.