President-elect Joe Biden promised a return to normal on the campaign trail. His early picks for Cabinet and other high-level administration positions have, in their own way, delivered on that promise. There is nothing close to the anthropomorphic conflicts of interest that studded President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, or Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. The last four years have been defined by a well-grounded fear that Cabinet secretaries, like the president himself, were prioritizing their own economic interests over their ostensible duties. It’s only natural that underlings would happily follow the retrograde example set by the man at the top of the executive branch.
Biden’s early nominations and announced appointments, by contrast, have been predictable; compared to the brazen corruption of the last four years’ worth of self-dealers and wayward leaders, his picks are downright boring. Many, like John Kerry (special envoy for climate), Antony Blinken (secretary of state), Jake Sullivan (national security adviser), and Janet Yellen (Treasury secretary), worked with Biden in the Obama administration and are fully wired in to the Democratic establishment. The Biden administration is shaping up to be something that looks a lot like the Obama administration, at least when it’s not resembling what many thought a Hillary Clinton administration would look like.
But an escape from Gilded Age–level corruption and a return to Democratic business as usual is still charged with serious ethical and political questions, even if they don’t rise to the operatic heights of the Trump administration’s collected works. For the press, navigating this space is also fraught. There’s no reason to give Joe Biden a pass simply for being significantly less contemptible than his predecessor—though many, it seems, would like that. But properly covering Biden’s appointments will require properly contextualizing them.
The debate over how to cover these appointments began last week. In response to reporting from The American Prospect about Blinken’s post-Obama gig as a highly-paid defense consultant, much of which is clouded in secrecy, Vox journalist Aaron Rupar tweeted that it was all a tempest in a teacup: “Blinken participated in society,” he wrote. “The horror.”
It’s a jaundiced but familiar view of the revolving door—and one that has only gained currency thanks to the cartoonish villainy of the Trump administration. The idea here is simple: There’s nothing in Blinken’s record to suggest that he would, say, decimate the operational capacity of the United States Post Office to benefit a private company to which he has deep ties. But to provide such granular scrutiny of one of Biden’s picks is to suggest that he is deserving of equivalent suspicion. In this reading, this is media bias at work.
Biden’s appointments have very much participated in society. Ron Klain has spent years working in venture capital; incoming senior adviser Cedric Richmond was a top recipient of money from oil companies in Congress; Neera Tanden, whom Biden announced he intended to nominate to run the Office of Management and Budget, ran a think tank that received money from Wall Street and foreign governments (and has tweeted more times than anyone in their right mind should).
Biden’s inner circle doesn’t seem to include comical self-dealers like Scott Pruitt or flamboyant criminals like Paul Manafort. Nevertheless, there is no defensible reason to ask journalists to stand down from their duty to give Biden’s nominees a thorough going-over and raise questions about their ties to powerful industries like finance and oil. Being less corrupt than Wilbur Ross should not earn you a pass. The last four years have shown why digging into the ties between government officials and the private sector is necessary. The New York Times’ editor Cliff Levy was ratioed on Twitter for suggesting, “We will scrutinize the incoming administration just as thoroughly as we did the outgoing one.” This was seen by many readers who struggle with plain-English sentences that Levy was committing his paper to holding Biden to a tougher standard than Trump.
It’s not unreasonable to worry that the press, in an attempt to equalize the intensity of its coverage of the Trump administration with its scrutiny of the Biden White House, might badly overcorrect and start making mountains out of molehills. But we should allow the press to attempt to apply the lessons of the last four years—as well as those gleaned from the presidencies that preceded the Trump administration. The coverage of Biden’s picks can only benefit from the context of what came before: the better for news consumers to understand how a Tony Blinken is different from a Scott Pruitt—and how the nomination fights that will follow will be fought on different terrain.
Some of the information dug up by reporters will undoubtedly be used by Republicans during those fights. The GOP is already road-testing some of the arguments it will use—Biden’s Cabinet is too hoity-toity, it’s fixated on tax-and-spend solutions, Tanden sent out too many mean tweets. But thorough reporting about these nominations will be useful in revealing the values of the Republicans as well. We’ll get to see what facts get selectively and hypocritically used to bolster bad faith arguments about the Biden administration and which do not. Remember, the countering arguments will be made by a group of Republicans who spent the last four years sticking their heads in the sand whenever they were confronted with Trump’s innumerable scandals. (For example, while there are valid reasons to oppose Tanden’s nomination, it will be quite rich to see Republican senators revealing their deep and granular knowledge of her disqualifying tweets, given that they spent the last four years innocently feigning a complete ignorance of Trump’s Twitter outbursts whenever reporters confronted them about his regular tirades.)
The Trump administration was stacked full of lobbyists and self-dealers, and when they weren’t violating the Hatch Act or advertising Ivanka’s fashion line, they were exploding the deficit with unnecessary tax cuts for billionaires and corporate shareholders, all while waving in a pandemic to decimate the economy. Sure, Republicans have lost a lot of credibility when it comes to criticizing Biden’s nominees; they don’t magically get cleansed of their sins just because there’s a new administration in place. But this should not be a deterrent to journalists who have either made a long career of unforgiving scrutiny of power or who only learned of its value more recently. As long as the media maintains a memory that goes back more than a few months and the perspective honed by the extremis of the past four years, the work they’ll do digging into the background of Biden’s nominees—as well as holding his administration to account in the years to come—will help them maintain the public’s trust, even when partisan critics complain.