On Wednesday, The New York Post published an attention-catching original report: “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.” In the previously unreleased email, which was allegedly sent on April 17, 2015, an executive with Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company, thanks Hunter Biden for “giving an opportunity” to meet Joe Biden, according to The NY Post.
It’s a story that merits the attention of other journalists, political operatives, national security experts, and also the public at large—not least of all because there are serious questions about its accuracy, reliability, and sourcing. And yet many in the media are choosing not just to ignore the story, but to actively encourage others to suppress any discussion of it.
Indeed, two mainstream reporters who acknowledged (and criticized) the Post‘s scoop—The New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman and Politico’s Jake Sherman—faced thunderous denunciation on Twitter from Democratic partisans simply for discussing the story. Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden accused Haberman of promoting disinformation, and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg told Sherman that he was helping nefarious conservative activists “launder this bullshit into the news cycle.” Historian Kevin Kruse asked why they were “amplifying” the story.
Note that both Haberman and Sherman raised serious questions about the veracity of the story, questions that certainly deserve answers. According to The New York Post, the email was obtained from the hard drive of a computer that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden. Someone allegedly gave the laptop to a computer repair store owner in Delaware in 2019. The FBI took possession of the laptop in December 2019, according to The New York Post—but not before the store owner copied the hard drive and sent it to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for President Donald Trump and a central figure in the Trump-Ukraine-Biden kerfuffle. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon then learned about the email and contacted The New York Post.
Giuliani and Bannon are political operatives with a long history of shady activity, so the fact that they were the intermediary sources for this story does raise red flags. But that doesn’t mean the story is untrue. For what it’s worth, The New York Post included photographs from the hard drive that allegedly confirms its authenticity. However, even if everything contained within the story turned out to be true, it still would not prove that the sought-after meeting with Joe Biden actually took place. A spokesperson for Biden said on Wednesday that according to Biden’s schedule, he never met with the Burisma official.
This is the work of journalism—to ask questions, to probe, to find and share the truth. Haberman and Sherman were right to let their audiences know that The New York Post story exists, and they were right to challenge it. Many others in the media apparently believe the public cannot be trusted with such a challenging article. They have not merely shamed people for sharing it online, but also want to make it difficult for people to read the report at all.
Facebook Communications Director Andy Stone, a former Democratic staffer, announced that the social media platform would limit the article’s distribution pending a fact-checker’s review. He directed users to Facebook policy, which states that “in many countries, including in the US, if we have signals that a piece of content is false, we temporarily reduce its distribution pending review by a third-party fact-checker.”
While Facebook is within its rights to take action against content it believes is factually misleading, this seems like a tough standard to enforce evenly. News articles in the mainstream press frequently contain information that is thinly or anonymously sourced, and sometimes proves to be inaccurate. It’s one thing for social media platforms to take swift action against viral content that is very obviously false or incendiary, like conspiracy theories about coronavirus miracle cures or voter fraud. It’s quite another for the platform to essentially make itself a gatekeeper of legitimate journalism, or a very selective media watchdog that appears to be more concerned about bad reporting when it comes from right-leaning outlets than left-leaning outlets, given the partisan leanings of social media company’s internal policy setters.
The obvious result will be a double standard, and an unsustainable one: The right will claim (correctly) that social media companies are biased against questionable conservative content, while the left will claim (also correctly) that plenty of misinformation eludes the moderators. Of course, the oft-proposed solution to the problems with platform content curation is to reform or repeal Section 230, which immunizes online platforms from some lawsuits. This idea is popular with everybody from Trump and Biden to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), even though the obvious result of removing tech platform’s liability protection would be even more aggressive moderation. New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari tweeted that Facebook’s handling of the Hunter Biden scoop makes the case for modifying Section 230, but without Section 230, Facebook would—for legal reasons—be even more reticent about letting users share unverified claims.
Such an outcome would be bad for a free and open society, for the same reason that it is wrong for the mainstream media to attempt to keep the public wholly ignorant of stories they would rather not tell. The information will get out, and it’s better for journalists to contextualize—to add to our understanding—rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
In defending his decision to publish the Steele dossier, which contained unverified, dubious, and speculative information, then-BuzzFeed News Editor in Chief Ben Smith (now a media critic for The New York Times) wrote the following: “You trust us to give you the full story; we trust you to reckon with a messy, sometimes uncertain reality.” That’s a lesson the entire media should take to heart, and apply evenly, no matter the inconvenience of the narrative.