Biden’s Praetorian Media Guard

by Matt Taibbi | Sep 14, 2023

Biden White House spokesperson Ian Sams sent out a letter to news organizations Tuesday, giving instructions on how they should cover (or non-cover, as it were) the Republican impeachment inquiry announced that day by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. News organizations then reported on administration instructions as they followed them, a display of craven supplication that would have impressed Erich Honecker.

Walter Kirn and I will be musing/retching over this on tomorrow’s America This Week — Walter’s take is this is a coming-out party for state media — but in brief, this episode produced prostrations so grotesque, it’ll be a shock if they don’t end up on an NFL Films-style reporter blooper reel some day.

In one instance Sams was able to quote himself in a tweet less than 24 hours after the Washington Post obligingly used, in a headline, language from his letter about GOP efforts to “muddy waters.” Once this kind of thing would have been considered embarrassing, but this crew just nuzzles and begs for more. Already all summer, they’ve been helping blanket a quote assiduously kept out of headlines: “Five million to pay one Biden, and five million to another Biden.”

The phrase is the key line in an FBI document about a Confidential Human Source (CHS), who attended a meeting at the offices of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma in “2015/2016.” Released on July 20th by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the form describes statements by Burisma chief Mykola Zlochevsky. “It costs 5 (million) to pay one Biden, and 5 (million) to another Biden,” Zlochevsky reportedly said. The source was unsure “whether these payments had been made”:


It can’t have been fun for Biden officials to see this public, especially given how neatly it lines up with son Hunter’s infamous “unlike Pop I won’t make you give me half your salary” quote. Next to IRS whistleblower testimony about Hunter Biden’s shell companies, Devon Archer’s testimony about Joe Biden’s presence during his son’s business calls, Joe dining with Burisma exec Vadym Pozharsky at Cafe Milano, and other matters, this is a non-ignorable story now, and the pucker factor chez Biden must be real. Sams sent a two-page introduction and a 14-page appendix addressing seven GOP claims the White House insists have been “debunked” and “refuted.” The CHS form story was first:

THE FACTS SHOW: FBI FD-1023 forms are simply the memorialization of tips to the FBI. They are not documented proof and allegations do not need to be corroborated to be included on the form. They are simply unverified claims.

Sams then linked to a series of press stories containing passages underscoring the “unverified claims” theme. Among others, he cited Axios (the FBI form “simply documents an interview with a source, and does not in itself indicate any suspicions of wrongdoing”), NBC (“The bribery allegation… wasn’t substantiated”) and CNN (“The FBI and prosecutors who previously reviewed the information couldn’t corroborate the claims”).

What did those stories have in common? They all contained quotes from Ian Sams! White House official sends instructions to reporters, citing media reports sourced to the same White House official. If this merry-go-round doesn’t convince you the lines between media and politicians have been irrevocably blurred, go back and look. You’ll find this same cycle of press figures packing bodies of articles with official denials, then augmenting their own text with the official’s terminology: “refuted,” “debunked,” “no evidence of wrongdoing,” etc. You can’t tell who wrote the original line of defense. Despite this, Sams without irony referred to White House assertions being confirmed by “independent press” five times.

Reporters since July have been rushing to outdo one another in the use of “unverified claims” language:


These stories were wrapped in desperate disclaimers, phrased more or less identically to this week’s Sams letter. ABC described a claim that “the Biden family ‘pushed’ a Ukrainian oligarch to pay them $10 million” in their lede. Their one-sentence second paragraph contained not one, not two, but three disclaimers:

The exceedingly rare step by Grassley, R-Iowa, further promulgates an allegation that Democratic critics warned against accepting at face value and which the White House continues to deny, saying it was investigated under the Trump administration and “debunked.”

ABC said the FBI report was information “the president and his aides have repeatedly said he didn’t do,” prepared by a Senator “highlighting uncorroborated information.” They noted Biden said he never spoke to his son about business and added that “the White House…reaffirmed that statement.” They included heated denials by Sams (“been debunked for years,” “regardless of the truth,” “shameless, dishonest politics”) and Maryland’s Jamie Raskin (“no actual evidence of wrongdoing”). Depending on how you count, there were 8-10 versions of the same White House denial woven into one ABC story. That’s all the piece was: one item about the $10 million, followed by list of denials. This is de rigeur now.

When news outlets don’t put “unverified,” “unverified claims,” or the humorously redundant “unverified allegations” in headlines, they sometimes use an inverse template. Instead of being crammed with maximum information, headlines say as little as possible, for instance referring to a “document” with perfect obliqueness, as if it were blank paper. GOP SOMETHING SOMETHING DOCUMENT is a typical anti-headline formula, as in this PBS take on a “Biden-related” memo:


Alternatively, in an angle favored by the likes of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, whose take is that “its [sic] newsworthy that the Republicans would attempt it on such thin grounds,” some outlets have gone with versions of GOP CRITICIZED FOR RELEASING SOMETHING:


When added to the pile of headlines from outlets like the AP sticking terms like “without evidence” in headlines when they’re not appropriate — you may not be convinced by this evidence, but it’s certainly evidence — most legacy companies have become de facto arms of the White House press office, growling nonsense phrases on command, like mutts guarding a tow truck. It’s a terrible look.

Impeachments are supposed to be rare and media should look at Republican claims with skepticism. This new paradigm though rockets past “skeptical,” past “dismissive,” even past “disdainful,” into a realm closer to “obliterating” or “Praetorian.” Not only getting instructions but following them isn’t coverage, it’s bullet-taking, by the same papers that last time around embraced publication of “unverified” raw intelligence (with the Steele dossier) and cheered plans to impeach the executive as he was being sworn in.

Some of these journalists came of age when Fox was being ridiculed for the same practices. When Executive VP James Moody urged Fox staff to watch for “statements from the Iraqi insurgents who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress,” or senior VP Bill Shine described the Obama administration as “the opposition,” reporters dismissed the network as a GOP outpost. The watchdog correctly noted that if Fox “ceased to treat Democrats as an internal enemy, they would cease to exist.” This Biden-era parade not only isn’t different, it’s dumber, but who has enough shame to care now?

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described a newspaper story about aluminum tubes as having been “fed” by Dick Cheney. The source of that story was not Cheney.

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