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Smearing Joe Biden, 2016 style

Joe Conason on

Not only is Joe Biden innocent of any wrongdoing in Ukraine -- as almost every legitimate news organization now acknowledges -- but his actions concerning his son's business interests there were precisely the opposite of the smears launched against him by the Trump campaign. That truth won't change, no matter how many times President Trump and Rudy Giuliani repeat falsehoods about the former vice president.

Although the Ukraine scandal blew up quite suddenly, the effort to taint Biden's character with a barrage of lies wasn't hatched overnight. It closely resembles the publicity blitz that soiled Hillary Clinton's reputation before the 2016 election -- a costly and carefully planned enterprise overseen by Steve Bannon during the year before he officially joined the Trump campaign. The question is what, if anything, the nation's editors and producers learned from their 2016 misadventure.

Like the defamation of Clinton, this assault on Biden can be traced to a book by right-wing author Peter Schweizer, which is filled with shady innuendo and short on factual reporting. Back in May 2015, Schweizer published "Clinton Cash," a volume of half-baked investigations featuring the claim that Clinton, as secretary of state, engineered the sale of U.S. uranium deposits to Uranium One, a Russian-backed company, in a deal to enrich Clinton Foundation donors. In fact, Clinton had nothing to do with that trivial deal, which was approved as a matter of Obama administration policy and approved by both the Treasury Department and the Pentagon.

Relying on residual media hostility toward the Clintons, Bannon and Schweizer knew that they could inject the flimsy "Clinton Cash" allegations into public consciousness via mainstream outlets. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, reaching agreements with The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets to preview and promote "Clinton Cash." In April 2015, Schweizer and Bannon hit the jackpot when The Times published a badly misleading page-one article about Uranium One that endorsed Schweizer's paranoid view and warped coverage of the Clinton Foundation for the rest of the presidential campaign.

Three years later, Schweizer published "Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends," which includes a chapter suggesting that Biden somehow deflected Ukrainian authorities from prosecuting alleged corruption involving Burisma, a gas company that had placed his son Hunter Biden on its board. While that claim engaged some journalists, subsequent reporting has indicated that Biden's actions in Ukraine were fully consistent with U.S. and European policy -- and were in no way corrupt. Indeed, when Biden insisted on the dismissal of Ukraine's corrupt and inept prosecutor general -- who had failed to probe Burisma aggressively -- he acted against his son's business interests.

Providing the research, publicity and, most likely, money for both Schweizer books was the Government Accountability Institute, a mysterious tax-exempt outfit located in Florida and financed by wealthy, ultra-right, mostly anonymous donors. Now that former GAI Chairman Bannon is gone, Schweizer continues to run the same playbook as 2016, with multiple appearances on Fox News and across the media echo chamber of the Republican right. What appears to be different this year is the attitude of the mainstream press, which so far has proved less prone to manipulation.

 

Fortunately for Biden, no cozy media arrangements with Schweizer have distorted the coverage of the Ukraine story. Instead it is Giuliani spearheading the bogus charges against the Democratic frontrunner. The former New York mayor's frequent, hysterical appearances on television have done little to advance his cause and much to discredit his conspiratorial assertions.

But the right-wing propaganda machine will nevertheless grind on. As Matt Gertz of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters warns: "Giuliani will continue to dribble out details from Schweizer's book, working in additional inferences and data points he's gathered. He will become Fox News' assignment editor and a frequent presence on its airwaves. The network's 'news' team will rush to chronicle and flesh out his allegations, providing fodder for its 'opinion' hosts, who will use the results to denounce on a nightly basis the entire Democratic Party as crooked."

That a presidential campaign led by Donald Trump and his grifting family has no standing to accuse anyone else of corruption won't discourage his cult followers on the far right. This election will again test whether media outlets can resist their self-defeating tendency to "balance" truth with falsehood -- and whether they will avoid the kind of journalistic failures that boosted the most corrupt presidential candidate in American history.

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To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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