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Most mainstream media did much better than in the 2016 election. And then there was Murdoch, Fox News and the New York Post | COMMENTARY

Tony Bobulinski, a former partner of Joe Biden's son, Hunter, makes his case with reporters for alleged Biden family corruption on the eve of a presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22, 2020. In the closing days of the campaign, President Donald Trump and his allies are engaged in a last-ditch effort to raise questions about the ethics of former Vice President Biden by trying to link him to the international business dealings of his son, Hunter, and one of his brothers, James.
Tony Bobulinski, a former partner of Joe Biden's son, Hunter, makes his case with reporters for alleged Biden family corruption on the eve of a presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22, 2020. In the closing days of the campaign, President Donald Trump and his allies are engaged in a last-ditch effort to raise questions about the ethics of former Vice President Biden by trying to link him to the international business dealings of his son, Hunter, and one of his brothers, James. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

No matter who wins the presidency in the coming days, much of the mainstream media can already consider itself a victor compared to 2016 for their persistent, serious-minded, citizen-focused coverage of this monumental election.

Amid an unprecedented storm of nation-changing stories, ranging from the devastation caused by COVID-19 to the reckoning and widespread protests over centuries of racial injustice, most of the country’s leading news platforms have gone far beyond the all-too-usual horse race focus to offer in-depth coverage of such stories as voter suppression and foreign interference in the election.

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And then there’s Rupert Murdoch and two of his news outlets, Fox News and the New York Post, going all in as partisan political entities, journalism be damned. No figure outside of President Donald Trump has done more to damage the reputation of the press and endanger democracy than Murdoch, particularly with Fox News and its reckless, politicized approach to journalism. For the life of me, I do not understand why Murdoch isn’t vilified, denounced and treated like a media pariah.

While the late Roger Ailes, former CEO of Fox News, is firmly enshrined in infamy where he belongs, Murdoch, the man who allowed and grew rich off Ailes' work at Fox News, is still treated with some deference even as his news outlet has become in the last four years the prime place for Trump’s lies, slander, misinformation on COVID-19 and inflammatory, racist and sexist comments. From “Fox & Friends” and Sean Hannity on Fox News, to Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs on the Fox Business channel, the name of the Murdoch game has been propaganda on behalf of Trump, not information that might have helped some Americans stay alive during this pandemic.

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During a three-day period from Oct. 24-26, Fox News devoted just 53 minutes to the deadly surge in COVID-19 cases, according to a content study by Media Matters for America. It gave more than 2 hours of coverage to unverified allegations published in the New York Post about Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and a laptop alleged to contain emails showing the former vice president and his son involved in corruption with an energy company in Ukraine. The study from the liberal media watchdog found CNN spent 5 hours on the pandemic during that same time period, while MSNBC devoted 2½ hours.

No story better illustrates both the striking difference between mainstream media coverage in 2016 versus 2020 and the gulf between responsible media and Murdoch’s two most partisan outlets than the story about Hunter Biden’s emails. This was supposed to be Trump’s great “October surprise” aimed at making former Vice President Biden look as corrupt as Trump claimed his 2016 opponent was, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Some of the same key elements were there: hacked emails, a hard drive and alleged influence peddling.

At the heart of the story were emails said to be from a computer owned by Hunter Biden and allegedly showing that he was trading access to his father. The person who had possession of the hard drive and the emails, and was offering them to various publications, was former New York mayor and Trump lawyer and surrogate Rudy Giuliani.

All praise for those in the mainstream media who refused to publish this story without verification and did their own digging into the hard drive and emails. The New York Times, Washington Post, AP, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and NBC also all reported on the story. But they approached it within a dense context of facts that included the dodgy provenance of the emails and hard drive, and the fact that previous investigations had cleared Joe Biden of any wrongdoing in connection with his son’s work in Ukraine.

According to The New York Times, the emails were first offered to The Wall Street Journal, which is also owned by Murdoch. To its credit, the Journal sought to verify the information before publishing. But with the clock ticking toward Election Day, and Trump dropping in the polls, the president’s allies were not about to wait.

The New York Post was made aware of the sensational and highly suspect information, which it was only too happy to introduce into the media ecosystem without vetting it. And once it was published in the Post, Giuliani appeared on Fox News pushing the story to the millions of viewers in its prime audience. Meanwhile, Trump bombarded people with the message through his Twitter account and during his virus-spreading rallies.

As a result of the skeptical and textured reporting by mainstream outlets, the story has gained such limited traction that even Fox News has backed away to some extent in recent days, though such hosts as Tucker Carlson and Dobbs are still desperately flogging it. On Tuesday, Carlson devoted the full hour of his show to an interview with Tony Bobulinski, a former business partner of Hunter Biden who has been making the rounds of right-wing media with his allegations of Biden family corruption.

“Not even the hapless and corrupt FBI and DOJ can ignore Bobulinski charges and evidence of Bidens' criminality!” Dobbs tweeted in connection with the Carlson interview. “Now we know why Dems desperately pushed early mail-in voting. The Bidens are a crime family!”

That kind of coordinated right-wing messaging was a potent force in the final days of the 2016 election. This year, it does not appear to be having any impact beyond Trump’s true believers.

That’s progress. And as impotent as the mainstream media has seemed at times in covering Trump, their dedicated, old-school, nuts-and-bolts reporting on the highly questionable sources and claims of Biden family corruption have defanged the October attack, no matter how hard Trump and his most devoted media lap dogs try to sell it in these final days.

Nov. 3 and what follows is likely to be a huge challenge for the press. No one knows what will happen, and with the kind of chaos Trump can generate, the press is likely to make some mistakes in covering it.

But from curtailing Trump’s airtime, to fact-checking him in real time as Lesley Stahl did in a “60 Minutes” interview last week, the good media news so far is that the press has learned from 2016 and is putting some of that learning to work to expose disinformation and bring real information to American voters.

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David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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