The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Biden documents scandal is a test for the media — and an opportunity

After two years of relative quiet, a return to familiar battle stations.

President Biden crosses the South Lawn to the Oval Office at the White House on Wednesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

After two years of relative quiet, the Washington press corps mounted familiar battle stations this week as a Biden administration scandal took shape.

“You’re not going to answer the questions, but we’re going to ask them because that’s our job,” Ed O’Keefe, a correspondent for CBS News, told White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during a press briefing Wednesday in which she repeatedly refused to provide new information about classified documents that had been found improperly stored in the president’s former office space.

It triggered a back-and-forth that led Jean-Pierre to plead, “You don’t need to be contentious with me here.”

Yet for all the pent-up vigor with which they launched into the facts of the case, journalists also labored to contextualize a matter made all the more complex by the shadow of former president Donald Trump’s own ongoing classified-documents scandal. And they girded against partisan criticism that they are going too hard or too soft on the story.

Less than 48 hours after CBS News first broke the story Monday evening, some conservatives were quick to insist that “the media” was somehow downplaying it.

“You can’t even find this on most networks,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) griped on Fox News Wednesday afternoon. “Noon and night we heard about the raid on Mar-a-Largo.” (Anchor Martha MacCallum pushed back on Graham’s inaccurate claim that Fox’s White House correspondent was the only one asking tough questions, noting that many others did.)

In reality, every network was covering the news that President Biden’s attorneys had voluntarily handed over classified documents on Nov. 2, the same day they discovered them found improperly stored in his private office.

The story was the lead piece on ABC’s and CBS’s evening news shows Monday and the second piece on NBC’s “Nightly News.” CNN devoted 1 hour and 47 minutes to the Biden documents that night compared with 14 minutes spent by MSNBC and 29 minutes on Fox News, according to Media Matters, a liberal group tracking media.

It quickly set off a competitive scramble. CNN soon had its own scoop about the contents of some of the documents. By Wednesday, NBC News broke news that an additional batch of classified documents had been found in a second location, later revealed to be a garage at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Del. The Washington Post ran a front-page story Wednesday, the New York Times ran a front-page story Thursday — and hours later coverage escalated with the announcement by Attorney General Merrick Garland that “extraordinary circumstances” led him to appoint a special counsel to investigate the matter. This, too, was blasted out in news alerts across the media world; it dominated the top of The Post’s front page on Friday.

Timeline: Biden’s retention of classified documents

Much of the coverage has highlighted the differences between Biden and Trump’s handling of classified documents. The FBI eventually recovered more than 300 classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and the government has alleged that Trump probably tried to conceal the documents from investigators, who had tried to make him hand them over for months before they searched his property in August.

In contrast, a much smaller number of documents are thus far known to have been recovered from Biden’s properties, and all of them were discovered by Biden’s employees and handed over to federal authorities immediately.

“There are no parallels here,” said NBC News senior Washington correspondent Hallie Jackson on the network’s streaming platform Monday. “This is different and the circumstances are very different, at least from what we know, from what’s been reported.”

Even GOP political consultant Karl Rove told Fox News anchor Dana Perino on Tuesday that the two cases are hard to compare. “When the Biden people found out about it, they called immediately, called the appropriate authorities and turned them over,” Rove said. In contrast, “we spent a year and a half watching the drama unfold in Mar-a-Lago, and it had to end in a police search to recover the documents.”

Nevertheless, he added that the emerging story was “very problematic” for Biden.

CNN’s Jamie Gangel pointed out that Biden and Trump are the only presidents in decades to face such a scandal. “If you go back, Bush 41, this did not happen. Bush 43, no. Clinton, no. Obama, no. Dick Cheney, no,” she said on a network panel Thursday.

A CNN executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about internal editorial matters told The Post that “most people are not familiar with the intricacies of classification levels and the laws that surround handling these kinds of documents, and it is only natural that comparisons be made to former president Trump. It is our job to provide our audience with the full context of how these situations are similar, as well as how they are different but no less important.”

Critics on the left have harked back to the aggressive coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email servers, which many have argued was overblown.

Former Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer called the early Biden-documents coverage “predictable and eerily reminiscent of the initial reaction” to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. He wrote in his Substack that the traditional political media “prioritize[s] balance over accuracy.”

“The true bias of the media is not ideological; it’s a bias for conflict,” he continued. “The ‘investigation’ into Biden, the Republican reaction, and the ensuing hearings and Congressional contretemps are what cable producers and Twitter personalities can’t resist.”

The Trump years — with constant leaks, fiery battles in the White House press briefing room and made-for-TV wars between his aides — brought sky-high ratings for news outlets. The Biden administration has been much more disciplined. Leaks are few and far between, and the president has behaved as a more traditional button-down politician, giving the media few easy targets. The public’s interest has waned, and ratings have fallen.

Some of the most vocal and fierce conservative critics of the news media — such as right-leaning media monitoring website NewsBusters — have gleefully highlighted the mainstream coverage of Biden in recent days. Trump has shared links to stories on his Truth Social platform, including the initial CBS News story. “When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House?” he wrote. A Trump adviser said Trump’s 2024 campaign team has been pleased with the coverage, The Post reported Thursday evening.

Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.

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