2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to voters in Hampton, N.H., on May 13. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

A leading national newspaper treats the eventual Democratic presidential nominee far more harshly than it does other Democrats and dwells ad nauseam on issues far less serious than those adversely affecting the Republican. The Democratic nominee is subjected to one negative story after another, often without advancing prior stories. That’s how many Democrats felt the New York Times covered Hillary Clinton.

Numerous Democratic commentators have publicly criticized, both during the 2016 campaign and subsequently, what they perceived as the Times’s unbalanced coverage that allowed then-candidate Donald Trump to escape scrutiny for many issues that were far more serious than Clinton’s. Even the Times admitted in December 2016, “Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.”

In December 2017, a team of researchers found a troubling pattern not only at the Times but across multiple mainstream outlets:

The research team investigated this question [of election coverage], counting sentences that appeared in mainstream media sources and classifying each as detailing one of several Clinton- or Trump-related issues. In particular, they classified each sentence as describing either a scandal (e.g., Clinton’s emails, Trump’s taxes) or a policy issue (Clinton and jobs, Trump and immigration).

They found roughly four times as many Clinton-related sentences that described scandals as opposed to policies, whereas Trump-related sentences were one-and-a-half times as likely to be about policy as scandal. Given the sheer number of scandals in which Trump was implicated—sexual assault; the Trump Foundation; Trump University; redlining in his real-estate developments; insulting a Gold Star family; numerous instances of racist, misogynist, and otherwise offensive speech—it is striking that the media devoted more attention to his policies than to his personal failings. Even more striking, the various Clinton-related email scandals—her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks—accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.

With regard to the Times specifically, they found:

Of the 1,433 articles that mentioned Trump or Clinton, 291 were devoted to scandals or other personal matters while only 70 mentioned policy, and of these only 60 mentioned any details of either candidate’s positions. In other words, comparing the two datasets, the number of Personal/Scandal stories for every Policy story ranged from 3.4 (for front-page stories) to 4.2. Further restricting to Policy stories that contained some detail about at least one candidate’s positions, these ratios rise to 5.5 and 4.85, respectively. …

In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election. …

In retrospect, it seems clear that the press in general made the mistake of assuming a Clinton victory was inevitable, and were setting themselves as credible critics of the next administration. … Yet, rather than acknowledging the possible impact their collective failure of imagination could have had on the election outcome, the mainstream news community has instead focused its critical attention everywhere but on themselves: fake news, Russian hackers, technology companies, algorithmic ranking, the alt-right, even on the American public.

Unfortunately for former vice president Joe Biden, history may be repeating itself.

A case in point is a New York Times front-page article with the catchy Web headline “'Lock the S.O.B.s Up’: Joe Biden and the Era of Mass Incarceration.” It has been widely reported that Biden’s authorship of anti-crime legislation in the 1990s poses a problem with some Democratic voters, especially African Americans, in an era of criminal-justice reform. He has also taken a hit for speaking about the atmosphere of “civility” that allowed him to work with rabid segregationists. That’s an entirely legitimate topic of discussion.

But a closer look at the article shows how weighted against Biden it really is. For example, the article persistently references Biden working with segregationists in overhauling crime legislation. However, it neglects to put in information that appeared in a prior article (notice the repetition of the same negative story) on June 21: “Mr. Biden accurately noted that he presided over the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 for 25 years as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and fought for years to extend and expand the law, which protected racial minorities from discrimination at the voting booth. He was a liberal on most civil rights issues, but he was also a leading opponent of integrating schools through busing from the 1970s to 1980s, though his efforts largely failed.” The most recent article omits that critical context.

Also missing is the overwhelming support that the crime bills garnered. You’d think from the piece it was just Biden and those segregationists toiling away. But the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, for example, passed the Senate 97 to 2. The 1984 bill cited to illustrated that Biden was buddy-buddy with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was co-sponsored by “liberal lion” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). And that bill initially passed the Senate on a voice vote.

‘Apologize for what?’: Biden defends remarks about working with segregationist lawmakers

The Times makes much of Biden’s work with Thurmond. You have to read down to paragraph 7 to learn he was Biden’s “counterpart” on the Judiciary Committee and more than 30 paragraphs down to learn that beginning in 1981, Thurmond was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It literally would have been impossible to move any legislation through the committee without working with Thurmond. Likewise, when Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.) was chairman of the committee (as he was for the 1977 bill it references), Biden had to work with him to accomplish anything.

The Times article on that bill includes this: “By year’s end, with Mr. Eastland’s support, he was pushing to narrow judicial discretion by creating a commission to set ‘presumptive sentences,’ and to eliminate pardons and parole. His aim, he told his hometown newspaper, The Wilmington Evening Journal, was to keep defendants ‘who don’t meet the middle-class criteria of susceptibility to rehabilitation’ from being set free.”

Well that sounds sort of bad, except if you go to the article in question and find this: “Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who was managing the bill in committee, said he agreed with all of Biden’s arguments but preferred to give the courts a 25 percent discretion [in sentencing] for ‘fine tuning’ the penalty for each case.” That part did not make the Times’s piece.

Finally, while the Times correctly states that the crime rate peaked in 1991, saying that crime was in decline in 1994 doesn’t begin to capture the real picture. In 1994, the crime rate remained close to that astronomically high rate: In a country of 260 million people, there were more than 1.8 million violent crimes that year. (By comparison, by 2011 when the population was more than 310 million, about 1.2 million violent crimes were reported.)

Former senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), the only African American in the Senate during her term (1993-1999) and the first female African American elected to the Senate, told me in a brief phone interview that she is “mystified” by the entire issue, which she calls “opportunistic” and likens to a “circular firing squad.” If you refused to deal with segregationists still in the Senate then, you’d be stymied. With regard to Biden, she insists that “not only on civil rights but on human rights, he was always there.” She says simply that Biden “master[ed] the art of working with just about anybody.”

To be clear, there is no reason to believe the Times is out to get Biden. But in repetitive coverage of what it fashions as a “scandal," it risks duplicating the Clinton experience of 2016. Moreover, while a story without nuance (Biden worked with segregationists!) may be catchy, the truth is rarely so simple. In this case, it’s far from clear that readers would understand: Biden out of necessity worked with segregationists to pass crime legislation at a time when crime was near an all-time high, but so did most every Democrat, including Kennedy, when segregationists controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As the front-runner, Biden deserves scrutiny. But he also deserves balance.

Read more:

Wil Haygood: ‘Segregationist’ barely begins to describe the racist Dixiecrats that Joe Biden worked with in the Senate

Kathleen Parker: No one emerged from the Biden-Booker fracas a better man

The Post’s View: Biden, again, chose his words poorly. But his broader point was right.

Jennifer Rubin: Biden’s trouble isn’t his past. It’s his present.