Biden Admin Matt Taibbi Media Criticism

Matt Taibbi: The Media Campaign to Protect Joe Biden Passes the Point of Absurdity

A development in the infamous laptop story further proves the "Russian Disinformation" tale was itself disinformation, shaming a herd of craven media stenographers

By Matt Taibbi / Substack

Burying the lede just a bit, the New York Times on March 16th published a long, spirited piece about the federal tax investigation of Hunter Biden. This is the 24th paragraph:

People familiar with the investigation said prosecutors had examined emails between Mr. Biden, Mr. Archer and others about Burisma and other foreign business activity. Those emails were obtained by The New York Times from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop. The email and others in the cache were authenticated by people familiar with them and with the investigation.

In confirming that federal prosecutors are treating as “authenticated” the Biden emails, the Times story applies the final dollop of clown makeup to Wolf Blitzer, Lesley Stahl, Christiane Amanpour, Brian Stelter, and countless other hapless media stooges, many starring in Matt Orfalea’s damning montage above (the Hunter half-laugh is classic, by the way). All cooperated with intelligence officials to dismiss a damaging story about Biden’s abandoned laptop and his dealings with the corrupt Ukrainian energy company Burisma as “Russian disinformation.” They tossed in terms thought up for them by spooks as if they were their own thoughts, using words like “obviously” and “classic” and “textbook” to describe “the playbook of Russian disinformation,” in what itself was and still is a wildly successful disinformation campaign, one begun well before the much-derided (and initially censored) New York Post exposé on the topic from October of 2020

Not to be petty, but — well, yes, let’s be petty, just a little, and point out that many of the people who were the most pompous about this story turned out to be the most wrong, including the conga line of Intercept editors and staffers who essentially knocked Glenn Greenwald all the way to Substack over the issue. There are more important things going on in the world, but for sheer bootlicking conformist excess and depraved journalist-on-journalist venom the “Russian disinformation” fiasco has no equal, and probably needs recording for posterity before it’s memory-holed via some creepy homage to Severance, or a next-gen algorithmic witch-hunt, or whatever other federally contracted monstrosities are being readied for deployment somewhere far up the anus of Silicon Valley. For comic relief, start with the Intercept:

Editors Betsy Reed and Peter Maass in October 2020 refused to publish a Greenwald piece unless he addressed the “complexity” of the “disinformation issue,” with Reed condescendingly suggesting there was a lot of “in-house knowledge” the Pulitzer winner could “tap into.” 

By “in-house knowledge,” Reed meant Robert Mackey and Jim Risen, two former New York Times reporters who’d already denounced the laptop story as conspiracy theory. Risen pooh-poohed those tumbling down the “Trump rabbit hole,” writing:

The New York Post story was so rancid that at least one reporter refused to put his byline on it… the FBI has been investigating whether the strange story about the Biden laptop is part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This week, a group of former intelligence officials issued a letter saying that the Giuliani laptop story has the classic trademarks of Russian disinformation.

In the Intercept’s introductory announcement in 2014, founders Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and documentarian Laura Poitras vowed to “aggressively report on the disclosures provided to us by… NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.” At the time, they were being regularly threatened by intelligence officials like then-NSA chief Keith Alexander, who said, “We ought to come up with a way of stopping” disclosure of Snowden’s documents, adding, “It’s wrong to allow this to go on.”

Six years later, Intercept editors Reed and Maass not only effectively demanded that Greenwald run his copy by a pair of New York Times vets — odd for a site specifically launched as a counter to Times-style reporting — but chastised Greenwald for refusing to address the “earmarks of Russian disinformation” canard issued in a group letter of 50 of the exact same Bush and Obama-era intelligence officials who’d denounced the Snowden disclosures and had originally been the Intercept’s primary reporting targets. Humorously, these people lie so much that even news that there were 50-plus signatories had to be taken on faith, since the letter also listed nine signatories who “cannot be named publicly” but “support the arguments in this letter,” whatever that meant (would they have signed or not?). 

One of the officials whose opinion the New-Coke, intelligence-friendly Intercept insisted on publishing was former CIA chief Michael Hayden. In his 2016 book Playing to the Edge, Hayden denounced the “Greenwald-Poitras-Snowden theme condemning alleged suspicionless surveillance,” chiding readers that “intelligence collection is not confined to the communications of adversaries or of the guilty.” He also rolled his eyes at the words “torture,” “assassinations,” and “domestic surveillance,” saying these were “catchphrases” that “often oversimplify.” Hayden boasted in extraordinary detail about how intelligence officials often intervened with editors to censor damaging stories, ripping media figures who didn’t respect the “social contract” that bestowed the CIA with “trust” to manage secrets. 

Hayden even wrote that debating Greenwald in 2014 was like looking “the devil in the eye” — rich stuff coming from the overseer of America’s torture and drone assassination programs, who once bragged, “We kill people based on metadata.”

Hayden also shat all over Risen in his book, gleefully describing the time he got Condoleezza Rice to appeal to Times editors Phil Taubman and Bill Keller to “scotch” Risen’s eventual Pulitzer-winning story about domestic surveillance. The pressure Hayden applied to the Times in getting the Risen story killed in 2004 was part of what inspired Snowden to come forward, which in turn led to the creation of the Intercept, as Risen himself later wrote about. By 2020, Hayden’s bogus letter about the “classic trademarks of Russian disinformation” succeeded in convincing scores of media outlets to “scotch” the laptop story, with Risen among the dupes and Reed and Maass playing the roles of Taubman and Keller. Despite the fact that the Intercept had thrown in with the intelligence official perhaps most associated with opposing their founding mission, Reed had the stones to say Greenwald was the one who “strayed from his original journalistic roots” by refusing to bite on the “disinformation” hook. 

“The most amazing thing is that they blocked my article on the ground that they had such high-minded, rigorous editorial standards just days after they let Risen uncritically spread CIA lies,” Greenwald says. “And no matter how much proof has emerged… they simply refuse to acknowledge any of it, let alone retract it. Not really the behavior one would expect of an outlet with such lofty editorial standards.” Neither Reed nor Risen have responded to invitations to comment.

The public controversy surrounding Hunter Biden’s dealings with Burisma actually began with a story Risen himself wrote in 2015, when he was still with the Times, entitled “Joe Biden, His Son and the Case Against a Ukrainian Oligarch.” The story quoted a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine who said he hoped the White House had done “some due diligence” on Burisma, because “you would hate to see something like this undercut” the administration’s anticorruption message. If this topic is a “Trumpian Rabbit Hole,” Risen was the first to dig.

Hunter Biden in May of 2014 accepted a position on the board of Burisma, which was run by sleazoid Ukrainian oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky. The job paid him tens of thousands of dollars a month to do not very much, at a time when Zlochevsky — who had been close to deposed Russian-friendly president Viktor Yanukovich — was desperate for the appearance of protection from Western law enforcement. To that same end, Zlochevsky brought in former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski and former CIA official and Mitt Romney adviser Cofer Black.

In December of 2015, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Ukraine and informed then-president Petro Poroshenko that a billion dollars in American aid would be withheld from the country unless it fired Prosecutor General Viktor Shokhin. He recounted the tale in a meandering, chest-pounding speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018:

I said, “We’re not going to give you the billion dollars.” They said, “You have no authority, you’re not the President.”

I said, “Call him… You’re not getting a billion…” I look at him and say, “We’re leaving in six hours, if the prosecutor’s not fired, you’re not getting the money.” Well, son of a bitch, he got fired.  And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.

At the time, this seemed like just another example of Vice President Foggybrains misremembering the past — Shokhin was indeed fired, but nearly two months later, in February of 2016, not within six hours of his conversation with Poroshenko. We know Poroshenko did fire Shokhin at Biden’s request, because an infamously pro-Russian legislator named Andrei Derkach leaked tapes of Poroshenko reassuring Biden to that effect. Poroshenko went out of his way in the conversation to elucidate that he’d done America’s duty with reluctance, saying he ousted Shokhin “despite the fact that we don’t have any corruption charges” or “any information about him doing anything wrong,” as a way of “keeping my promise.” Biden did not push back at this declaration of Shokhin’s innocence, which is damning in itself, given that Shokhin’s corruption continues to be the official explanation for what happened. 

The original wider issue was whether or not Shokhin was “investigating” Burisma when Biden made his demand, though most American reporters, including both conservatives and blue-leaning mainstream types, seem to misunderstand why that mattered. The right-leaning press often portrays Shokhin as an honest broker whom Joe Biden was determined to stop because he, Shokhin, was taking an Eliot Ness-style run at corruption in Hunter Biden’s company. Biden-friendly media, meanwhile, dutifully repeats the line Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates fed everyone (including me) during 2019-2020, that Shokhin was corrupt and that all cases involving Burisma were “dormant” by the time Biden made his request, presumably because Shokhin had squashed them. 

Both takes miss a likely third angle, that Ukrainian prosecutors might have been both corrupt and investigating Burisma, as a means of extracting bribes from Zlochevsky. This would have been clear to anyone who’d spent any time in the region, but it’s also the focus of one of the first Hunter Biden emails to leak out. A 2014 note from Burisma adviser Vadim Pozharsky to Hunter and his cohort Devon Archer detailed how “representatives of new authorities” were hitting up the firm for bribes:

This would have been at least a potential problem for Burisma whether Shokhin was corrupt or not. During Shokhin’s tenure there were at least some active investigations of Burisma, though some were instigated by predecessor Vitalii Yarema. “There were different numbers, but from 7 to 14 cases,” was what Serhii Horbatiuk, the former head of the special investigations department for the Prosecutor General’s Office, told mein 2020. At least one case was still open when Joe Biden demanded Shokhin’s firing in December, 2015, though oft-quoted figures like Daria Kaleniuk of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center have described this as a technicality, a case that was only opened by request of parliament. 

In any case, the Biden campaign by spring of 2019 succeeded in convincing most of the press corps of the “dormant” line, despite reporting to the contrary in foreign outlets like the oppositional Russian paper Novaya Gazeta and Interfax-Ukraine. Then on May 1, 2019, New York Times reporters Ken Vogel (who also co-authored the recent tax investigation piece) and Iuliia Mendel upset the apple cart by publishing an article entitled, “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies.” 

Vogel and Mendel not only broke significant news about Hunter Biden in the piece, but also reported the outlines of the Trump-Rudy Giuliani “pressure campaign” story that much later became the basis for the impeachment of Trump. In fact, Vogel, Mendel, and Times writer Andrew Kramer wrote several stories in the spring and summer of 2019 that were months ahead of the field in detailing the efforts of Giuliani and Trump to push the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, containing original information that eventually made its way into the original “whistleblower” complaint against Trump. 

Oddly, much of the information about the Trump and Giuliani movements with respect to Ukraine that in late September and October of 2019 were suddenly deemed an explosive threat to “democracy itself” were already public as far back as May of that year, but mostly ignored. Critics may have been worried that highlighting this work would have legitimized another part of that original Vogel/Mendel story, to wit:

Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, a deputy for Mr. Lutsenko who was handling the cases before being reassigned last month, told The New York Times that he was scrutinizing millions of dollars of payments from Burisma to the firm that paid Hunter Biden.

News that Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko was reopening an investigation not just into Burisma but into “millions of dollars of payments from Burisma to the firm that paid Hunter Biden” was significant and, in the context of a presidential campaign, potentially very damaging. The Times was not only careful to point out that the Trump campaign was anxious to take advantage of the information (indeed, the original story framed the way the story was being “promoted” as the headline angle), but also to point out that Lutsenko’s decision to reopen the case was seen by some as an effort to “curry favor from the Trump administration.”

Just because the Trump administration was glad for the information, however, didn’t make it baseless, though this almost immediately became the operating logic of other journalists reacting to the report. Bloomberg immediately wrote a piece contradicting the Times report, citing a quote from Lutsenko spokesperson Larysa Sargan, who “said the prosecutor general hasn’t reopened the case into Burisma or Zlochevsky.” 

This was odd for many reasons. One, the Times insisted Sargan was in the room for its original on-the-record interview with Lutsenko deputy Konstantin Kulyk. Two, Lutsenko gave a press conference, posted to Facebook on May 14, 2019 by Sargan, which said Zlochevsky had been informed of a money laundering investigation that March. Thirdly, a Buzzfeed reporter asked Sargan about this, and she denied the story“Today the US Media published the info that Burisma criminal case [sic] was closed in Ukraine citing me as a source. This is not true… the case is open.”

The author of the Bloomberg piece, Stephanie Baker, declined to comment for this article. At the time, she liked tweets from Atlantic Council fellow Anders Aslund calling Vogel “Giuliani’s personal court correspondent” and implying Vogel was paid to do the story. #Resistance petting-zoo creature Aaron Rupar congratulated Vogel for the “great work you’re doing for the Trump campaign,” while Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin and media critic Eric Boehlert hopped on MSNBC to denounce the Times for publishing a “false” story and for being “obsessed.” They must have been proud Biden campaign made their on-air comments into an attack ad that accused the Times of aiding a Trump-inspired foreign interference campaign:

Note all this took place before the New York Post ran its October, 2020 piece about the trove of Biden emails culled from the laptop, which included an ominous email from Pozharsky ostensibly thanking him for the “opportunity to meet your father.” It’s never been verified that this meeting actually took place, but what has absolutely been verified by now — not just by the Times but via the extensive digging done by Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger in his book The Bidens — is that the laptop is, in fact, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and the emails they contain are real. 

In a just world this would be career-altering news for the parade of media figures who spent months loudly insisting the opposite, cheered the unprecedented decisions by Facebook and Twitter to restrict access to the story, and repeated the Langley-driven fiction that it was a Russian smear. The fact that none of them are bothering to comment on any of this shows that the line between the intelligence community and commercial media has blurred to the point of meaninglessness. They know everyone knows they screwed this up and are long past pretending to care. This is like someone committed to a life in sweats who eats another piece of pie at night, because what difference will it ever make? That weight is never coming off anyway. 

I long thought the decision by Facebook and Twitter to block the Post just before an election was a bigger deal than the actual story, which to me was mislabeled “smoking gun” evidence of major corruption because almost none of the information in those emails had been confirmed then. After reading this latest Times piece, which among other things confirms that Joe Biden (if not the Burisma official) was present at the infamous “meeting” referenced in the original Pozharsky email, I’m not sure so sure. At minimum, this looks like it will be a serious political problem for Biden in any future election, especially should events in the Ukraine war take a turn that motivates Ukrainian officials to unload on the first family. 

While the bloodshed in Ukraine should and will dominate news for the foreseeable future, reporters who think it’s their patriotic duty to throw dirt on the Everest of apparent horrors in the Biden laptop in the meantime are nuts. A subtext of the Hunter-Ukraine mess was always that Ukrainian officials seemed to chafe at taking orders about matters like the Shokhin business even as they feared Russian influence more, tension that’s apparent in those leaked Poroshenko-Biden discussions. As evidence grows that the United States and Ukraine may be acting at cross-purposes with regard to the invasion, those tensions become crucial background. 

Ryan Grim of the InterceptDavid Sanger of the Times, and Niall Ferguson of Bloombergall hinted at this issue in the last week. Sanger cited senior sources in saying the U.S. “seeks to help Ukraine lock Russia in a quagmire without inciting a broader conflict,” while Ferguson quoted a senior Brit as saying the “No. 1 option” is for “the conflict to be extended and thereby bleed Putin.” Ferguson believes that strategy may explain “the lack of any diplomatic effort by the U.S. to secure a cease-fire,” which Grim pointed out is one of two standing requests Volodymyr Zelensky has made to the U.S. While one war-stoked reporter after another has hounded Jen Psaki about the first, for weapons and/or a no-fly zone, Grim has been virtually alone in asking the White House about its diplomatic efforts and if Zelensky has been empowered by the United States to negotiate, say, the end of sanctions. 

This is a crucial question — effectively, the difference between knowing whether Russia is at war with just Ukraine, or with us — and no one wants to go near it, because our newshounds suck so badly, they think anything that makes the administration uncomfortable is Russian disinformation. For anything beyond rote propaganda, most take the clownish stance offered by Amanpour above: “We’re not going to do your work for you.” Trump has been out of office for years. Are we ever getting the press back?

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2007 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.

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