Last week, America’s worst opinion page took a victory lap. “So Hunter Biden’s business is news after all,” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board crowed after news broke that the FBI had been investigating Hunter Biden’s taxes since 2018. “Who knew? Well, the New York Post did, and so did we and a few others.”
On the right, the news that all was not kosher with the finances of the president-elect’s son was trotted out as proof of the mainstream media’s liberal bias and lack of credibility. Because of the story’s dubious origins—involving Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, and possible foreign intelligence—the media had largely passed on it and thereby gave Joe Biden what amounted to an in-kind contribution. “If you’re looking for election rigging, look no further,” said Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. “That’s what this is. They kept information from the public in order to influence the outcome of the election. They rigged it.”
But the news of the Hunter Biden investigation is hardly a smoking gun. It certainly doesn’t point to a massive conspiracy carried out by the mainstream media to elevate the Democratic presidential candidate. Rather, it is being used to launder a dubious right-wing smear campaign and hamper the incoming Biden administration. Far from being an example of the clear-eyed wisdom of conservative outlets, the Hunter Biden story shows how these media organizations use the appearance of journalism to push political attacks.
In the final weeks of the Trump campaign, “Where’s Hunter?” became a kind of unofficial slogan—a less effective and less memorable version of “Lock her up!” As with Hillary Clinton’s emails, the laptop Hunter Biden allegedly left at a Delaware repair shop was proof of deep corruption. It allegedly showed that Hunter was collecting huge sums of money in return for his father pushing the Obama administration toward favorable policies on Ukraine and China.
There was, it should be heavily underlined, no evidence of anything like that happening at all. While Hunter was certainly involved in some shady shit, nothing produced by the New York Post, the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal (whose reporters passed on the story and then debunked it), or others suggested that then–Vice President or even ex–Vice President Biden was working with his son. The entire pseudo-scandal was cooked up for the political benefit of Donald Trump, with potentially damaging information surfacing shortly before the election.
After touting the Biden nonscandal as an existential threat to both Biden’s candidacy and the country in the weeks leading up to Election Day, right-wing media promptly dropped it following the election. The focus shifted to Trump’s bogus claims of widespread voter fraud, and Hunter Biden receded from view. He faded because he was no longer useful—the purpose of the scandal was to cast doubt about Joe Biden’s trustworthiness, and it had failed to do that.
But with Joe Biden set to become president in six weeks, Hunter Biden has become useful once more. The revelation that he has been under investigation for tax evasion has been used to dust off the story, which is now being utilized as a kind of Benghazi scandal, a way of hamstringing the incoming Biden administration before the new president is even sworn in. Fox News has led with stories about Hunter repeatedly since Thursday, despite the fact that 3,000 people are dying of Covid-19 every day. “We watched every hour [of Fox News] on Thursday and Friday,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said on Sunday. “And more than 50 percent of those hours started with Fox anchors talking about the Hunter Biden story.”
The existence of an FBI investigation is being presented as evidence that the stories about Hunter Biden in October were hard-hitting journalism, rather than nakedly partisan mudslinging. But the narrative circulating in October was that Hunter had introduced his father to a “top executive” at a Ukrainian energy firm and that Joe Biden had used his political influence to fire a Ukrainian prosecutor for that firm’s benefit. Nothing we know about the FBI investigation suggests anything of the sort is being looked into. And the idea that Rudy Giuliani, who has spent the last month making an ass of himself in spectacular fashion, has a shred of credibility left is laughable.
The existence of the investigation suggests something that has always been true but hardly rises to the level of national scandal: that Hunter Biden has been involved in a number of shady business dealings.
What these outlets are trying to do is to move the media narrative away from the president’s authoritarian efforts to overturn a lawful election and create the kind of slow-burn scandal that they can use to keep viewers rapt for the next several years. For Fox News, which has treated the president’s most operatic claims of election rigging with slightly more skepticism than its right-wing peers, Hunter Biden provides an attractive way of covering the election fallout. By claiming the media suppressed the story, it can contend, as Carlson did, that the election was “rigged” without having to touch anything about Hugo Chávez or Dominion Voting Systems. This story may not be as sexy as content you’ll hear on One America News or Newsmax, but it’s closer to what Fox News viewers want to hear than the stories they’ve been getting for the last month.