But that’s not exactly right. The internet has certainly created new spaces for eccentric ideas and conspiratorial narratives to flourish, and the transformation of the Republican Party into a populist formation with its own distinctive media ecosystem has weakened the power of national newspapers to influence Republican politicians. But the G.O.P. speaks for a minority of Americans and fewer and fewer American elites, and the internet has also expanded the audience for certain media institutions at the expense of the rest of the media industry, giving them arguably more influence over the non-Fox News-watching portion of the public than in the recent past. This means institutions like The Times or the Washington Post have a different kind of power than they did 30 years ago, but they have power all the same — including the power to contain almost any story that initially circulates on the right, and to shape the way the non-right-wing portions of the country receive it.
This, in turn, makes it reasonable for conservatives to fear the concentric circles of tech and media power — the possibility that social-media censorship, carried out “neutrally” by companies overwhelmingly staffed by liberals, will expand its reach with the vocal support of an increasingly consolidated and liberal group of mainstream-media gatekeepers.
But it also makes it reasonable for people who are not conservatives to worry about what stories they might be missing, if those same gatekeepers have an incentive to treat anything that originates outside those concentric circles as some combination of disinformation and partisan distraction.
Hence my third conclusion — that for those who feel this worry, the Hunter Biden controversy provides a clarifying case study. On the one hand, the new information is not the Biden-slaying blockbuster suggested by the New York Post headlines and some Trump supporters. But neither does it fit the description offered by NPR’s managing editor for news last week, explaining why they were only covering it as a media story: “We don’t want to waste our time on stores that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions.”
In fact, it’s not a distraction to have new insight into a potential First Son’s business dealings — especially given that the saga of the younger Biden is a prime example in how a milder-than-Trump form of corruption pervaded the American elite long before Trump came along, with important people and their families constantly finding ways to get rich in the shadow of the Pax Americana without ever taking anything so crass as a bribe.
It is not a coincidence, as some of my Times colleagues note in their story, that “the countries that Hunter Biden, James Biden and their associates planned to target for deals overlapped with nations where Joe Biden had previously been involved as vice president.” Nor is it a coincidence that the areas of Hunter Biden’s particular interest, China’s and Russia’s near abroad, were particularly important foreign policy zones under recent Democratic presidents. And given that pre-Trump American foreign policy in these regions was a conspicuous failure — with China tilting totalitarian and Vladimir Putin outmaneuvering the West — the fact that Biden’s nearest relative was trying to influence-peddle in both places is a useful reminder of why the establishment that’s likely to reclaim the White House next week lost power in the first place.
More specifically, Bobulinski’s story and the email evidence both suggest that Joe Biden took at least enough interest in his son’s dealings to have a meeting during the Trump presidency with his business partners. This isn’t proof that he partnered with Hunter or profited in any way, but it seems like evidence that he wasn’t particularly worried about keeping his son’s sketchy salesmanship at arm’s length. That seems like information worth knowing: not a scandal on a par with some of Trump’s, not a front-page bold-type screaming headline, but something that belongs in the pages of a newspaper, because it’s interesting news.