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How the media is covering allegations that Biden mishandled classified documents


President Biden and his predecessor now have something in common. Biden and Donald Trump are both facing allegations that they mishandled classified documents.


But how are these cases different, and how are news outlets covering this latest revelation?


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: CBS News has learned the Department of Justice is reviewing classified Obama-Biden records.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: Several classified documents from his time as VP under the Obama administration.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #3: The issue here is much more about politics than about law.

FADEL: Now, we asked NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik to help us unpack the coverage of this story, and he joins us now. Good morning, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so let's start at the beginning. How did this story break, and how was it presented?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's think about this for a moment. There really haven't been a ton of scandals during the Biden presidency affecting...

FADEL: True.

FOLKENFLIK: ...Joe Biden himself, beyond his troubled son, Hunter. So consider it a little bit of a media test case. CBS broke it, as we just heard. Biden's attorneys disclosed through the White House. About a dozen documents were found with classified markings at this university center in Washington where the former vice president was before he became president. And they informed the National Archive and cooperating with the Justice Department. It's being reviewed by a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Chicago. That gets disclosed and then bursts out everywhere - a new scandal to cover after days of coverage of Republican dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

FADEL: And how has it been covered? How did different media outlets cover this story?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you saw a bunch of coverage of the initial disclosure, which was as factual as we knew - very limited set of facts so far. A lot of questions remain. And then you saw a burst of speculation. You saw places like Punchbowl News, which focuses on Capitol Hill and Washington politics, portraying it as giving the Republicans a win because they could beat up the president over it. You know, you think of a place that's often critical of the president. Fox gave it a lot of coverage Monday, to be sure, but actually, CNN far more so.

There was a review late last night by Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group making that case that was consistent with my review of the transcripts for shows on CNN, Fox, Times, the primetime shows - two times as much on CNN - three times much - four times as much likely to be covering this as other issues. It suggests, you know, that CNN really decided, yes, to provide a lot of context, but also to go all-in. I must say that coverage became calmer and more contextualized from Monday evening over the course of the day Tuesday, analyses being brought on the air involving a lot of former government officials.

FADEL: I think there's been a tendency to want to compare the Trump classified document scandal and what Biden is facing now. But this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, right?

FOLKENFLIK: It's not apples to apples. I mean, let's be really clear. Trump and his lawyers didn't disclose they had these things. They said things that weren't true to the National Archives and to lawyers for the government. They then fought return of the documents. It turned out there were hundreds of documents bearing markings of classified designations and that these were also, in some cases, documents with nuclear secrets - not the case for - in the Biden thing, as far as we know. You know, look, there was a time where Bill Clinton's former national security adviser slipped documents out of the National Archives in the George W. Bush years in his clothing. He was criminally charged. So far, that's not the case here. Journalists do a disservice if they equate things that aren't the same. But yet, let's remember, this is consequential and has to be covered.

FADEL: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks so much for your time.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.