Lessons from Joe Biden

In some political journalism, the emperor has no clothes.

By Nathaniel Haas

Mark Nozell for Creative Commons/Flickr.
“Well, dreams, they feel real while we’re in them right? Its only when we wake up then we realize that something was actually strange.” -Inception

As a journalist, I love speculation just as much as the next person. As a Democrat, I’m sad Joe Biden is not running for President. But the real losers in Biden’s decision today are not politicians, they are the journalists who, for months, hid behind “close confidants,” “unnamed sources,” and “key insiders” in a gargantuan effort to make the 2016 presidential election more interesting (as if it needed it).

There is always room for healthy speculation in politics. Like a child tired of an old Lego set, most media outlets were tired of Hillary Clinton’s emails. They were tired of another story on the meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders. They were bored, and they needed something new. In an Aug. 1 column, New York Times writer Maureen Dowd gave them just that, in a story taken from the last days of Beau Biden’s life:

“Beau was losing his nouns and the right side of his face was partially paralyzed. But he had a mission: He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”

The column touched off a tsunami wave of speculation. Who was Dowd’s source? In the first week of October, a slew of articles, citing more unnamed sources, concluded that Dowd’s inside information came from the Vice President himself.

We’ll never know. But for seven weeks, the Biden-mania became a story in itself, and it was more of a distraction from the issues in the Democratic primary than it was a fruitful exploration of Biden’s decision to run or not. In the end, no one’s timeline for Biden’s decision was correct (of the twelve timelines various news outlets put forward), and CNN’s speculation, only two days ago, of course citing “a source familiar with the process,” that Biden was hiring a campaign staff turned out to be bonkers. The journalistic emperor had no clothes.

Indeed, the greatest evidence that the beltway media ran circles around the American public in a self-fulfilling effort to create more 2016 coverage comes not in what happened in the reporting leading up to his announcement, but the reporting immediately before and after Biden foreclosed running, which contains some true journalism gems.

Take the Washington Post, which accidentally revealed it had written the story both ways when it jumped the gun and published a 1600 word story titled, “”Biden to launch a presidential campaign,” two nights before Biden announced he wasn’t running this morning. The story was quickly replaced with, “”Editor’s note: This file was inadvertently published.”

Or US Congressman Brendan Boyle, who tweeted this two days ago:

Screenshot via Twitter.

And today, like an overheated housing market, the speculation bubble popped. And the political media, like the Wall Street elite before them, were ready for any outcome, suggesting that whatever the outcome, they were satisfied with seven months of clicks. Copy and pasted articles, written days ago to cover both sides of Biden’s decision proliferated, to drive even more and more coverage to a happily self-inflicted wound.

From a journalist’s perspective, the greatest lesson from Biden’s decision not to run is that it dispels entirely the notion that a full story can be created with just a few “unnamed sources”, “people close to the process,” “confidantes,” and “key insiders.” It reminds readers that such a story should rarely be taken seriously.

Indeed, most of the Biden coverage turned out to be science fiction, which is oddly coincidental, because today’s the day that Marty McFly programmed his DeLorean to arrive in Back to the Future. Seven weeks ago, the journalist corps programmed this date with much more imprecision, apprehensively hoping that whatever decision their rumors had suggested Biden would make, the nation’s Vice President would make his own. They just hoped those decisions aligned.

In deciding not to run, Biden reminds every politician of the authenticity and imperviousness to rumors that defines a true statesman. Biden is a dedicated public servant who has endured an unimaginable difficult grieving process, and his speech this morning reminds us how lucky we are to have him in public office. In the late days of Biden mania, with filing deadlines approaching and the time to raise money and plan events running out, the media again grew tired of speculating on its own market bubble, but Biden didn’t waver. He continued to talk to his family, knowing full well that whatever decision he made would be entirely his own.

Today, Biden proved that some politicians — the kind this nation needs and deserves, “still won’t buckle to artificial constructions of their political destiny.” Those words are in quotes because I didn’t write them — they came from an early draft of the speech Biden delivered this morning. I know, because a source close to the Biden team told me.

Nathaniel Haas is a law student at the USC Gould School of Law, and received his undergraduate degree from USC in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics. His work as a journalist covering sexual assault and national politics has been featured in POLITICO and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here, send him an e-mail here, or join his mailing list here.