Former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is being haunted by the ghosts of 2016.
In the days following the emergence of allegations that President Trump tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating the former vice president, the Biden campaign has sought to take control of the media narrative. But the parallels between what’s happening now and the controversy over former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server while she served as secretary of state are increasingly clear.
The allegations that Clinton violated laws by sending and receiving classified information through her personal server dogged her campaign and dominated media coverage throughout the 2016 election cycle. The Biden campaign has insisted that the same will not happen to it, telling Politico last week, “We learned.”
Putting distance between Biden and the Ukraine story in the public’s imagination is a tall order, though. Despite the Biden campaign’s best efforts at triaging fallout, members of the Trump administration and others are still calling for investigations into Biden and his son Hunter for their connections to Ukraine. Longtime Clinton adviser Philippe Reines told Politico that the damage is already done, arguing that the connection between Biden and the Ukraine situation has been firmly established. “You can’t say the words ‘Trump’ and ‘Ukraine’ without seeing ‘Biden’ and ‘Ukraine,’” he said.
And the data we have so far seems to bear that out. The Ukraine scandal has thrust Biden squarely into the center of the media spotlight — he saw a huge uptick in 15-second cable news clips last week, getting more mentions than all of the other 2020 Democratic candidates combined. While Biden has tried to steer the media toward asking the “right questions,” Trump has worked to point attention right back at Biden and his son. And as you can see in the chart below, whether viewers heard about the Ukraine story in the context of Biden or Trump may have depended on where they got their news.
Initially, when the Wall Street Journal published its Sept. 20 story detailing a phone call in which Trump allegedly pressured the Ukranian president eight different times to investigate Biden’s son, there were more than twice as many mentions of “Ukraine” on MSNBC than on Fox News. CNN devoted more airtime to the story, too, but as you can see in the chart above, this quickly changed: By the time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the opening of an official impeachment inquiry four days later, the networks were mentioning “Ukraine” at about the same frequency, albeit in different contexts. Recently, MSNBC and CNN have both discussed the Ukraine story in the context of Trump, while Fox News remained more focused on Biden.
We also examined the top one- or two-word keywords in the 15-second clips that mentioned “Ukraine” to better understand the substance of each network’s media coverage. And as you can see in the table below, the narratives were pretty different — CNN’s coverage was much more likely to focus on the breaking news aspect of the story (the phrase “breaking news” was actually the third most likely to be used by CNN in conjunction with “Ukraine” versus other networks). Fox News focused more on “Hillary Clinton” and “Hunter Biden,” while MSNBC focused heavily on “Donald Trump.”
What the networks are talking about on the Ukraine scandal
Top 20 keywords used by each network in 15-second cable news clips that also mention “Ukraine,” from Sept. 18–28, 2019
|president investigate||gas company||foreign policy|
|breaking news||laura||national security|
|did president||business dealings||notes|
|investigate joe||ukraine controversy||ukraine scandal|
|zelensky ukraine||hunter biden||dig dirt|
|pressured ukraine||hillary clinton||washington post|
|course did||son hunter||donald trump|
|did ask||millions dollars||july 25th|
|president asked||steve||ukraine help|
|inspector general||witch hunt||personal lawyer|
|biden course||adam schiff||dirt joe|
|president zelensky||energy||trump administration|
|investigate biden||quid pro||putin|
|ukraine investigate||pro quo||ambassador ukraine|
|ukraine look||media||state department|
|asked ukraine||ukraine prosecutor||people like|
|actually didn’t||justice department||donald|
Fox News has discussed Hunter Biden’s ties to a gas company in Ukraine — as well his ties to China — more than the other outlets. It frequently mentioned “Hillary Clinton,” and the idea that she, too, might have shadowy connections to Ukraine. Fox also used the phrase “quid pro quo” more often than the other networks, with most coverage pointing out that Trump did not explicitly ask for a “quid pro quo” or promise Zelensky foreign assistance for Ukrainian cooperation.
Meanwhile, MSNBC has centered its media narrative on Trump and the possibility of presidential wrongdoing. It repeatedly described Trump’s request to Zelensky to investigate Biden as “digging up dirt.”1 In total, the phrase was used 38 different times on MSNBC, 27 times on CNN and just seven times on Fox News. MSNBC also emphasized the role of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, more than the other networks, often referring to him by his role rather than his name.
As accusations that Trump used the power of the presidency to seek dirt on his political rival ricochet through the media, the news cycles have been moving fast. Though there remain a lot of unanswered questions, like whether the House will actually move to vote on articles of impeachment, one thing should be abundantly clear: there is a media tug-of-war brewing between Biden and Trump, and each of them is working hard to pin the Ukraine controversy on the other. How the public thinks about Trump or Biden may depend largely on who can wrest control of the media narrative. But if the networks diverge in their coverage, there may be more than one media narrative to win.