Media Attempts to Spin Biden's Tirade Into a Triumph

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On Tuesday, Twitter was, well, atwitter with clips of Joe Biden’s confrontation with a union worker in a Detroit auto plant. The man in a hard hat told Biden, “You are actively trying to end our Second Amendment rights and take away our guns.” To which the former vice president responded, "You’re full of s---!" and the conversation went downhill from there. Nothing about the exchange was particularly flattering for Biden, who not only mangled the facts but threatened to “slap” the voter for good measure.

To hear the media tell it, this was great moment for Biden. In order to make that confounding claim, the media chose ignore the substance of what Biden said and his angry behavior, and skipped right to talking about the “optics” of the confrontation, which involves a lot of tendentious meta-analysis of how they think the event might be perceived by other voters. This is not reporting -- it’s spin.

MSNBC anchor Joy-Ann Reid went so far as to declare, “Biden in this clip was forceful but composed, quite the opposite of what his foes have been depicting him as.” She was just one of a bevy of reporters and commentators who rode to Biden’s defense. 

Defending Biden in this instance would be bad enough, but excusing his outbursts is becoming a habit with the media. Biden was asked a perfectly legitimate question by a voter about how his son -- who has a checkered personal history that involves drug addiction, taking bribes from Chinese businessmen, and fathering children with adult entertainers -- got a no-show job with a Ukrainian gas company to the tune of a million dollars a years while Joe Biden was overseeing Ukraine affairs for the White House. Biden responded by not just calling the voter a “damn liar,” he called him “fat” and challenged him to take an IQ test.

The media, if it wants to retain any bipartisan credibility, can’t seriously be defending physical threats and gratuitous insults -- but that’s exactly what they’ve done. CNN political reporter Maeve Reston wrote of the Iowa exchange, “In a human moment defending his son, Biden showed the authenticity, emotion and readiness for a fight that appeals to so many Democrats as they look for someone who can take on Trump.”

There has been no shortage of reporting on the business dealings of Trump’s children and son-in-law. Can anyone imagine Trump dismissing questions about his adult children with personal insults and a CNN reporter turning around and saying it was a “human moment” showing “authenticity”? What about Biden’s threat to “slap” the union worker while pointing a finger at him in close quarters? If Trump did that, would the media describe him as “forceful but composed”?

Similarly, the media are anxious to defend Biden this time around by bowling right over the facts. ABC News’ chief political analyst Matthew Dowd said the exchange over guns with a union worker was a “net plus” because "voters are sick of the typical political speak ... Voters want somebody that they can trust, and is genuine, and has believability.”

It’s telling that Dowd is simply asserting his views, not making an argument on the merits that the exchange proves Biden is trustworthy. At one point, Biden referred to “AR-14s” when he clearly meant to say “AR-15s.”  Then Biden asked the worker, “Are you able to own a machine gun?” The worker rightfully noted, “Machine guns are illegal.” Biden seemed to think he had the man. “That’s right. So AR-15’s illegal," he said. The worker incredulously – and quite correctly – responded, “That’s not a machine gun. It’s a semi-automatic." The AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America – Americans own somewhere between five to ten million of them – so not knowing anything about it makes it hard to take Biden seriously on guns.

As for Biden’s denial that he wants to confiscate anyone’s guns, this, too, is a reasonable concern that demands a far better answer than “you’re full of shit.” Biden’s official campaign policy on guns is a reinstatement of the so-called “assault weapons ban” and “calls for a voluntary buyback program of assault weapons, stopping short of candidates and advocates who are calling for a mandatory gun buyback,” according to the Washington Post.

However, Biden has recently said he would appoint former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke his “gun control czar,” after O’Rourke dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Biden. O’Rourke is famous for declaring at a Democratic debate, “Hell, yes, we are going to take your AR-15.”

Biden himself seemed to tell CNN’s Anderson Cooper that gun confiscation is not out of the question. "To gun owners out there who say, well, a Biden administration means they’re going to come for my guns,” asked Cooper. Biden responded, "Bingo. You’re right, if you have an assault weapon … They should be illegal, period.”

Perhaps Biden is against gun confiscation, but that’s open to interpretation, and his policy position borders on the incoherent. Voters are hardly out of line to question him on this on this issue.

Instead, what we get out of this episode is facile analysis such as CNN’s Chris Cillizza saying, “Why Joe Biden's confrontation with an auto worker in Detroit is probably a good thing for him.” According to Cillizza, Biden’s outburst is excusable because there’s “a huge double standard. When Trump tells people where they can stick it, his fans say he's being tough and standing up for America. When Biden does the same, he's unhinged.”

There’s a double standard here all right – but it’s not what Cillizza thinks it is. No one cares about the fact that political partisans are hypocritical -- that’s obvious, and almost expected. The media, on the other hand, are supposed to assess events with at least a minimum level of professional detachment and objectivity. Yet, when Trump acts addled and insults people, the media has no trouble clearly saying what happened. When a 77-year-old Joe Biden, who was gaffe-prone back in his prime, mangles the facts, gratuitously insults, and physically threatens an ordinary voter whose only crime is asking a pointed question – the media have an obligation to tell it straight – not try and spin an embarrassing episode into a political victory.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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