Media Criticism

Sacha Baron Cohen, Rudy Giuliani, and the Death of 'Disinformation' As a Useful Term

The Hunter Biden story has exposed the media's selective skepticism.


By now, it seems unlikely that the Hunter Biden story will change the outcome of the 2020 election: Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) doubts that revelations about the younger Biden's attempted influence-peddling will change the mind of a single voter. But the story's lack of punch hasn't mattered much to the mainstream media—or to large tech platforms—who have mostly treated it as so dangerous to former Vice President Joe Biden's electoral chances that it must be branded "disinformation" and suppressed at all costs.

"We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation—even if they probably aren't," wrote Thomas Rid in a characteristic column for The Washington Post. "In the likely continued absence of certainty either way, the Biden leaks deserve the full potential-disinformation treatment."

Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, echoed the views of countless commentators, journalists, and social media comms staffers who branded the New York Post's Biden story as disinformation even before any evidence had emerged that the underlying information—emails sent from Biden to business associates and foreign lobbyists—was fake.

Given subsequent reporting about how the story came to be, the public now has every reason to presume the underlying emails—which, by the way, are not really damaging to Joe Biden's candidacy at all—are real, despite some murkiness surrounding the issue of how, precisely, pro-Trump operatives acquired them.

"At this point we can posit with some certainty that The Post's story was not some sort of sweeping Russian disinformation plot but a more normal example of late-dropping opposition research, filtered through a partisan lens and a tabloid sensibility, weaving genuine facts into contestable conclusions," notes Ross Douthat in The New York Times. "It was, in other words, analogous to all kinds of contested anti-Trump stories that various media outlets have run with across the last four crazy years—from the publicity around the Steele dossier's wilder rumors to the tales of Michael Cohen's supposed Prague rendezvous to the claims that Russians hacked Vermont's power grid or even C-SPAN."

But the New York Post is still locked out of its Twitter account because it tweeted the story—supposedly violating the social media company's prohibition on publishing illicitly obtained information. Facebook also took action against: Spokesperson Andy Stone, a former Democratic staffer, announced that its distribution would be reduced "as part of our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation."

We appear to be arriving at a regrettable standard. Politically motivated acts of journalism are deemed "misinformation" or "disinformation" by the mainstream media if they are harmful to the Democratic establishment—an especially worrying trend, given that the Democrats are likely to be returned to power a few days from now.

Anyone who thinks these labels are not being selectively applied should consider a relevant example. At the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., I had a brief encounter with the conservative activist James O'Keefe of Project Veritas, best known for surreptitiously recording undercover videos of liberals making embarrassing statements. I had quarreled with O'Keefe on Twitter, and we renewed the argument during the conference. I told him that since he used dishonest means to obtain his footage, his results were suspect: If you mislead people about your intentions, your opinions, and indeed, your identity, any subsequent revelations must be treated skeptically. O'Keefe disagreed, and that was the end of the exchange.

We now know that elsewhere during this same event, the actor, impersonator, and Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen was engaged in an undercover operation of his own. He entered CPAC wearing KKK robes ("I'm Stephen Miller!" he reportedly shouted), changed into a full Trump costume, and attempted to crash Vice President Mike Pence's speech while offering his fake daughter—the actress Maria Bakalova—as a child bride. The incident is featured prominently in Baron Cohen's new movie, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which was released last week to much fanfare.

Thus far, the movie has mostly garnered attention because of Baron Cohen's attempted entrapment of Rudy Giuliani, who met with Bakalova in a hotel suite, believing her to be a conservative journalist. Guiliani and Bakalova eventually retreat to the suite's bedroom, remove their microphones, and then a few seconds of something possibly sexual—widely described in the media as Giuliani reaching into his pants and touching himself—transpires before Baron Cohen interrupts. The scene was hyped before the movie's release, and media reports considered a damning or even "compromising" moment for the former New York City mayor and current attorney for President Donald Trump. On social media, many acted as if Giuliani had tried to have sex with a 15-year-old, which is the age of the character the 24-year-old actress is playing.

But as Reason's Peter Suderman noted, this framing of the encounter is wildly misleading. The scene is heavily edited to make Giuliani look bad, but he's clearly tucking in his shirt, which was untucked by Bakalova. Indeed, if Giuliani did think something sexual was about to happen, it's probably because Bakalova led him to believe this—she touched his leg during the fake interview, and it was her suggestion that they retire to the bedroom. (And while it might have been embarrassing for Giuliani had something additional happened, he's divorced and they are both adults.)

In summary, this was a manufactured moment, and the film didn't show the thing it supposedly showed. If this sounds familiar—well, it should.

"Hard to see a lot of difference between the Rudy sting and what Project Veritas does," wrote New York Times media columnist Ben Smith in a perceptive tweet. "[The Giuliani scene] was obviously a setup meant to humiliate its target and go viral out of context, then sort of crumbled when people looked closer, unless you really want to believe and then you can. To me that's the analogy."

In fairness, there are some differences between O'Keefe and Baron Cohen. The former stylizes himself as an activist and a journalist, while the latter would probably say his work is just entertainment. (One thinks also of former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who would retreat to I'm-just-a-comedian territory whenever he was called out for producing misleading segments.) Of course, the lines between journalism and entertainment have become hopelessly blurred by celebrity social media activism (and the media's love affair with it), cable news, and a reality TV star turned president.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two, though, is that O'Keefe's attempts to peddle sketchy revelations are derided by the mainstream press, while Sacha Baron Cohen is lionized. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League even gave him an international leadership reward. Ironically, the actor then used his acceptance speech to attack Facebook for allowing too much disinformation on the platform—this from someone who tricks people for a living.

There's actually a case to be made that a more concerted and rigorous effort to purge social media of disinformation might imperil Baron Cohen's own work. In practice, though, it's hard (if not impossible) to imagine Twitter making any serious attempt to stop people from reading about Giuliani's alleged indiscretion in the hotel room. It's also hard not to suspect that various rules for what counts as disinformation or hacked material or election interference are being rewritten in real-time by all sides and all involved parties. (Of course, this applies to many conservatives and Republicans as well: Those who once scoffed at the idea of Russian "election interference" have now decided it's their preferred term for describing any behavior that is contrary to Republican goals.)

If Trump is swept out of office, and a new administration—one for which the mainstream media has much more affection—takes power, it will be more vital than ever for the gatekeepers to apply their standards fairly. This recent series of events, in which a potentially anti-Biden story was not just ignored but furiously suppressed—while an essentially false report of indiscretion on the part of that story's Republican source was widely circulated—is a warning sign.