Media sources swarmed when a Columbia School of Social Work adjunct lecturer seemed to confirm on video that presidential candidate Joe Biden is a sexual predator. The video was retweeted by a Trump aide, and both left-wing and right-wing media sites began to claim the content for their disparate political goals.
The professor’s comments reference complaints about Biden that arose last spring after a former aide, Tara Reade, publicly accused the former vice president of inappropriate sexual behavior in April. Facing an uncertain commitment to the Democratic party, establishment figures did not openly address the allegations in an effort to endorse the candidate as a united front, even despite their prior support of the #MeToo movement and other sexual violence advocacy.
The video was first posted by a progressive media site this May. In it, Anthony Zenkus, an adjunct lecturer at the Columbia School of Social Work who teaches courses on human behavior and trauma, notes that Biden’s observability—in particular, his lack of physical boundaries—cannot singularly determine if Biden is a predator. However, Zenkus said that the behavior is an example of normalized predatory behaviors.
The video went viral in far-right news media outlets after Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Pascale, shared the video and commented, “Disgusting.”
InfoWars published the video alongside Zenkus’ credentials—citing him as a sexual violence and trauma expert—but provided no further context of Zenkus’ outspoken criticism of Donald Trump and other public figures of all political affiliations.
At the time of publishing, Zenkus could not be reached to comment about the incidents.
Journalists increasingly cite academic experts during high-profile election campaign coverage, studies show. Academics are sought out as experts in journalism because their affiliation with a university—unlike corporate or political figures—actually encourages that they provide the most informed opinion. Even with the growth of private corporations funding academic research, professors are still obligated to disclose their affiliations in research and are often cited as sources for their areas of expertise.
However, the rising prominence of political pundits, who often create authorities to prove the validity of a political viewpoint, in driving news coverage has complicated the idea of an expert source.
“When the president says ‘some people say’ and ‘I’ve read somewhere,’ it always sends a chill up my spine,” Polskin said, noting that these sites provide Trump credibility through the information they publish.
For the past three years, Howard Polskin has spent three hours a day reading far-right media news outlets to update liberal readers on the content circulated on popular sites. His website, TheRighting, has a list of “Who’s Who in Conservative Media,” which defines key figures that dominate far-right outlets including Roger Ailes, Alex Jones, and Tucker Carlson. He notes that the idea of an expert source seems to be endangered in an audience that views media pundits as uncredible.
“There are far more right-wing websites than there are [left-wing] websites,” he said. Based on the volume of content that he observes on these sites, he believes “the number of pundit writers outnumbers expert sources.”
“My guess would be that a lot of experts might be wary of engaging with right-wing media and that they would have their word turned against them,” Polskin said.
For left and right media outlets alike, Zenkus’ anti-establishment stance has invigorated conversations across platforms in critique of mainstream media.
“I guess my question is if this were Donald Trump, would they treat it the same way? If this were Brett Kavanaugh, did they treat it the same way?” Reade said to Fox News. “In other words, it’s politics and political agenda playing a role in objective reporting and asking the question.”