Did the Media Botch the Biden Age Story?

MEDIA, 8 Jul 2024

Brian Stelter | Vox - TRANSCEND Media Service

US President Joe Biden. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Asleep at the wheel? Complicit in a cover-up? The real story is far more complicated — and more interesting.

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[Rebuttal from Matt Taibbi: It’s not complicated, and this think piece is by itself an insult. Audiences know the answer: Yes. You’ve been screwing up for five years. Also, it isn’t a “Biden age” story, but a “Biden dementia” story. There are octogenarians who are competent to be president. Biden isn’t one. Audiences have known this since 2019, and the only people you’re impressing by saying otherwise are other media nitwits. A flood of these Stelter-style “Whither us?” features asking “if the press missed” the Biden-incapacity story has arrived, and I feel like screaming: YOU ARE ONLY TALKING TO EACH OTHER. Even as Biden on a minute-to-minute basis babbles about things like being the first black female president, officially reducing him to 1977-Elvis levels of incoherence, the excuses keep coming.]

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3 Jul 2024 – Clueless or complicit.

That’s Ted Cruz’s take on the media’s coverage of Joe Biden’s age and mental acuity, which came under scrutiny after the president publicly unraveled in last week’s debate.

On Monday [1 Jul], the Republican senator from Texas tweeted to me: “There are only two options: (1) the Dems & their media shills were so clueless that they had no idea that Biden is mentally incompetent, or (2) they KNEW & they deliberately LIED about it. Both are damning. I vote #2.”

Cruz isn’t the only one taking aim at the media after the debate.

Right-wing commentators are imagining that news outlets covered up Biden’s frailty for years. Some on the left are asserting that the White House press corps should have probed Biden’s health more closely, which could have prompted a fuller primary process. Journalists (including the one writing this column) are doing some reassessing of their own, asking if the clearly aging 81-year-old president was given the benefit of the doubt too many times.

But I’m sorry, Ted Cruz, there are more than two options.

And after talking to top reporters on the White House beat, what emerges is a far more nuanced picture.

The national media wasn’t dodging the story: The biggest newspapers in the country published lengthy stories about Biden’s mental fitness. The public wasn’t in the dark about Biden’s age: Most voters (67 percent in a June Gallup poll) thought he was too old to be president even before the debate. But questions about Biden’s fitness for office were not emphasized as much as they should have been.

That’s the third option: The stories should have been tougher, the volume should have been louder.

“The hard thing about ‘Biden is old’ as a story is that it had a dead-end quality to it,” said Charlotte Alter, senior correspondent for Time magazine. “Biden is old. We know. So now what? You can’t turn back time. You can’t make him younger.”

But the story is no longer a dead end. Key members of Biden’s party, spooked by the debate, are wondering whether he should remain in the race. Some are pushing for him to step aside. One of the correspondents I interviewed, who spoke on condition of anonymity because their employer prohibits outside interviews, said, “Sources are coming out of the woodwork now.” Journalists who were previously stymied by uncooperative aides are now probing whether the White House did, to some degree, cover up Biden’s condition.

Until now, the coverage has largely consisted of questions; hopefully soon there will be answers.

A brief history of a half-decade of Biden age coverage

“Some consider it taboo to ask whether a candidate is too old to serve as president. Not the press,” Politico’s acclaimed media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2019. Shafer’s column — titled “Is Joe Biden Too Old?” — observed that nearly every major media outlet was zeroing in on the candidate’s age, then 76, making “his state of mental and physical fitness the primary lens through which it views his candidacy.”

The scrutiny never really subsided. The New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker told me that his first Page One story about Biden’s age was published in July 2022. “The age question is catching up to Joe Biden,” a CNN columnist wrote that same month. “Biden, turning 80, faces renewed age questions as he weighs reelection,” the Washington Post wrote in November 2022.

This was critical coverage. Journalists aren’t doctors, and shouldn’t pretend to be. But they are observers, and Baker, like others on the Biden beat, reported what he observed over the years. Biden “often shuffles when he walks, and aides worry he will trip on a wire,” Baker wrote in 2022. “He stumbles over words during public events, and they hold their breath to see if he makes it to the end without a gaffe.”

Back then, it was unclear whether Biden would run for a second term. Baker quoted S. Jay Olshansky, a longevity specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago, saying it was fair to ask if Biden would still be fit for office in 2028, when he would be 86 years old. “You can’t sugarcoat aging,” Olshansky said.

Still, despite the scrutiny, some reporters are looking back and wondering what they could have done differently, particularly after Biden’s April 2023 announcement of his reelection bid raised the stakes. “That’s when the coverage should have gotten a lot tougher,” one of the beat reporters remarked to me.

The White House waged war on age reporting

To assess the quality of the media’s coverage of Biden’s age, it helps to understand what made it such a difficult story to begin with. Because it certainly is difficult.

“It has been a challenge for the media to find the best way to tell this story,” Baker said. “It’s a hard topic, right? It’s subjective. It depends in part on people in the room with him telling you in a candid way what they see. And it’s certainly true that this White House is not a particularly transparent White House.”

Baker’s sentiment on the White House is widely shared. In conversations about this topic with a dozen White House correspondents and other Washington reporters, I heard harsh criticism of the Biden administration for “gaslighting” and “bullying” people who pursued stories about the president’s health — and praise for the journalists who did so anyway.

“They really hate us over these stories,” Baker said. The administration’s “pushback is pretty strong and their resentment of the coverage is pretty deep, to the point that they’ve complained to our editors.”

Biden’s press aides were inordinately sensitive, you might say defensive, about the topic. “When reporters raise age questions, they lose their minds,” one reporter said. “They go ballistic,” a second reporter said. “Every time you write about Biden’s age, they gaslight you and tell you that you’ll be responsible for the downfall of the American republic,” a third reporter said, exaggerating just a touch.

The Atlantic’s Mark Leibovich penned a column in June 2022 saying that Biden was “too old for the next election.” In a February 2023 follow-up, he quipped that “the White House did not like that story.”

Some left-leaning readers didn’t like it, either.

Reader response to age coverage was punishing

In my talks with reporters, I also heard complaints about how stories on Biden’s age were received. Many Trump supporters treated it as a given that Biden was senile, and any report that didn’t outright agree was seen as part of the alleged media cover-up.

Meanwhile, Biden supporters accused journalists of abetting Trump by “both-sidesing” an election that features an aspiring authoritarian who tried to steal the last presidential election.

Prominent journalists who were outspoken about voters’ age concerns, like New York Times podcasters Ezra Klein and Astead Herndon, were pummeled by partisans in social media comment threads. (“Americans have said consistently that they wanted someone else to be the nominee,” Herndon pointed out again on CNN after the debate last week.)

The tensions are still palpable this week: Every time I appear on CNN (my old home) or the BBC to discuss the Democratic Party’s post-debate state of crisis, I get messages from liberal viewers who believe I’m helping hand the election to Trump. The former president looms over every story and TV segment about Biden, and some Washington reporters have privately griped that Biden got a bit of a free pass because Trump was so aberrant and so dishonest.

But the White House reporters I know weren’t slacking off or going soft on Biden because they wanted to help the Democratic Party defeat Trump. That’s just Infowars-style conspiracy thinking. Reporters live for scoops, and a scoop about Biden being debilitated would be a blockbuster. It’s just not that simple.

Witness the Wall Street Journal’s prescient story in early June — “Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping” — which was widely criticized for leaning too heavily on Republican sources with partisan agendas. The Biden press shop went into attack mode and the Journal reporters felt rather lonely as media commentators derided the story.

The reality was that the Journal had lots of solid reporting, but too many people gave the Biden White House the benefit of the doubt. I was part of the problem; I appeared on MSNBC and said that Biden’s age could decide the election “if the media obsesses over it and ignores Trump’s faults.”

Biden’s fitness for office merited more “obsessing.” His relative lack of in-depth interviews and news conferences was, in hindsight, a tell. His decision to turn down a prime spot on CBS on Super Bowl Sunday, bucking with presidential tradition, probably should have been scrutinized even more emphatically.

The evidence on Biden’s cognitive decline was often muddled

The awkward reality is that there are “two Joe Bidens,” as Baker and several New York Times colleagues put it in a Page One piece about “America’s oldest president” in June 2023.

To borrow a meme, that article has aged well. The notion of Biden having good days and bad days has become conventional wisdom. Perhaps the debate was his worst day yet — although reporters don’t have enough access to Biden to confidently say so.

“That was the worst I’ve ever seen him,” one White House correspondent told me afterward, a sentiment affirmed by three other Biden beat reporters.

On the other hand, down-the-middle media outlets may not have placed enough significance on the string of embarrassing video clips and other episodes. Several reporters told me that, in retrospect, apparent signs of Biden’s advancing age were treated as one-offs when they might have been something more. “Did we miss some chances to connect some dots? I think that’s a fair question,” a veteran correspondent told me.

On one memorable occasion, in September 2022, Biden scanned a crowd and looked for Rep. Jackie Walorski, Republican of Indiana, asking, “Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Walorski had been killed in a car crash the previous month.

One “senior moment” after another led to frequent corrections of White House transcripts and thorough fact-checks by news outlets. I was particularly galled when Biden said, in remarks to service members and first responders on the anniversary of September 11, that he remembered “standing there the next day” and looking at Ground Zero. He didn’t visit the site until nine days after the attack. I wish I had made more of that. At the time, I chalked it up to Biden being Biden.

That’s also how the White House tried to minimize special counsel Robert K. Hur’s embarrassing assessment of Biden as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” When Biden delivered an angry rebuttal to Hur’s report, he mixed up the presidents of Egypt and Mexico — yet another one of those dots that could have been connected more assertively. Several beat reporters told me they thought the White House largely succeeded in framing Hur as a Republican smear artist.

If Biden had a “bad day” with Hur, he also had lots of “good days,” and members of the media dutifully described those, in quotes that have come under newfound scrutiny. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a personal friend of Biden’s, said in March that he’d recently “spent a couple of hours with Joe Biden” and found him to be “better than he’s ever been intellectually.”

Anti-Biden media outlets have ridiculed Scarborough for praising Biden’s intellect, but the assessment is entirely in line with the experience many people have with elderly relatives: sharp one day, slow the next day.

Similarly, Biden biographer Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker that when he last interviewed Biden, in January, “his mind seemed unchanged. He never bungled a name or a date.”

Immediately after the debate, Osnos said Biden was clearly diminished. He told me, of the article he published in March, “The piece was about Biden’s defiant belief that he could and should win. His job was to persuade Americans to agree with him, and that has failed.”

Until the debate, Biden’s highest-profile television appearance of the year was his State of the Union address in March. He won high marks for a commanding, even feisty speech; he was so high-energy that Fox types claimed he was “jacked up” on stimulants or illicit substances. But he was using a teleprompter and speaking in front of a crowd, two features that last week’s CNN debate lacked.

The triumphant nature of Biden’s State of the Union address enabled White House aides, and Biden-friendly media outlets, to dismiss his mental misfires and physical deterioration. For a long time, “they did an incredibly effective job of bubble wrapping him,” a DC anchor told me. It worked, sometimes, with some audiences.

It’s not working anymore. The bubble wrap is off.

So did the media get this one wrong?

I know many readers would love an easy answer here, and I know many pundits are eager to provide one. But it’s just not that simple.

For starters, there’s no such thing as “the media” anymore. We live in a time of such complete and utter mass-media fragmentation that we each live in a media bubble of our own making. In mine, Biden might be a wise leader who is making America sane again after four years of Trump insanity; in yours, he might be a doddering old fool or a victim of “elder abuse,” as Fox hosts are now openly saying.

And even if you narrow the media-criticism conversation down to a handful of high-profile, down-the-middle national outlets, the record of how effectively Biden’s health was covered is complicated, just as aging is a complicated process. Baker, who co-bylined a new story on Tuesday titled “Biden’s Lapses Are Said to Be Increasingly Common and Worrisome,” told me, “It’s very likely that things have progressed in recent weeks and months that make this a more acute story now.”

Throughout Biden’s years in office, reporters sought to avoid ageist stereotypes and respect the fact that Biden has a history of stuttering while also reporting on what they were observing. They also weighed his verbal gaffes and viral video blunders against his political victories. Baker and several other reporters wrote in the June 2023 “America’s Oldest President” story that Biden was, in truth, “somewhere between the partisan cartoon of an addled and easily manipulated fogy promoted by Republicans and the image spread by his staff of a president in aviator shades commanding the world stage and governing with vigor.”

So, about those Republicans. Fox News stars have been taking a victory lap this week, having spent years and countless segments portraying Biden as incompetent and incapacitated. They feel like they deserve credit for being early to the story that’s now consuming Washington.

But Fox supplied precious little actual reporting on the subject of Biden’s health. Instead, hosts like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham queued up video clips of Biden looking helpless and played those clips on a loop, devoid of any context or balance. When Biden would deliver a forceful speech, as on State of the Union night, Fox’s commentators seemed caught off guard.

Consider the recent controversies over so-called “cheapfake” videos of Biden. He really has, at times, appeared to wander off and freeze up in front of cameras. But some of the videos hyped by Biden critics were misleading, even maliciously so.

Pro-Trump media outlets took a clip of Biden pausing before sitting down in a chair and claimed that there was no chair there at all. Online meme makers imagined that he was defecating during a D-Day ceremony.

Those types of lies caused at least a little bit of hesitation among good-faith reporters. As one said to me, “I didn’t want to feed into a bad-faith caricature.”

But the answer to bad-faith attacks can’t be a supine press, and journalists have a chance now to prove they’re up to the task of reporting this story. The public deserves to know more about Biden’s health, and it is owed more insight into how the president is functioning in the White House.

We live in the era of a gerontocracy. Were Trump to win, he’d be 82 at the end of his second term — older than Biden is now. “The Biden-is-old story is a small piece of a bigger story, which is that our entire government is really old, across all branches,” said Alter, who wrote the 2020 book The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America.

That new generation is still waiting for its turn. So questions of age will come up over and over again. Reporters who push past hostile press offices and recalcitrant readers to get to the facts will have met the moment — and delivered to the public what it deserves.

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Brian Stelter is the author of three books about the media industry, a former media reporter at the New York Times, and a former anchor of CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Go to Original – vox.com


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