By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The media, the president and what we should have known about his age-related issues

George Stephanopoulos interviews President Biden in 2021. White House photo.

Right now we’re all waiting to see how President Biden does in his interview with George Stephanopoulos. Obviously Biden has to come off as coherent, and even then it’s not going to stop calls for him to step aside in the midst of donor panic and declining poll numbers. The New York Times and The Boston Globe are reporting that Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey has been telling associates that Biden’s candidacy is “irretrievable.”

Given the terrible position in which we find ourselves, it’s worth asking whether the media should have covered Biden differently over the past few months. My Northeastern University colleague Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times, thinks so, writing a commentary for Semafor that begins:

It’s clear the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable. It is our duty to poke through White House smoke screens and find out the truth. The Biden White House clearly succeeded in a massive cover-up of the degree of the President’s feebleness and his serious physical decline, which may be simply the result of old age. Shame on the White House press corps for not to have pierced the veil of secrecy surrounding the President.

Richard Tofel, a former top executive at The Wall Street Journal and ProPublica, has been reminding us on social media that he’s been calling for greater scrutiny of Biden’s age since last October. Here’s part of what he said back then:

Is Biden speaking more slowly because he’s conscious that his lifelong stutter might now be taken for cognitive frailty, or because he has no choice? Is he walking more cautiously because he knows the political peril of falling, or because he can no longer go any faster? If you think you know the answers to those questions, what is your evidence? I know of very little, either way.

My own sense is that there was actually quite a bit of reporting on Biden’s age even before his disastrous June 27 debate with Donald Trump, but that it was discounted for a variety of reasons. When special counsel Robert Hur called Biden “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” that got plenty of coverage. At the same time, though, Hur was arguably engaging in prosecutorial misconduct by adding his own commentary while not bringing charges against Biden — which, in turn, reminded people of then-FBI Director James Comey trashing Hillary Clinton in 2016 over the way she handled her emails even while concluding she had not committed a crime.

The Wall Street Journal published an in-depth story on Biden’s age-related issues in early June, but that was widely dismissed because of the Journal’s reliance on partisan Republican sources, including former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had previously told aides privately that he found the president to be sharp in White House meetings.

The Times itself has spent months obsessing over what voters think about Biden’s age, which in turn brought about accusations of both-sides-ism and false equivalence given that Trump is nearly as old and arguably more addled as well as an insurrectionist and a convicted criminal who’s been found liable for sexual assault.

Brian Stelter has written an excellent, deeply reported overview for Vox. Here’s the nut:

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.

Then, too, journalists are not unaware of what we’re facing. A second Trump term could amount to nothing less than the end of democracy in this country. Surely there was a sense that as long as Biden wasn’t too impaired, it wasn’t worth the risk of throwing the election into chaos and risking Trump’s return to office — this time as the head of the authoritarian right.

If Biden could somehow make it across the finish line this November, so this thinking went, it would be up to God and Vice President Kamala Harris after that. I definitely count myself among those observers who dismissed concerns about Biden’s age, partly because I thought they were overblown, partly because I feared the consequences of removing Biden from the top of the ticket.

Unfortunately, we’ve got chaos anyway.

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  1. Kris Olson

    There’s definitely a current running through X that says the media focused TOO MUCH on Biden’s age, too, many citing this (flawed, in my view) Media Matters study:

    My only point is that working in the media, especially covering something this high stakes, is difficult. People will never agree on how much coverage, what the tone of the coverage should be, etc. Also, as I know you know, Dan, sometimes media are only as good as their sources.

    I think Jill Abramson *might* be right, re: a massive cover-up. But I’m not there yet on that front, either. “Capacity to serve as president” is not an on-off switch. If you were a person in a position to be able to assess President Biden, especially if you had some affinity for him as a person, you may genuinely have been able to rationalize/minimize his “senior moments,” just like we all do with an aging loved one from whom we struggle with things like when to take away the car keys or when they should no longer be living independently. The prevailing picture we’ve been getting about the behind-the-scenes Biden is someone who has had “good days” and “bad days,” “good hours” (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and “bad hours.” It’s completely understandable that people close to the president would try to focus on the good and block out the bad and adopt a strategy I think they’d describe not as a “cover up” but just an attempt to adjust to Biden’s limitations, until the debate made that untenable.

    We’re actually doing this whole debate a disservice by couching it as related to a medical diagnosis, i.e., “cognitive decline.” Biden may or may not have a medical problem. But he definitely has a political problem. What we actually have is a crisis of confidence that Biden can be the lead prosecutor of the case against Trump. I’m not sure he can fix that, even if he undergoes thorough medical examinations (as some have suggested he should do) or sails through the Stephanopolous interview. On that front, I tend to agree with our governor.

  2. Martin Callaghan

    Good post Dan.

  3. Steve Schnapp

    Of course it is a legitimate to question the relationship between age and competence. But Biden on a very bad day is more competent than a ignorant pathological narcissistic conman. However the more important issue is whether Biden can defeat Trump in November, not how he will perform in the oval office. Right now, his debate performance has worsened the chances of defeating Trump, and helping down-ballot Democrats. The discussion should be focused on winnability.

  4. Deborah Nam-Krane

    I’m mystified. People have been obsessing about Biden’s age since 2020.

    I wasn’t pleased with the first few minutes of the debate, but once Biden got warmed up, he did his job, to the point where he’s been criticized for being somewhat wonky (Thank god there are so many narratives to latch onto).

    Yeah, Trump had a better tan, but he dodged multiple questions and made it clear that he would accept the election only if he won. I’m very concerned that the media is significantly less interested in Trump’s performance than Biden’s.

    Also, as someone who is dealing with a parent who is suffering from cognitive decline, I feel confident that this isn’t the issue with Biden.

  5. Stephen Walker

    Imagining negative ads in October showing Biden’s gaffes in the debate. He has to go.

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