That President Joe Biden now presents as “an elderly man with a poor memory,” as special counsel Robert Hur put it in his recent report, is something quite obvious to anyone watching the president on those rare occasions when White House handlers unleash him from his script. That Biden’s gears no longer perfectly mesh would seem to matter, given his campaign for another four years in office. The findings, from Hur’s report on Biden’s handling of classified documents, would also seem to be newsworthy.
But many critics of the press, both the professionals and the partisans, have denounced the stream of stories exploring this episode. Former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan found the coverage of this news, specifically in her old Times haunt, completely overcooked.
At the risk of staging an intramural wrestling match of one press critic against another, allow me to respectfully explain why Sullivan is wrong. If the Times is guilty of anything, it is of being late to the subject of Biden’s marbles. Instead of brickbatting the paper for its coverage, the paper deserves a small bouquet and an attaboy for scrutinizing the president’s underscrutinized capabilities.
Sullivan surrenders a pawn in her Substack piece by conceding that Biden’s age makes him less than an ideal candidate for a second presidential term, and another one when she acknowledges that he’s “never” been “a gifted public speaker” (talk about understatement), and still another when she says he “makes cringe-inducing mistakes.” She observes that his age “really is a legitimate concern for many voters.”
But having noted her presentation against Biden, she shifts to explain that the press should lighten up on the president because “Trump is poised to take down American democracy, starting on Day One.” Because Trump faces multiple criminal charges, including attempting to overturn the 2020 election. And because Trump is “old and gaffe-prone himself.”
For the media to make Biden’s mental state “the overarching issue of the campaign is nothing short of journalistic malpractice,” Sullivan writes.
There are so many assumptions knotted into that statement you’ll never untangle them — but let’s try. The idea that the Times or the general press is making Biden’s brain the overarching issue of the campaign is preposterous. The ink is still wet on the Hur report. The Times news and opinion journalists approached Biden’s deficiencies from a number of angles because that what’s news outlets do with important news like the special counsel’s investigation. They, to use a phrase once popular at the Times, “flood the zone.”
To have downplayed the Hur report would have been the ultimate act of journalistic malpractice. If anything, the slow-walking the press has done up until this point on Biden’s brain comes closer to journalistic malpractice than do the welter of stories the Times has placed on Page One, on the editorial page, in columns by Maureen Dowd, Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens, Nick Fox and elsewhere.
Sullivan compares the Times’ recent Biden coverage with what she and others consider the over-reporting on what she calls “the supposed scandal over Hillary Clinton’s email practices.” Nice try, but the Clinton emails were a story, deserving new reporting at every juncture between May 2015 — when the first emails were released by the State Department — until November 2016, when the 19th drop arrived.
Why has the press not better covered Biden’s mental haziness? It seemed to have no problem conjecturing that Donald Trump was going mad during his term in office.
The answer could be that his people conceal him from reporters, holding a skimpy number of press conferences where he can be observed. Biden’s aversion to exposure has become so extreme that for the second year in a row, he declined the traditional sit-down interview with the network telecasting the Super Bowl. An odd choice for a president running for reelection. The reflexive answer might be that the press adores Democrats and pulls for them at select opportunities. Such a thesis would require an investigation beyond the scope of this column, but for what it’s worth, I’ve now worked in two newsrooms covering national political news and I’ve never heard such sentiments voiced out loud or peddled covertly. That said, I remain open to the idea that bias plays a role, but require evidence beyond anecdote. And finally, our culture still practices a “respect your elders” ethic, with many considering it unseemly to criticize the old when they do the things old people do. Perhaps what the Hur report did was give the press the permission structure it was looking for to finally talk about Biden’s purported decline. It’s always easier to be the second guy saying the emperor is naked.
Some may think it inconvenient for democracy that the long-suppressed discussion of Biden’s mental vigor has arrived now as the campaign shifts to a higher gear and that it might hinder Biden’s ambitions for another term while benefiting another candidate who is toting more baggage than a luggage car.
While journalism can be useful in contributing to democracies, it should never allow itself to be enlisted by a candidate or a party to spike or bury truthful stories that some people think might wound democracy. If Biden’s batteries are as low as they seem to be — he did himself no favor at the defensive press conference he held last week about the Hur report — then muffling the story about his condition is among the worst wounds the press could inflict on democracy.
Taking a dive for an impaired candidate because his opponent is considered a monster — or even appearing to take a dive — will do nothing to restore the “trust” in the media that so many polls have measured as lacking. If you can’t trust the public with the absolute truth about a candidate, what’s the point of democracy?
Sullivan writes that she wishes that Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger would instruct his opinion editor and the top news editor to cease “going overboard with both coverage and commentary about Biden’s age” and “tone it down.” We can only hope that Sulzberger will stay in his office playing Wordle instead. The Times has gone at a real story the way a great newspaper should. And if anything, the paper is following, not leading, public interest in Biden’s age and abilities. In an NBC News poll published days before the Hur report’s release, 76 percent of all voters and 54 percent of Democratic Party voters said they had major or moderate concerns with Biden possessing the mental and physical health necessary for a second term.
A landslide of democratic interest in the president’s mental state appears to endorse the Times’ coverage. We can only hope the paper continues to go “overboard.” If anything, Hur appears to have finally begun the vetting of Biden’s mental acuity that the press and his party should have done long ago.
Why do we need a sportscaster to tell us the truth about Biden? On a recent Bill Maher episode, Bob Costas said this: “If Biden’s hubris is such that he doesn’t understand the best interest of his party, and more important his country, then he has to be shown the door. Period. Because if Trump is a threat to democracy, and in many ways he is, so too are the Dems, who are in danger of being as feckless as the Republicans have long been shameless.” Send Valentines and love notes to democracy to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter and Threads accounts hope that when they grow up they will be email accounts. My dead RSS feed craves anarchy.