In his report concluding that President Biden should not be prosecuted for retaining a handful of classified documents from when he was vice president, special counsel Robert Hur gratuitously included a blistering personal critique of Biden’s memory.
Biden held a press conference Thursday evening where he angrily defended himself against the accusation of memory loss – and proceeded to confuse the leaders of Egypt and Mexico.
Member of the White House press corps, smelling blood in the water, went crazy. First they fell over each other yelling questions at Biden. Then came the headlines:
“Special Counsel’s Report Puts Biden’s Age and Memory in the Spotlight,” the New York Times proclaimed.
The story continued to dominate news home pages on Friday, with CNN concluding: “Biden’s attempt at damage control quickly spun out of control.”
Of course there’s a news story here, and it should be reported.
But how big a story is it, exactly?
Has there ever been a screaming front-page headline about Trump’s abundant mental deficiencies? His repeated displays of memory loss and confusion are actually among the least concerning of his mental problems, which include paranoia, incoherence, narcissism, and sociopathy.
There are way more important questions the political press corps should be obsessing over than how Biden presents himself, namely: How is Biden governing? How would Trump govern? And which man is more dangerous?
On Biden’s first full day in office in 2021, I published a post headlined “After obsessive focus on Trump, White House reporters need to zoom way out.” My argument was that covering the Trump White House was easy, because all that mattered was Trump. I suggested that Washington journalists needed to shift gears and actually write about governance.
Instead, the press corps essentially continued to hold Biden to Trumpian standards, and has found him lacking because he isn’t as entertaining and commanding as Trump was.
At the same time, they largely give Trump a pass for saying outrageous things, some of which he means, some of which are simply misfires of his brain.
As it happens, there was big news Thursday night: Biden finally stating publicly that “the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.” But you wouldn’t know it from Friday’s coverage.
Come Visit Bluesky
What does all this say about the Washington press corps?
In the old days, I would have turned to Twitter to hear thoughtful views on that. Instead, these days I turn to Bluesky, and I am rarely disappointed. (Bluesky is open to the public now, I urge you go join – and check out my feed of media criticism.)
A common theme was that the press is falling for another deceptive, potentially election-determining, right-wing narrative. I agree!
Consider this very thoughtful post from Dave Weigel, the former Washington Post reporter now at Semafor, explaining why it’s such an attractive topic for the press corps to fixate on:
Biggest commonality between this and the Clinton email issue is that it’s non ideological. Reporters/outlets that want to avoid taking a side on, say, Medicare funding can be righteous about age. “The American people say they’re worried” etc
Ned Resnikoff, a housing advocate and former journalists responded:
This plus Biden’s lack of engagement with the press corps and his administration’s lack of scandal create a vacuum that (largely policy illiterate) White House reporters need to fill somehow. Either way it’s cynical guild behavior all the way down.
University of Wisconsin political science professor Mark Copelovitch had a slightly different perspective than Weigel:
Counterpoint: erasing the far right authoritarianism from the front pages, normalizing it when it is sporadically covered, intentionally ignoring the substance of policy positions/legislation, & choosing to focus on stuff like this <is> actually an ideological choice.
Journalist and podcaster Michael Hobbes also made a good point:
This is already being run through the Hillary Emails wringer where the coverage is entirely about how a meaningless gaffe “raises questions” and “highlights concerns.” It’s an endless loop where the media creates concerns, then amplifies them, then reports how they’re getting worse.
Along the same lines, longtime editor James Fallows slammed the New York Times for using the passive voice in its lead story on Friday morning’s home page, headlined “Eight Words and a Verbal Slip Put Biden’s Age Back at the Center of 2024”:
“Placed his age.”
“We are placing his age.”
See also: “Mistakes were made.”
There are a million of these faux-objective tropes: “Is sure to raise questions…” “Will fuel criticism that … ” “May be seized on by critics…” “A picture emerges….”
Ken White, the litigator who posts as Popehat, added about that same Times story:
What’s really annoying about this is the NYT ignoring its own agency — its own role in what is at the center of political conversations.
Newsletter writer Tom Scocca was appropriately cynical:
One deeply odd part of yesterday’s news events was the sight of the White House press corps—whose job for the past three years, supposedly, was to form and share an accurate impression of how Joe Biden is doing—throwing itself into a feeding frenzy because someone else questioned his abilities.
Cornell historian Larry Glickman asked: So what?
I see no evidence that the Biden administration is hamstrung by his whims or mental state, whereas histories of the Trump presidency demonstrate that, from Day One–I’m looking at you, Sean Spicer–this was pretty much the modus operandi of his entire presidency.
The special counsel found that Biden extensively cooperated with investigators, in sharp contrast to evidence that Trump resisted and misled them for months.
That’s a good topic for “news analysis” pieces. Instead, it’s But Her Emails redux.
As Sargent writes in that column:
Biden’s age is a real issue, and no one denies this. But the real rub here is that news analysis pieces elevating the material about his age did so by editorial choice. Other, better editorial choices were available.