About News

Why Lots of News Media Are Beating Up on Joe Biden

President Joe Biden at the 2024 D-Day ceremony in Normandy, France. (DOD Photo by Benjamin Applebaum) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I honestly don’t believe nefarious reasons are at work in the avalanche of news stories and commentaries about Joe Biden’s mental fitness. It comes instead from some conventional journalistic behaviors that are currently on steroids.

The avalanche is measurable. Media Matters found that five major national publications wrote 97 articles about Biden’s age or mental ability between mid-January and mid-June. Donald Trump? 10.

The one-sided barrage is not due to orders from the corporate offices. It is not because of the readership and viewership that a Trump presidency would bring (again). And it is not because most national political reporters and opinion writers – those who aren’t right wing propagandists at least – privately support Trump. There’s no agreement anyway on whether Biden’s withdrawal would help Trump or hurt him.

Other explanations are involved, starting with the essential purpose of reporting on the actions and deliberations taking place within the Democratic Party. The Republicans’ candidate isn’t going anywhere but the Democrats’ guy might be. (We can have a discussion another day on how much the party’s panic is due to the public’s panic due to the media’s panic following the first presidential debate.)

It doesn’t end there. I see other influences from the nature of political journalism, and even if I don’t think they’re nefarious, that doesn’t mean they’re harmless:

  • National political journalists hate to open themselves up to claims of bias or uneven coverage by either side of the political spectrum. They are especially sensitive to this complaint from conservatives, even when unequal coverage is justified by facts. So, after constant bashing of Trump and Republicans, we are seeing some defensive overcompensation now. It’s reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
  • National political journalists (and all journalists) prefer story angles that are new. They, along with big chunks of the public, have understandably become numb to the many older, repeatedly documented defects of Trump, including mental defects. “People already know about that” is the wrong conclusion, however.
  • Speaking of new angles, if a recently emerged storyline were initially hidden by the government or a campaign, reporters would get annoyed. That annoyance might show in volume of coverage. Media critics have differed on whether the press got fooled on the Biden acuity story.
  • National political reporters understand the importance of substance – policies, campaign platforms, track records – but they love to write about political process. I think many of them would welcome months of unprecedented stories about chaos and resolution within a major political party if Biden were to step aside.
  • As with process, they love to write about candidate style. Many political reporters and talking heads get hung up on image and mannerisms because they believe those are fundamental to electability. And that may be so. But they are much less relevant to effective governing.

The big question surrounding Biden now is whether the slow walking, the soft talking and the stumbles in spontaneous speech and thought reflect a cognitive decline that would interfere with non-spontaneous decision making. Evidence for both “yes” and “no” continues to emerge, including Friday night’s interview with ABC, in which I thought Biden did OK but network analysts jumped all over him immediately afterward. I think some news reports have overlooked excellent articles (even by their own organization) cautioning that outward signs are not a good measurement of cognitive capability.

Regardless, the laser focus continues, even as it seems horrifyingly one-sided. But most national political journalists seem to find the mix of legitimate concern, political process and candidate style too irresistible to put a limit on it.

Tom Arenberg.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

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