Journalistic malpractice

Biden bike

There has been a disturbing trend in the world of American political punditry of late. Journalists and commentators and substackers and the like, including people I generally respect, have been jumping on the "President Biden is too old and shouldn't run again" bandwagon. This bugs me on a number of levels, most of which redound to (a) Joe Biden has a remarkable string of positive accomplishments in just three-plus years in office and has shown zero evidence of losing his capability to keep doing so; and (b) it's another success story for Republican propaganda movers who spout bullshit on Fox "News" and the like and see it travel all the way into the words of people like Robert Reich and Ezra Klein and Jon Stewart.

Klein's piece in the New York Times is particularly galling because he all but admits he's furthering an argument based on propaganda.

Titled "Democrats Have a Better Option Than Biden," Klein's essay spends a great many words on explaining just how awesome a job Joe Biden has done as President before concluding he has to go. It's insane. After trumpeting many of Biden's accomplishments—uniting the party leadership, wrangling a contentious Democratic caucus in the Senate to pass several pieces of landmark legislation, shepherding a post-peak-COVID economic recovery that is the envy of the world—he looks at the polling (which isn't currently great), mentions that Trump-appointed special counsel Robert Hur peppered a report utterly clearing Biden of any wrongdoing in a classified-documents matter following his vice-presidency with insults and innuendo deliberately fabricated to further this very bit of propaganda, and then basically throws up his hands like Bud Selig at a tied All-Star Game.

Acknowledging that there is no indication, zero, from anyone who works with the president, from White House staff to former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, that Biden is in any way incapable or inattentive, Klein says that doesn't matter because campaigning for re-election is hard and tiring.

He cites as evidence that Biden isn't up for a campaign that the President didn't do a TV interview for the Super Bowl pregame show, as has become customary over the past several years. "The Super Bowl," Klein writes, "is one of the biggest audiences you will ever have. And you just skip it? You just say no?" Well, let's think about this for more than two and a half seconds, Ezra. Who would have conducted that interview? CBS claimed not to have a correspondent in mind for the job, but Margaret Brennan of "Face the Nation" was surely in the mix and she's...well, to be fair, she's not Chuck Todd or Sean Hannity, but nor is she Cronkite or Koppel. Whether Brennan or someone else, the hot topic of the day in  newsrooms was that stupid Robert Hur report, which was basically being regurgitated without pushback in mainstream news media. I don't blame the President for not wanting to provide another opportunity for a reporter to give more oxygen to GOP smears. Was it risky? Sure. It's a pass at a big audience, but not the audience Klein was making it out to be. The Super Bowl itself is a ratings bonanza. The pregame interview with the president is a few minutes when a large chunk of that audience goes out for a snack run or yaks with their guests at the Super Bowl party, they're not really watching.

Also, the media landscape isn't what it was even a few years ago. TV interviews have their place, to be sure, but in terms of campaigning, which is what Klein is talking about here, a sit-down on CBS with a correspondent more interested in drama than journalism probably doesn't serve much purpose. TV news is a different beast today than in decades past. Digital media is far more important for the under-50 demographic. Navigating that has its own set of challenges, but skipping the Super Bowl just isn't the big deal Klein and others make it out to be.

Yes, to campaign successfully, Biden needs to be in view doing his job and showing the world he's sharp. And yes, slipping up and saying the name of the former Chancellor of Germany instead of the current one isn't helpful, but it's the sort of thing Joe Biden has done for decades and isn't necessarily a sign of age-related decline. Journalists have to stop feeding the GOP meme that "Grandpa Joe is feeble and senile" and instead remind the public that age is but one factor when assessing one's overall health and in and of itself the number isn't indicative of anything. As stated by a professor at Australia's University of Sydney, "It’s important to realize that as people age they become more diverse in their abilities and characteristics, probably more so than at younger ages."

Joe Biden is 81. He bicycles (both on a traditional bike and a Peloton), lifts weights, and has a personal trainer. He doesn't have a special diet, but never overeats, according to his medical-doctor wife. He has a few ailments—acid reflux, arthritis, persistent sinus irritations, things most of us can relate to to one degree or another—and plays through the pain, as it were, of his osteoarthritic spine. He had COVID, but thanks to vaccinations and boosters did not have a serious case. He is, in short, a healthy dude.

Franklin Roosevelt died at just 63, he was literally dying during his last run for reelection. He actually did fall asleep during meetings and need a great deal of assistance due to frailty, but no one believes FDR wasn't up to the job. Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's, by some accounts as early as 1984 when he was 73, certainly by the time he was into his second term at 75, yet people still lionize the guy (which is crazy, but not because of his dementia). JFK's physical health was terrible, he had Addison's disease and treated back pain with heavy use of amphetamines. (Kennedy's health was so consistently troubled that within the Kennedy clan, there was apparently a running joke that if Jack Kennedy were to be bitten by a mosquito the mosquito would die from food poisoning.) Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated in his early 60s by a stroke in mid-term and continued on with others largely running the show for him. Chester Arthur had a fatal kidney infection, a symptom of which was extreme fatigue, but ran for reelection anyway (he lost) before dying at age 57. Then there's now-77-year-old Trump, who has lied continuously about his own health and made sure that official reports were edited to show he had no ailments, suggesting he has many (plus he's, you know, sociopathic and staggeringly stupid). Every one of those guys was/is younger than Joe Biden and in far, far worse health.

Klein also disputes that the Joe-is-too-old issue is propagated by news media. He writes, "In poll after poll, 70 percent to 80 percent of voters are worried about his age. This is not a thing people need the media to see." Really? Why do you think those people were "worried about his age" if not because of what they saw on/read in the news? Because he said Mitterand when he meant Macron one time? Because he talks a bit more quietly than others? OK, then what are reporters like Klein doing about that? He almost does something about it with this piece, making many good points about how successful and capable Joe Biden has been and continues to be, but instead he chose to perpetuate the meme. Even if I were to accept the statement that "this is not a thing people need the media to see," here you are, Ezra, in the media, reinforcing the idea and making it worse!

"The presidency is a performance," Klein writes, using the word not in the sense of your annual performance review at work, but in the sense of an actor performing a role on stage. And people answering pollsters don't like what they see on the stage. So get someone else, practical concerns be damned, choosing the right person to do the job after the campaign be damned, the only priorities should be charisma and poll numbers.

Klein's conclusion seems to be, "Americans are stupid. Thus, if we want the Democrats to win, we must replace the man who has had arguably the most effective and successful first term as President since LBJ with a hypothetical younger person who may or may not be an empty suit."

My conclusion is, "American journalists are failing. They are allowing disinformation and propaganda to fuel their reportage without adequate analysis. They are prioritizing drama and conflict over truth and facts. And they convey that running for president is what's important, not the actual job of being president."

Look, Klein is scared. I get it, I'm scared too. This is a literal must-win election. Biden cannot lose or else Trump regains power and destroys this country as we know it, contrary to what Jon Stewart said the other night (he said, addressing supporters of both candidates: "If your guy loses bad stuff might happen, but the country is not over. And if your guy wins, the country is in no way saved." I never thought Jon Stewart would be one of the guys not paying attention). The fact that Biden is behind in the polls is unfathomable to anyone paying attention, and the fact of the matter is that a not inconsequential fraction of Americans are stupid. Rubes, conned into following a cultist who thinks they're disgusting and exist solely for him to exploit. Another percentage is not in the cult, but is ignorant enough to support candidates that hurt them, what I think of as the "battered spouse contingent" of the Republican party that has existed for decades. Between the two groups, there might well be enough of them to plunge us into a new dark age. It's fucking terrifying.

But: (a) Biden is who we've got, there is no practical way of replacing him on the ticket unless he voluntarily cedes the top spot to Kamala Harris, and then Klein and company will freak out because Americans are racist and sexist as well as ageist; (b) Biden is actually a damn good president; (c) Republicans and Russians (is there a difference any more?) will tar and feather whomever the Democrats nominate with fabricated propaganda and the sheep currently comprising the bulk of the American news media will regurgitate it all anyway. "But her e-mails." "Swift Boat Veterans for 'Truth'." Birtherism. The Willie Horton ads. Who the candidate is is merely a detail, the smear campaign will just be retailored.

We've got some time before November. Let's do better than the "journalists" in informing the public and getting out the vote.


 UPDATE: One newscaster/pundit that is trying to educate the public about true things is Lawrence O'Donnell, who took this on in his show a few nights ago. He covered some of the same ground I did above (written before I saw the clip), and I recommend this video, share it around. It's longish, but clarifying.

 

 

Comments

  • Posted by Bill H on February 29, 2024 (43 days ago)

    Tim -- This is an excellent essay, articulate, well-written, and on point. I encourage you to distribute this as widely as you can.

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