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Robert David SullivanFebruary 15, 2024
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington Feb. 8, 2024. In remarks following the release of the special counsel report, Biden denied that he improperly shared classified information and angrily lashed out at special counsel Robert Hur for questioning his mental acuity, particularly his recollection of the timing of his late son Beau's death from cancer. (OSV News photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

The New York Times is not the French Resistance in World War II. In a democratic society, it is not the duty of journalists to make every decision on the basis of whether it can help bring about a specific outcome to an election, even one that feels like a war. Yes, when there is a realistic possibility of someone like Donald J. Trump winning the presidency, it is the duty of the press to make sure voters are aware of his many violations of democratic norms, not to mention of simple human decency.

But it is not the responsibility of the press to tamp down voters’ concerns about President Biden’s age, which is the implication of the media criticism by Paul Krugman and others. (He will be 82 this Nov. 20, and Mr. Trump will turn 78 on June 14.) Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party must make the case to the voters that he should be returned to office. Demanding that journalists make the case for them is not compatible with a functioning democracy.

The question of whether the president is too old to take on a second term became inescapable after the release of a report by the special counsel investigating Mr. Biden’s handling of classified documents after he left the vice-presidency in—um, let me think, was it 2017? Robert K. Hur, the special counsel, described Mr. Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who could not recall details such as the year in which his son, Beau, had died.

But it is not the responsibility of the press to tamp down voters’ concerns about President Biden’s age.

The conclusion that Mr. Biden had not willfully broken the law in his handling of classified documents surprised few people, and so Mr. Hur’s characterization of Mr. Biden’s memory problems became front-page news for several days, until Mr. Trump took back everyone’s attention by saying he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries that had fallen behind on their contributions to the NATO military alliance.

Because the issue of Mr. Biden’s age and memory was on the front page for three days (nine months before the election and six months before the Democratic National Convention), and because some commentators raised the legitimate question of whether Mr. Biden was still the best person the Democratic Party could entrust with the job of defeating Mr. Trump, some supporters of Mr. Biden warned that the media was (intentionally or carelessly) throwing the election to Mr. Trump—just as, they argue, it did in 2016.

The Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that he was “profoundly concerned about the nation’s future” because of “the way the hand-wringing over Biden’s age has overshadowed the real stakes in the 2024 election” (again, an “overshadowing” accomplished nine months before the election). The USA Today columnist Rex Huppke declared “journalistic malpractice,” writing, without any quantifiable evidence, that the media scrutiny of Mr. Trump is “not even close” to that of Mr. Biden and that “it’s well past time news organizations stop both-sides-ing these two people.” Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor at The New York Times, leveled a similar charge on her Substack newsletter, saying that “for the media to make this [Mr. Biden’s age] the overarching issue of the campaign is nothing short of journalistic malpractice.” (Ms. Sullivan is no relation to me that I know of; at least, I have never met her at a wake.)

Again, these indictments of the media come nine months before the election (not one week, like “her e-mails”), and are not based on any real analysis of how the two candidates are covered. Critics of the media may say they are only objecting to the scale of the coverage of Mr. Biden’s age, but by objecting to the front-page treatment of what would unquestionably be a front-page story in any election without Mr. Trump, they leave the implication that any coverage of Mr. Biden’s age is bad for his candidacy, and thus bad for the country. (Some also object to “horse-race” treatment of the topic, but no one ever objects to “horse-race” stories about why their candidate is doing well in the polls.)

It is not democratic, with a small “d,” for major media outlets to simply ignore concerns shared by a wide majority of the electorate.

Ms. Sullivan particularly objected to a sentence, in a New York Times political analysis piece headlined “Why the Age Issue Is Hurting Biden So Much More Than Trump,” that stated, “While Mr. Biden, 81, has been dogged by doubts and concerns about his advancing years from voters, Mr. Trump, who is 77, has not felt the same blowback.” Ms. Sullivan responded, “Who, exactly, is doing the dogging? Maybe the Times and other major media outlets ought to look in the mirror.”

But she made no mention of the many public opinion polls that prompted the Times analysis piece, including one conducted before the release of Mr. Hur’s report that showed 76 percent of voters, including 54 percent of Democrats, had concerns about Mr. Biden being too old to serve another term as president. Even voters who did not share these concerns must have been thinking, “Why is the age issue hurting Biden so much more than Trump?” and “Could someone try to explain this to me?” (A poll taken after the Hur report had the figure up to 86 percent; Dahlia Lithwick wrote at Slate that another website, The Hill, reported this “cheerfully,” evidence that “the ploy worked as intended”—again suggesting that most Americans gave no thought to the fact that Mr. Biden is the oldest president in history until a sinister cabal of journalists “cheerfully” brought it to their attention.)

It is not democratic, with a small “d,” for major media outlets to simply ignore concerns shared by a wide majority of the electorate. Yes, journalists should point out the facts and perhaps even explain why popular opinion is wrong (as when voters erroneously believe that crime rates are rising). But it is not the media’s duty to hide popular opinion. That would be a function of state-controlled media.

In the end, the Democratic Party must decide how to respond to voter concerns about Mr. Biden’s age, about the economy, about everything. Just as the Republican Party, not the media, is ultimately responsible if it nominates someone who promises radical change to American government and society.

Political parties and their candidates must own their decisions and be responsible for them. The Democratic Party has not been well served by the idea that the Hillary Clinton campaign did everything right in 2016 but was stabbed in the back by The New York Times and by journalists in general. Journalists must strive for accuracy and should convey to its readers the high stakes of this election. The political parties must listen to, and make a genuine attempt to respond to, the concerns of voters.

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