Opinion: Biden’s polls aren’t great. How much is the media’s fault?

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Long before Fox News co-opted the phrase “fair and balanced” as its slogan, American media was striving to meet that standard. Unlike Faux News, which has since dropped those words as well as just about any pretense of aspiring to them, the mainstream media still does aspire — to a fault.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

That was the case in 2016 with the excessive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for some State Department business, a performance that spawned numerous critical journalistic postmortems — and the meme “but her emails.” The media, obsessed with seeming fair to Donald Trump, sought to balance all the negative coverage he generated because of his lies, slurs and bigotry and turned Clinton’s email habits into a pseudo-scandal. In the end, that imbalance in harping on the matter was unfair to her.

The media seems to be at it again. The new “but her emails” is “but his age” — that is, President Biden’s age, though Trump is only three years and seven months younger.

The issue isn’t unwarranted. Both men are the oldest by far to seek the presidency, breaking the record they set in 2020.

What’s unwarranted is the barrage of “but Biden’s age” coverage unleashed since late last week, when a Republican special counsel coupled his finding that Biden shouldn’t face charges for keeping some classified material after his vice presidency with wholly improper quackery about the “elderly” president’s “diminished faculties.”

On Monday, media analyst Margaret Sullivan provided a rundown of some of the coverage. It’s “nothing short of journalistic malpractice,” she wrote, for the media to make Biden’s age “the overarching issue” of the 2024 campaign — especially against the aging and democracy-threatening Trump. According to the Popular Information newsletter, in the four days after the special counsel’s report, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal published a combined 81 articles about Biden’s age and memory.

Memory lapses, lies, name mix-ups and gaffes by Trump, a man so addled that he thinks repeating “person, woman, man, camera, TV” proves otherwise, get far less journalistic examination. For one thing, the media is as inured as the public to Trump’s falsehoods and malevolence; it’s “white noise,” the Bulwark, a Never Trump news site, bemoaned this week. Even so, he piles up outrages that can’t be ignored — like prospectively inviting Russia to attack or “do whatever the hell” it wants against NATO allies.

And as the negative coverage of Trump adds up, the media seizes disproportionately on Biden’s foibles and fumbles as if to even the score.

That is just another form of the bothsides-ism long evident in journalism: the tendency — in the interest of being fair and balanced — toward reporting that suggests that both sides, both parties or both candidates should get equal measures of critical coverage, or are equally culpable in some regard. The result too often is false equivalence.

It’s worth reprising a caution to journalists from political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, in their 2012 book documenting that Republicans were more responsible than Democrats for the dysfunction and polarization in our politics: “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers.”

Even the New York Times Pitchbot, an account on Twitter/X that mocks the media for just this bothsides tendency, couldn’t out-caricature the real thing on CNN. The satirist behind the account posted a photo of the network’s screen during a panel discussion. The chyron at bottom read, “Is Biden’s age now a bigger problem than Trump’s indictments?”

Some in the media have tried to explain why significantly more voters worry about Biden’s age and mental acuity than Trump’s. A poll by ABC News and Ipsos released on Sunday found that 86% of Americans say the president is too old for another term compared to 62% who say the same of Trump.

Among the reasons is the perception that Trump, while hardly physically fit, seems more energetic than Biden. Also, reporters talk a lot to Democrats, who as a party tend to overreact to unfavorable news, polls, whatever — “bedwetters,” as Obama officials used to bellyache. So you get stories like the one this week headlined “ ‘A nightmare’: Special counsel’s assessment of Biden’s mental fitness triggers Democratic panic.”

Republicans, on the other hand, typically give reporters nothing when it comes to the disgraced former president. They’re Trump toadies, obsequiously mute about his transgressions when they’re not actually defending him. Take Trump’s obscenity about abandoning NATO allies: “I couldn’t find a single sitting Republican that openly opposed what he said,” lamented former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a rare Republican who has opposed Trump. Kinzinger also said Trump’s ramblings were further evidence that he “is clearly in mental decline.”

One factor that’s missing from the media explanations for why Trump fares better than Biden on assessments of age and mental stability: the media’s own role. Might the polls be less bad for Biden if the coverage were different?

It was a Trump sycophant, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who back in 2016, when he was still second-guessing his support for Trump, warned that he, voters and the media would someday have “to justify how they fell into this trap.”

The unprincipled Rubio certainly has much to account for. So, too, does conservative media. As for mainstream media, it’s not too late in the election year to avoid the trap of bothsides-ing.

@jackiekcalmes

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