March 2, 2024

Well, of course both The New York Times and The Washington Post led with stories Saturday morning about Joe Biden’s age and mental acuity. The story of special counsel Robert Hur’s report and its petty rhetoric about the president’s supposed memory lapses broke Thursday afternoon. It was the lead story in both papers Friday, perhaps understandably. But then it was still the lead Saturday. And even on Sunday both papers were still chewing it over, although to its credit, the Post’s Sunday piece didn’t just lazily extend the narrative with another beard-scratching “news analysis” about Democrats’ “deep concern” but reported on what actually happened during Biden’s two interviews with Hur. (Spoiler alert: Nothing occurred in the sessions to make White House aides think that attacks on Biden’s memory would feature in the report at all).

We’re at a fateful crossroads here. On one road, the Avenue of Responsible Sobriety traveled by the Times and the Post and most of the mainstream media, lies legitimate and necessary dialogue about whether any octogenarian, and this one specifically, is fit to be president. But the other road, the Mad Max Hellscape Expressway, has been taken over by the right-wing media, whose interest is not legitimate dialogue but the utter destruction of the octogenarian in question.

This is not a level playing field, folks. Where these roads meet, the souped-up Hummers of the Hellscape Expressway will overrun the dainty Priuses of Responsibility Avenue. I have my reservations about Biden—and in a better, more mature world, I’d love to air the necessary debate fully. We should have done this in 2020. But in the world we inhabit, dwelling on Biden’s capacity or lack thereof will frame this discussion in such a way that will accomplish only one thing. It will elect the man who just gave Vladimir Putin a green light to invade NATO allies. What’s the greater potential for havoc and destruction of our way of life—the things Biden forgets, or the things Trump remembers?

I have written what I’m about to write here probably 20 times in the last couple years, and I’ll write it 20 more or 200 more until I see people starting to get the point. In terms of how the American political media works, we have recently crossed a dark Rubicon. We now live in a world, which I believe we entered after January 6, 2021, in which the right-wing media sets the national agenda. The mainstream media follows.

Going way back in time, we had only a mainstream media—the Times and the Post and the Associated Press and the major networks. In the 1970s, after the famous Powell Memo, wealthy conservatives began funding their own media. For most of the last 50 years, even as the right-wing media grew, it remained clear that the mainstream media set the agenda—that is, it determined what we all talked about every day.

But recently, that flipped. This transformation has been in process for several years, but I date it to January 6 for two reasons. First, before that, the right-wing media didn’t have all-consuming power when it came to crunch time. They could not, for example, elect Donald Trump. There was still enough of a shred of news-gathering honesty at Fox News that it called Arizona for Joe Biden. Second, January 6 was a moment of choosing for the American right. Conservative politicians and the right-wing media could have woken up on January 7 and decided that enough was enough, and they were captaining their MAGA-ized spaceship back down to planet Earth.

But we’ve seen how both of those matters sorted themselves out. Fox forced out the two people who made that Arizona call. You think this November Fox will be in the vanguard—it was the first network to give Arizona to Biden—of calling a purple state for the Democrat? It’s inconceivable. And on the second matter, with a few notable exceptions, virtually the whole party now embraces the January 6 “uprising” (or is too cowardly to say otherwise).

The right-wing media has followed suit, giving us a sprawling and enormously powerful messaging apparatus—Fox, Newsmax, One America, all those Sinclair radio and TV stations, Christian radio, most newspapers out there around the country, the majority of prominent opinion journals, most of largest social media personalities, and more—that now sings from the same hymnal. They did before, but January 6 provided that extra kick; the grain alcohol in the punch. It gave these outlets a sense of mission that wasn’t quite so fully and recognizably there before.

So, this is where we are. We have one media whose goal is still largely to educate, explore, and explain. And we have another media whose goal is to elect members of a certain political party. The first media will sometimes pursue stories at odds with the priorities of the second media—Donald Trump’s indictments, for example. But it will at other times pursue stories that fit perfectly into the second media’s agenda—Joe Biden’s age.

However, the second media will never, ever, ever pursue stories that might coincide with the first media’s priorities. And this imbalance—the mainstream media will sometimes do the bidding of the right-wing media, but the opposite will never happen—is the precise reason why the right-wing media has become the agenda-setting media in the United States.

Where does this leave us with respect to the Biden-age story? Well, I don’t think we should become exactly like them. They’re propaganda networks. Where Biden has done wrong, we should say so. And yes, we should discuss his mental acuity and the political risks it carries. If he loses a few more points in the polls because of this Hur report, whether fair or unfair, the topic of whether he can win is totally a fair one.

But we don’t need to dwell on it. There are a lot of other questions the mainstream media can be asking. Why did Hur issue this heavily editorialized report? Why did Merrick Garland approve its release? Does Hur have an agenda? He didn’t appear to when he was named, but I remember all too well the days when The Washington Post was telling me that Ken Starr was an upstanding man who had no agenda.

And: What about Donald Trump’s brain? For God’s sakes, he confused E. Jean Carroll with his ex-wife! He makes verbal gaffes all. The. Time. Just last Friday in a speech before an NRA crowd, he made several. He slurred “subsidies” as “subsies.” He groused that it gets covered if he “said one word a little bit mispronunciation.” He confused Biden with Barack Obama (again). He said the Democrats were going to rename Pennsylvania (?!?).

He also said: “Nice Saturday afternoon. I could tell you, if I weren’t doing this, where I would have been, I would have been in a very nice location.”

It was Friday.

Night.

Can you imagine if Biden had done that? The Times covered the NRA speech, as did the Post. Neither piece made any mention of these malapropisms.

The Times emphasized Trump’s comments about Biden’s handling of classified documents, while the Post led with his promises to the crowd on guns. Those were legitimate news judgments by traditional standards. But I can’t help suspecting that if Biden had confused his days, it would have made it into their stories. Maybe even led them.

The mainstream media needs to come to terms with the fact that the traditional standards aren’t working anymore. With a candidate who lies (or at least baldly exaggerates) nearly every time he opens his mouth, with an avowedly ideological media whose agenda is plainly political, and with a leader and movement that is openly bragging about how it will attack democracy if it gains power again, hewing to traditional news standards will do nothing but play handmaiden to democracy’s demise. So sure, Joe Biden’s age is an issue. But I mean, come on.