Why didn’t the media question Biden’s fitness for office until now? 

Politics Biden 013024 AP Andrew Harnik

American poet Marianne Moore once wrote, “Omissions are not accidents.” Her observation applies perfectly to the journalism of omission that has been practiced by the establishment media over the last several years.

The news industry’s sudden interest in reporting on President Biden’s frailty and cognitive challenges belies its concerted effort to omit such coverage up to this point. 

Whatever the president’s mental difficulties might currently be, it is safe to say they didn’t just begin during his unimpressive showing in last month’s debate. The media were negligent in failing to report on the president’s limitations during his time in office, many of which were in plain sight. For example, when the Easter Bunny is managing the president of the United States, which occurred two years ago, there is surely a problem.

The president’s unavailability for press conferences or serious interviews with journalists was another glaring sign that something was amiss, not to mention his extensive vacation calendar. The White House even declined the annual Super Bowl interview, which usually provides presidents with an easy way to look good in front of millions of football viewers. 

The story of the president’s apparent decline should have been a key part of the news agenda a year ago. Had it been, the Democratic Party could have had a more methodical and rational deliberation about whether to keep Biden at the top of the ticket. Instead, the party is now in panic, the election season is in chaos, and the media’s tanking credibility has taken another hit. 

The media’s soft treatment of Biden can be traced back to the 2020 campaign, when candidate Biden ran a virtual and stealthy campaign from his basement. The press excused that strategy because of COVID. It is worth noting that Biden’s debate performance in 2020 was subpar by normal presidential debate expectations. He hardly came off as JFK. But his weak showing was overshadowed by Donald Trump’s inartful and brawling approach. 

Special counsel Robert Hur’s report about Biden’s hoarding of classified documents provided a convenient pathway for the press to delve into Biden’s cognitive capabilities. Hur’s team had interviewed the president at length in October and the report was released last winter. The report revealed the kind of mental lapses that the press now suddenly wants to cover.  

But at the time, the media focus was only the fact that Biden wouldn’t be charged for mishandling classified documents. Then journalist pack moved on, reporting with a straight face Vice President Kamala Harris’s full-throated (and likely misleading) defense of the president, angrily dismissing the Hur report as an “inappropriate” and “inaccurate” political hit job. Journalists failed to fully wonder whether Harris “doth protest too much.”

Covering a president in decline is surely a monumental journalistic task, particularly given Biden’s tight circle and the steps taken to screen for him. Nobody wants to come off as belittling a senior citizen, particularly a president, struggling with the inevitable effects of aging. This story, however, can’t be limited merely by compassion. It demands a fair and accurate assessment of just how capable the sitting president is.  

Official sources such as press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Cabinet secretaries can’t be considered credible for reporting about the president’s capabilities or lack thereof. Their loyalty is in the way. It is their job to provide cover and propaganda for Biden. But, as the Brookings Institute has tracked, the Biden administration has experienced a good deal of turnover lately. Certainly, some of those departing staffers could have shed some insight, at least as background sources, if only the press had been sufficiently interested. 

It is worth pondering whether the establishment press would have continued to overlook the president’s difficulties if Biden were comfortably ahead in the polls and remained an apparent shoo-in for reelection.

The “bad day” debate may have forced the media to finally and grudgingly cover this story. That “bad day” was in front of 50 million people, but plenty of other bad days preceded it, as Robert Hur knows well. So do plenty of Democratic leaders and probably many members of the White House press corps. 

The American people expect the news media to report the truth, wherever the facts might lead. The journalism of omission regarding Biden’s capabilities has shown the press to have, instead, fallen into the trap of journalistic activism. This negligence has, in essence, been censorship by the press. Whatever eventually happens when voters go to the polls in November, it is clear that journalism industry machinations will have affected the course of the election season. 

Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant.   

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