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No New News

America’s politicians are old. So are news consumers. At a home for the elderly, residents weigh in on journalism’s obsession with age.

September 5, 2023

Schenley Gardens, a personal care home in Pittsburgh, is a pleasant place. A receptionist answers the phone with “It’s a great day at Schenley Gardens.” Light filters in easily. There is a tiered garden in the back, bordering on the neighborhood of Polish Hill—a vertiginous sliver of land with an ornate Catholic church, a punk bar, and the headquarters of Peppers Eyeware. Personal care homes are distinct from, and less medicalized than, nursing homes and assisted living; in Pennsylvania, they can serve as few as four residents who need help with what are called activities of daily living (dressing, eating, bathing). Schenley Gardens is run by a Catholic nonprofit, the Vincentian System, which operates several similar facilities across the region. Residents—there are about fifty here—live in individual apartments; some occupy a locked memory care unit, but most move about on their own schedules.

In May, I found a group of eight or so Schenleyans in a gathering place called the Country Kitchen, where residents play Skip-Bo, watch movies, and talk. (At their request, I will be referring to the residents by their first names.) Together, we looked at a political cartoon by Gary Varvel, depicting an almost tonsured Joe Biden reading from notecards with the lines “You live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC” and “Joe, You are the PRESIDENT. No Joke!”The cartoon had appeared in The Week. I asked what everyone thought of it. Joan, a wry, bright-eyed woman in her early nineties, gave an expansive reply, remarking on how aging is covered by the press. “They don’t show certain things,” she said. “Some of the ways he moves, they don’t show.” She suggested that the news focused too muchon Biden’s aging, and that there were certain things, in their everydayness, that didn’t make headlines. Her voice grew louder. “I was watching him walk. You might not watch someone else walk, someone younger.”

“Did he walk good for you?” David, a slight, soft-spoken man in his early seventies, asked.

“He walks perfectly,” Joan responded.

“He stumbles up the steps to the flag,” David said.

If they were referring to a specific event, they didn’t say; on any number of occasions, Biden’s perambulatory form has served as a source of fascination to the press and, by extension, the public. Each fall and gaffe expands into an accordion of articles. In 2021, Fox ran the headline “White House Blames Wind for Biden Stumbles Boarding Air Force One”; another Fox article observed that he was “one of many top American leaders to fall while boarding presidential jets.” Covering the same story, CNN reported, “White House says Biden is ‘100% fine’ after he tripped boarding Air Force One,” making note that Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary, “wouldn’t say if he hurt the foot that was recently broken.” Two years later, when a White House staffer was filmed tumbling down the plane’s stairs on a presidential visit to Poland, the Daily Mail blared, “This time, it wasn’t Joe!” In mid-July, Forbes published a listicle summarizing the many spills, verbal and physical, that Biden has taken over the past few years, under the headline “Biden Trips Up Stairs of Air Force One, Again, Adding to Growing List of Incidents Raising Concerns About His Age.” A few days later, Politico ran a story about “subtle accommodations” being made for the president’s age, which “is hiding in plain sight.” The article cast attention on a new, more gradual set of stairs leading up to Air Force One—and noted that Biden still “stumbled slightly going up.”

At eighty, Biden is the oldest president the United States has ever had. His predecessor and main rival in the 2024 election, Donald Trump, is seventy-seven. To watch or read political news in recent months has been to learn, over and over again, that older people are—and may well remain—in charge. In some coverage, old age is considered a selling point: “There is little Biden has not seen during 53 years of political life,” according to Vanity Fair. More often, old age is described and weaponized as a liability. Rick Scott, the senator from Florida, released a statement that was picked up widely by the press: “Joe Biden is unwell. He’s unfit for office. He’s incoherent, incapacitated, and confused.” A CNN article quoted Scott with the headline: “A Republican senator just went *there* on Joe Biden.” Lately, concerns about Biden’s age, which were also noted in the press back in 2016, have found an amplified echo in coverage of Dianne Feinstein—the senator from California whose age has been addressed in increasingly pointed headlines (“How Old Is Too Old?” the New York Times asked in late July)—and Mitch McConnell, her colleague from Kentucky, who has twice frozen in front of reporters, appearing unaware and unresponsive. McConnell is eighty-one and, at ninety, Feinstein is almost a quarter of a century older than the median age of the Senate—65.3—during an era notable, per the Washington Post, for “the oldest senate in American history.” For The New Yorker, Susan B. Glasser wrote, “The reign of the octogenarians is a risky bet for a democracy.”

The press seems relentlessly focused on the status of the elderly. Recently, David Brooks: “Why has the gerontocracy been able to stay in power?”; Jamelle Bouie: “The Gerontocracy of the Democratic Party Doesn’t Understand That We’re at the Brink”; Maureen Dowd: “We’re ramping up to a likely geriatric rematch.” Julius Krein, writing in American Affairs under the headline “America’s Unhealthy Gerontocracy,” mused that “perhaps the pharma lobby is so successful because it is not only the biggest donor but probably the largest vendor to the assisted living facility that is Congress.”

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Everywhere are negotiations of old and young age, of generational difference. On CNN, Don Lemon said that Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate for president, was not “in her prime,” adding that “a woman is considered to be in her prime in her twenties, thirties, and maybe her forties.” Soon after, Lemon was fired. In technical terms, who is “past their prime,” or “old,” has changed over the years. In 1900, gerontologists considered “old” to be forty-seven. Today, you are “youngest-old” at sixty-five, “middle-old” at seventy-five, and at eighty-five—joining the ranks of Feinstein and Senator Chuck Grassley—you are a member of the “oldest-old.”

At this foggy and potentially post-prime moment of America’s political history, the residents of Schenley Gardens—in the same “old” bracket as Biden and Trump—find themselves in a contested position of power repeatedly highlighted and debated in the news. As residents of Pennsylvania, which has lately been a swing state, and in particular of Pittsburgh, a demographically aged city, they appear to be even more prominent. (“Pittsburgh’s urbanized areas are the oldest, whitest, and most native-born in the nation,” the Pittsburgh City Paper reported in 2019. Only Palm Beach County has a higher proportion of older adults.) When it comes to turnout on Election Day, older voters remain the most reliable. In conversation, however, Schenleyans express far less interest in the subject of aging—or even the way that candidates approach politics and policies around old age—than in how the news has changed in their lifetimes, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. Perhaps it is no surprise that the topic of oldness, which bears a recognition of death, is not what they care to focus on, even as they repeatedly return, transfixed, to a constant stream of news coverage that is gerontologically obsessed.

Like other senior residences across the country, Schenley Gardens has a subscription to the Daily Chronicle, a newspaper of sorts released by a company called Activity Connection, which also sells bingo materials and concentration puzzles. The Daily Chronicle has little present-day news. Instead, it has retrospective tidbits: what happened on this day in history. (August 1: In 1958, first-class postage increased to four cents.) Schenleyans told me with resounding agreement that they love the Daily Chronicle (“I read it front and back”). But they find their actual news elsewhere, from sources they choose. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—when its workers are not on strike, as they have been for the better part of a year—is delivered to paying residents. (That Schenleyans follow print journalism is in keeping with demographic trends: according to Pew Research, 48 percent of older people often get news from newspapers, compared with 5 percent of the younger set.) Everyone has an in-room television; many residents have iPads, computers, and cellphones. For certain events, they gather to watch news coverage on a TV in their common area. Election returns, big sports games, the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. The shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, an eight-minute drive away. “When the COVID outbreak was rolling through, we had that on constantly,” Danie Bryce, an administrator at Schenley Gardens, told me. Recently, they had been following news of John Fetterman, the fifty-four-year-old Pennsylvania senator who became the subject of media conversations around mental health and disability. A stroke, Schenleyans agreed, “can happen to anybody,” as Judy, long-haired and in her eighties, put it. “And he’s young, he’s a younger person.” Joan laughed and replied, “Everybody is a younger person.”

“Cable news is not for the young,” the Washington Post declared in 2021. Pew Research has found that 85 percent of people over sixty-five often consume news on TV, compared with 27 percent of people between eighteen and twenty-nine. According to Nielsen, of the 27.3 million people who watched Biden’s State of the Union address live this year, almost three-quarters were fifty-five or older. That has as much to do with the medium—“linear television,” as broadcast and cable are called—as the message (or the messenger). In July, for the first time ever, less than half of all television viewing was linear; the larger portion, according to Nielsen, was streamed. Broadbeam, an advertising agency, reports that, of any platform, linear TV has the most penetrating reach among people over fifty-five—but it is important to note that 80 percent of the same demographic also streams. In other words, older people watch media steadily, and in numerous ways.

The complexity of older people’s position in the news can be more deeply understood through market research, where their consumption of the news is viewed as an unchanging fact, even as who is “old” changes with time. That is, to become old is to become a news watcher. Brad Adgate, a veteran of media research and once the chair of the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Media Measurement Committee, told me that “news has always been old.” Tim Brooks, a television historian and former research executive at NBC, said that “older viewers are more interested in public affairs—that’s always been true.” Politicians are “always old guys,” he argued. “Even Kennedy. I mean, we put him forward, obviously, as a youth on television, but he wasn’t ‘youth’ to eighteen-year-olds. You have to be thirty-five to be president to begin with. It’s all people in suits—in some sense, older people.” Tune in to cable news, Brooks said, and you’ll find Lee Trevino, an ex-golfer, featured on commercials for Arthritis Knee Pain Centers. Adgate taught me a saying that compares audiences in terms of what sports they follow: “the smaller the ball, the older the viewer.”

How media experts characterize age groups is different from the way gerontologists do. “Older,” according to television’s market research terminology, refers to the vast swath of people between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four. Nielsen has ratings for ages all the way up to a hundred, but program testing tends to stop before the youngest-old. “I can’t rememberdoing a focus group among seventysomethings,” Brooks told me. “Frankly, the business has long been oriented to not care what they think. Because they’ll be there.” Age fifty-five “is about as far up as any major advertiser wants to go.” CNN producers cite without hesitation that their network is number one among viewers aged twenty-five to fifty-four, a prime demo. Networks have occasionally targeted younger audiences with packaging to make news “simplified” and “relevant,” Brooks noted—consider MTV roping politics in with music and celebrities—but the below-twenty-four crowd is considered harder to reach, both for its fickle media habits and the fact that television is an aging medium.

Brooks and other media strategists have argued for a “life position cutoff” in demographic analysis, instead of an age-related one. “What does a twenty-five-year-old have in common with a fifty-four-year-old?” as he put it to me. Factors such as marital status, or having a full-time job, might be more illustrative of your interests and preoccupations than your chronological age. “The life change component ties very closely to product consumption,” Brooks said. “You’re not worried about cleaning the floors when you’re twenty, but you are when you’re thirty.”

The dynamic between elderly people and cable news can also be understood through the close connection between “journalism” and “entertainment.” Marie-Louise Mares, a professor in communication science at the University of Wisconsin, started her academic career with a focus on older adults’ viewing habits. She told me about a study she did with older participants, in which she had them watch snippets of NYPD Blue, a popular show at the time, flipping back and forth between different subplots. Mares was intrigued, she said, by “the extent to which familiarity frees up attentional resources”—that is, how knowledge of a repeated basic plotline helped older adults, in particular, follow disjointed narratives. If you watch the news over and over, and read it each day, you may experience a similar sense of repeating basic plotlines.

That constant exposure might explain something Joan said to me one day, with a degree of frustration. She watched TV news regularly; she liked WQED, a local PBS affiliate. She also listened to the radio, especially WJAS, a Pittsburgh talk station in its hundredth year of operation, known for airing conservative hosts alongside local programming and sponsored shows that focused on estate planning and retirement. But there was “no new news,” as Joan put it. News anchors were stuck delivering material on repeat. “So what are they going to talk about? It’s the same news,” she observed. “If there were new news, they would talk about the news. There’s no new news.” She was expressing a sense that all political press coverage is, in a way, a version of the Daily Chronicle.

More than the rest of us, perhaps, Schenleyans discuss the news with one another, in close quarters, every day. The group I met in the Country Kitchen described being sick of politics coverage, but they couldn’t stop following it. There’s a “screaming quality,” Burt, a thoughtful and bespectacled man of seventy-five, said, to much of what’s on “the network that considers itself America’s trusted news.” Originally from New York, Burt had spent formative years in Poland, where he was the first Reform rabbi after the Holocaust. He wouldn’t say to which network he was referring.

“CNN?” asked David, needling him. David, a former television repairman, now a Trump supporter, told me that, in fact, he watched CNN—as a way of keeping his enemies close. David calls the Country Kitchen regulars his friends, and shares personal medical information with them, even while disagreeing, sometimes quite strongly, about politics. “Everyone has a lot in common here,” David said, “because we go to the same exercise, the same programs, and we know one another.”

I began meeting up with them frequently to hold focus groups, of a kind, usually with the same eight or so people—Joan, David, Judy, Burt, a few others, some newcomers now and then. “Okay,” I’d say, showing them a news article that had caught my eye. “Can I ask you about this one?” Often, I got the impression that I was interrupting them, that my presence was incidental to their busy schedules. But they treated me with kindness—if also with the patient skepticism of people who have, individually and together, seen it all.

One day, I showed them a Tucker Carlson monologue that had been published on the Fox site in February, before the network ousted him. “The year Biden was born, only 36 percent of American households had a telephone,” he said. “Nearly half of them did not have indoor plumbing.” The segment struck me as strangely sophisticated in its characterization of age: Carlson did not state that age was a biological reality—which he has claimed of gender—though he invoked a similar idea: “Age is more than a number. Age is an expression of the core biological reality of human existence, which is that at some point, it comes to a close.” Embedded in his argument was a concession that old age is actually something of a social construct: age, he said, is a “way” to mark time. In response, the group spoke reservedly about aging and loss, remaining vague about how the press discussed growing older. “Oh, he’s talking about regular life,” David said. Carlson described Biden as “four years from ninety”; Joan said, “It doesn’t bother me at all.”

To become old is to become a news watcher.

Another time, we talked meanderingly about the summer of falls and gaffes, rumors and leaks, headlines such as “How Big a Problem Is Biden’s Age, Really?” But Burt had his own points to make. “First of all, I’m concerned about political polarization,” he began. “I’m concerned about the rising cost of healthcare for seniors. I’m concerned about pharmaceutical prices.” Burt—who spent his childhood as a “feygele boychick” before coming out late in life—also expressed dismay at repressive homophobic rhetoric. It was a “calumny,” he said, the anti-LGBTQ grooming narratives that have surged on social media. “That is a myth,” he continued, which had been used against the LGBTQ+ community historically. I asked if he felt that news coverage of LGBTQ+ stories was adequate. “I think it depends on the station,” he replied. “But there are forces in this country that want to suppress and crush spirits in the movement of LGBT people.”

Returning to the subject of oldness, someone brought up why there wasn’t as much of a focus, in the media, on Trump’s age, which is just two years below Biden’s. “You know why?” David said, slyly. “They like Trump.” He continued, “Judy likes Trump too, in her own way.”

Joan, sitting next to Judy, interjected on behalf of her friend: “Loony bins,” she said tenderly. Then David walked over and wordlessly changed Judy’s oxygen tanks. “But he’s such a good person,” Joan said. “David. Just loony bin.”

A young person, a staff member, hovered nearby. “Aren’t we all, a little bit?” she asked. “No,” Joan said.

“What I’m gathering from this conversation,” I chimed in, “is that maybe this whole thing doesn’t mean anything to you guys at all—the emphasis on age.” Joan nodded. “Yeah, no, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

“I would like to see a good young man run,” a woman named Chris said. “I would just like to see some good young people.” Judy agreed, saying of elderly politicians: “Their time has come and gone.”

“I think there are things for them to do that are wonderful,” Chris continued. “I don’t think we’re kicking us out.”

“Yeah, you’re kicking us out,” David replied. “They’re gonna turn us into biscuits, like Soylent Green. You ever watch that?” He was referencing the 1973 dystopian thriller in which Charlton Heston discovers that the green synthetic food on which humanity subsists is made of the bodies of the old. The argument, and the film, reflected a sense of anxiety over what gerontologists have called “disengagement”—a theory of aging proposed in a widely read 1961 book, Growing Old. “Aging is an inevitable, mutual withdrawal or disengagement,” the authors wrote, “resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social system he belongs to.” Disengagement theory suggested that not only are we naturally and inherently inclined to isolate ourselves as we age, but that society, eventually, is done with us.

It is not hard to hear echoes of disengagement theory in some of the contemporary discourse around the perceived power of older adults. Early this year, the New York Times covered the story of a Yale professor named Yusuke Narita, who made suggestive comments about the potential in Japan for “‘seppuku’ of the elderly.” (Seppuku, which the Times defined as “an act of ritual disembowelment that was a code among dishonored samurai in the 19th century,” is also known as a form of mass suicide.) Narita clarified that he meant pushing “the most senior people out of leadership positions in business and politics—to make room for younger generations.”The Times reported that Narita has become popular among “frustrated youths who believe their economic progress has been held back by a gerontocratic society.”

Of course, there is a difference between calling for the retirement of oldest-old politicians—whose net worth usually far surpasses that of their average constituent, and who play a central role in determining the realities of all Americans—and calling for the mass retirement of older people from society, on the basis that shelving them is somehow natural. When I asked the Schenleyans about the resentment that some younger people seem to feel toward older ones, they expressed surprise. “What are they angry about?” Joan asked. “They don’t like older people in front of them because we move so slow,” David joked, elongating the word. Joan laughed. “You’re right!”

Spending time in the Country Kitchen also brought to mind the research of Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist who in 1966 entered Merrill Court, a “senior citizen housing project” outside San Francisco, and took a job as an assistant recreation director. She spent nights in a sleeping bag, lying underneath a resident’s birdcage. Notably, her work took the form of news-making: her official role in the community, she wrote later, was “as a ‘reporter’ for the Merrill Court Gazette, a monthly newsletter of events and biographies.” Hochschild’s biographies formed the backbone of her 1973 book The Unexpected Community: Portrait of an Old Age Subculture, wherein she marveled that Merrill Court was a “mutual aid society.” While gerontology was grappling with disengagement theory, Hochschild observed that the forty-three residents of Merrill Court “were not isolated and were not lonely.” The idea of disengagement might have been applied from the outside, in the establishment of an institution separating elderly people from the rest of the world. But within that institution, Hochschild concluded, the opposite was true.

“Biden fell the other day,” Judy said in early June. She had just ended a short session in a VR headset that had plunked her down amid a jungle landscape with dinosaurs, prompting her to reminisce about going to West Virginia, where she and her family used to sit and watch the creek flow by. Biden had fallen onstage at the Air Force graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs. A spokesperson identified the culprit as a sandbag. “For Mr. Biden,” the Times reported, “who is already America’s oldest president and is asking voters for a second term that would extend until he is 86, the stumble at the commencement on Thursday is likely to add to questions about his physical condition.”

“They keep showing that over and over again—they show him fall,” David said, gesturing toward the TV. “I think that’s disgusting.” He’d seen it on Fox, on CNN. “So he fell down the steps. I mean, he’s getting old. He had a fall. That’s what that is, really.”

“You hit sixty-five years old,” Judy said. “First thing the doctor asks you, ‘Have you fallen yet?’” Trump, they noted, hadn’t “fallen yet.” To many older people, and to their families, falling can signify impending doom: hip fractures, which are most often the result of a fall from standing-height in those over sixty-five, “can contribute to poor outcomes, including an increased risk of death,” according to UCLA Health, and “many older adults won’t return to their same level of activity and independence following a hip fracture.” More specifically, per a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, “falls are a strong predictor of placement in a skilled-nursing facility.”The vast majority of older adults want to stay in their homes as they age—around 80 percent, according to the AARP—but doing so often remains an elusive goal. 

“Does that matter to you?” I asked, about Biden’s fall and the relentless coverage of it. The story had made the front page of the Times.

“Well, since we’re older, it doesn’t really matter,” David said. “We’re all in the same predicament.”

Soon it was time for the Country Kitchen to turn over to Burt, for his weekly Shabbat service. He had the usual crowd—which included David, even though he had been raised Catholic; David sang the loudest and knew all the songs by heart. For his sermon, Burt read from op-eds. The first, “Why I, as an Orthodox rabbi, am committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion,” by Jonathan Leener at The Forward,lent “a good sense of what being an ally means,” Burt said. We listened along. “And now two other painful essays,” he continued. He read from a physical copy of the Times: Charles Blow’s “LGBTQ Americans Could Become a ‘New Class of Political Refugees.’” One or two people grew antsy; David sat thoughtfully. Burt kept going, running right up against the hour-long mark before realizing that he did not have enough time for the third op-ed. “We are not a lifestyle,” he finished, his voice forceful. “We are not some bizarre outcasts. We are human beings. We are entitled to the same rights that everyone else enjoys.”

As a rabbi, Burt tries to be “as nonpartisan as possible,” he told me. Speaking out in different contexts is “challenging,” he said. “Sometimes it results in backlash, sometimes it results in support.” Still, he had a knack for identifying meaningful themes in press coverage, for connecting political news to what matters most in people’s lives. Mares and her coauthors wrote that older adults tend to be more attracted, in general, to “meaningfulness” in their media consumption. When I asked Mares what exactly “meaningfulness” was, she said it was not “cheap thrills” or “cheap scares,” but rather material that felt like “it wasn’t a waste of time”—time being a commodity that this audience understands well. There is both too much of it and not enough. Most of it sits in the past.

Simone de Beauvoir, at sixty-two, wrote of her difficulties with the psychic gaps we keep between the ages. “Thinking of myself as an old person when I am twenty or forty means thinking of myself as someone else, as another than myself,” she observed. Since then, numerous studies have been released about the idea of “subjective age”—one’s felt age, which tends to be younger than one’s chronological age—and it has become clear that even very old people do not always identify themselves as “old.” Gerontologists have pointed out, too, that people might share the same chronological age but feel that age in radically different ways—since, as in youth and young adulthood, lived experience varies greatly according to class, race, gender, and other factors. Rather than empty nostalgia, to care about what you’ve always cared about—political concerns of all stripes, not just the concerns of “senior citizens”—makes basic sense. We do not become solely “old” as the years advance, even if that is the marker by which others identify us. Coursing inside Schenley Gardens were opinions and beliefs that reflected the complex selfhood of the residents, and eluded whatever filter age might suggest.

When it was time for the Kaddish, Burt asked who we wanted to remember, gamely mentioning the recent deaths of Pat Robertson and Silvio Berlusconi. A few other names were offered. An aide poured Manischewitz and sliced challah, which came around on a tray. There was quiet among us all, then, as Burt recited the prayer. “Shabbat shalom,” we intoned, as if to say: peaceful rest.

Lucy Schiller is a writer and professor based in Texas.