The Media Today

Why Biden’s debate performance was not a Wizard of Oz moment

July 1, 2024
President Joe Biden walks off stage during the break of a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Early last month, the Wall Street Journal published a buzzy story that shined a light on President Biden’s advanced age and questioned his mental acuity. (“Behind Closed Doors,” the headline read, “Biden Shows Signs of Slipping.”) Many observers criticized the article. One of them was Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, who blasted the story’s sourcing as “shocking”—one of the only on-the-record criticisms came from Kevin McCarthy, the former House Speaker who has been accused of mocking Biden’s acuity in public while praising it in private—and called it a “Trump hit piece.” Scarborough said that he’d spoken with foreign diplomats who’d had dealings with Biden, and that “nobody’s saying he’s not cogent.”

On Friday morning—following a soporific, at times incoherent debate performance that led pretty much everyone to say, He’s not cogent!—Scarborough sounded significantly less bullish on the president’s faculties, and downright deflated in general. “I think I should start by saying, without any apologies, that I love Joe Biden,” Scarborough began—and yet, “if he were CEO and he turned in a performance like that, would any Fortune 500 corporation in America keep him on?” Add in the huge stakes of beating Donald Trump in the fall, Scarborough suggested, and it’s unclear whether Biden should still run for reelection at all.

Scarborough’s about-face might have been especially painful for Biden—the pair are reportedly close, and Biden is a regular viewer of Morning Joe—but it was far from an isolated incident. Even before the debate was over, prominent liberal pundits who previously supported Biden (at least contra Trump) began drafting calls for him to drop out, sometimes in similarly pained terms; Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist who is himself in touch with Biden, said that the debate made him weep. (“I cannot remember a more heartbreaking moment in American presidential campaign politics in my lifetime, precisely because of what it revealed,” he wrote. “Joe Biden, a good man and a good president, has no business running for re-election.”) Similar calls have since come from the editorial board of the Times and the editor of The New Yorker

The debate also opened a separate vein of commentary from reporters and pundits who have raised concerns about Biden’s age in the past: We told you so! The National Review literally said as much in a headline; Emma Tucker, the editor of the Journal, took a victory lap over the story that Scarborough and others had criticized, telling Semafor that “the reporters took a lot of grief for covering a story that needed to be covered and that no other main stream publishers were willing to touch.” Some journalists blasted aides and allies for cocooning Biden and “gaslighting” reporters about his limitations for the past three and a half years. Others suggested that the media was at fault for missing the story. “If you were surprised by Joe Biden’s frailty and discombobulation Thursday night, the media is, on some level, to blame,” Semafor’s Ben Smith concluded. “Scattered stories and open questions aside,” the press “failed to penetrate this White House as it did the last one, and failed to provide an accurate portrait of the president.”

Whether it evinced surprise or a sense of vindication, much of this commentary presented Biden’s debate performance, at least implicitly, as a sort of Wizard of Oz moment—the grand public reveal of the frail man behind the curtain. Clearly, the debate was a consequential moment (not least because many pundits and Democratic power brokers have decided as much), and some of the criticisms leveled above are fair. But, when it comes to Biden’s age and acuity, I didn’t see the debate through such emerald-tinted glasses. Its meaning and lessons strike me as messier, for three principal reasons.

To start with the curtain: it is certainly fair to criticize Biden’s team for a lack of access; he has done far fewer formal interviews with major media outlets than his recent predecessors. (He has done a couple recently.) But if they were trying to cover up the fact that Biden is an old man who has lost a step, they didn’t do a very good job; indeed, the pundits now calling on Biden to drop out have in many ways simply caught up to where much of the voting public has been for a long time. The impact of the debate on Biden’s polling—and broader perceptions of his fitness for office—is not yet fully clear. Some of the early numbers on the latter question are not pretty for Biden, and his campaign is already scrambling to get out ahead of a dip. There have also been suggestions, however, that the debate might not move voters’ electoral preferences all that much—precisely because many of them had already priced in Biden’s frailty.

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Second, while Smith might be right that there has been a deficit of truly penetrative reporting on Biden’s condition, that shouldn’t lead to the broader conclusion that reporters and pundits have downplayed his age—indeed, the latter has been an incessant topic of media chatter, at least as a horse-race vulnerability for Biden. And if some of this coverage and chatter has drawn criticism in the past, at least some of that criticism has been fair. The sourcing of the Journal’s story was in some places questionable—and it was certainly appropriate for reporters to fact-check the wave of stories, in right-wing media in particular, that recently cast Biden as infirm based on blatantly misleading footage clipped together by partisan operatives. Did some reporters wrongly conflate the shoddiness of these stories with the idea that there was no there there at all? Perhaps. But the debate doesn’t mean that shoddy stories suddenly have merit.

One long-standing criticism of Biden-age coverage has been that the same level of scrutiny has rarely been applied to Trump’s age, even though he himself is an old man who regularly speaks incoherently. That criticism was fair at the time and, in my view, has remained so since the debate; as I wrote on Friday, Trump’s performance, while more energetic than Biden’s, was itself incoherent in many ways, not to mention rampantly dishonest—facts that have not been totally ignored by the press in the days since, but have been somewhat drowned out by the focus on Biden. If media critics often decry this sort of coverage as a product of false equivalence or a desperate attempt to project balance, it has, this time, been driven in no small part by pundits who loathe Trump and fear that Biden’s weaknesses will facilitate his return. But the result—Trump skating on his incoherence, at least relatively speaking—has been the same.

Another past criticism of Biden-age coverage has been its excessive extent (one I have leveled myself, while stressing that the topic was a legitimate subject of journalistic scrutiny). This has, at least, been true of media blather about Biden’s age in the absence of much hard reporting on impairments to his decision-making faculties; maybe, as some critics have suggested, not enough effort has gone into that reporting. His debate performance was visible evidence of shakiness, at the very least, and so the huge media reaction is understandable. Even now, though, the story shouldn’t blot out the sun. The debate has overshadowed not only Trump’s own shaky performance but highly substantive and consequential stories like the Friday Supreme Court ruling that gutted the regulatory power of federal agencies. On Meet the Press yesterday, that ruling was mentioned just once—by Doug Burgum, a leading candidate to be Trump’s running mate, who welcomed the ruling without being asked to explain why.

Finally, the implication, in some coverage, that what we saw on Thursday is what Biden is like now—and that the media has failed to report it—strikes me as an oversimplification. Clearly, this is, at least, what Biden is like sometimes, and it’s totally fair for the media to convene a debate as to what that means for his fitness to serve—in the present tense but especially looking forward, since he’s asking to be returned to office into 2029 (when he will be eighty-six). 

And yet it’s also clear that, currently, he isn’t like this all the time. The day after the debate, he gave an energetic performance at a rally in North Carolina. Several journalists pointed out that this was a far less demanding environment for Biden than the debate stage. And yet, in recent memory, he has also appeared sharp in more challenging settings—not least the State of the Union in March, which, while also scripted, was a high-pressure moment. (As I recall, a lot of coverage framed the speech as a test of Biden’s acuity—one he was widely seen to have passed.) And, while he has given interviews too rarely, those journalists who have sat or met with him in recent months have not found that he is losing the plot. Scarborough said that he found Biden to be sharp as of a few months ago; journalists from Time concluded, following a ninety-minute interview, that Biden gave an impression of “advancing age and broad experience, of a man who has lived history”—a nuanced takeaway, but hardly a damning one. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, who has written a biography of Biden and wrote a profile of him earlier this year, told Semafor yesterday that “the Biden I spoke with in January was very different from the Biden we saw on that stage Thursday night,” adding that he stood by his reporting entirely.

I find it hard to believe that all these journalists were duped. Instead, I suspect that they saw snapshots of a process—aging—that is very complicated; one that is not linear, and can produce different effects from week to week, day to day, even minute to minute. Osnos told Semafor that he’d concluded, following the debate, that Biden “clearly has good days and bad days and wretched days.” Again, it’s fair to interrogate whether such a person should be president. But it’s unfair—or at least inaccurate—to reduce Biden to his debate performance alone. I wrote earlier this year that the political media loves to grade politicians in “good days and bad days”—in the sense not of their mental sharpness, but who is up and down politically on a given day. This framing—short-termist, whiplash-inducing, often obsessed with perception over substance—is a reductive way to cover any story. Biden’s good days and bad days are no exception.

Going forward, it’s clear that we need more reporting on Biden’s condition—journalism that is hardheaded and leaves nothing off the table, but that, at the same time, does not lapse into caricature or rely on dubious sources. We have already seen the beginnings of this kind of coverage since the debate—which could, perhaps, make reporting such stories easier, if it encourages insiders or interlocutors with concerns to talk to members of the press. We should also demand much more transparency of the White House, which should, in turn, offer it.

As far as the pundit class is concerned, the blanket calls to replace Biden on the Democratic ticket, while understandable, will at some point have to grapple in more detail with the complicated mechanics of how that might actually happen. And, however this story moves forward, we will all need to find a way to keep adequate focus on Trump’s many shortcomings as a candidate, not least his falsehoods and threats to democracy. Some commentators are already doing this, of course. Following the debate, the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer flipped the script by arguing that if anyone should drop out of the race, it should be Trump. Scarborough, for his part, stressed that Mika Brzezinski, his cohost and wife, “strongly disagreed” with his view that Biden should consider dropping out. She “rightly believes,” he said, “that Joe Biden’s bad night is nothing compared to Trump’s terrible decade.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post is out with another story investigating the background of Will Lewis, the paper’s publisher, who, among other controversies, has come under the spotlight over his role in an alleged cover-up of phone-hacking at Rupert Murdoch’s UK media empire in the early 2010s. (Lewis has denied wrongdoing.) The Post “found that News International’s actions in response to the hacking scandal left some police investigators and IT workers concerned that the company was obstructing the investigation,” the paper reports. “Some now say their concerns have only grown with time.” Gordon Brown, a former British prime minister and alleged hacking victim, told the Post that British police should investigate Lewis and his then-boss, Rebekah Brooks.
  • Yesterday saw the first round of voting in the snap legislative elections that French president Emmanuel Macron called following the strong far-right showing in last month’s European Union vote—and the far right once again did well, scoring around a third of the vote and finishing ahead of a left-wing bloc and Macron’s allies. The division of seats in France’s National Assembly won’t become clear until after a second round of elections next weekend—but the world’s press concluded that the results already constitute “an earthquake” and “the end of the Macron era,” among other dramatic takeaways.
  • And the Columbia Spectator’s Jesse Levine has a fascinating story on what happened to materials collected from the site of recent Gaza-solidarity protests on campus. Per Levine, an archivist gathered the materials in an apparent bid to preserve a piece of university history, but did so without students’ knowledge; now protesters are demanding space to independently archive “living materializations of our ongoing movement.” (We wrote about the protests, and interviewed the editors of the Spectator, back in April.)

ICYMI: President Biden Has a Cold

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.