The Media Today

President Biden Has a Cold

June 28, 2024
Joe Biden and Donald J. Trump at the 2024 CNN Presidential Debate at CNN Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kyle Mazza/NurPhoto via AP)

President Biden is unlikely to ever be compared to Picasso or a Ferrari. His voice, even at its best, is not an uninsurable jewel. But last night, it did seem to inspire a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip—if only through the ranks of panicked liberal pundits and journalists’ Democratic sources—and shook, if not a national economy, then at least a national political race. NBC reported, citing “two sources familiar with the situation,” that “President Biden has a cold.”

Irresistible (if unconvincing) homages to Gay Talese aside, the state of Biden’s voice (raspy, and at times so quiet as to be barely audible) and the things he said with it (muddled, and at times barely comprehensible) were the top media takeaway from his debate last night with Donald Trump—the first of two this presidential cycle, hosted by CNN. (Though at this point, the chances of the second ever happening are surely diminished.) Some journalists wondered aloud why Biden’s campaign hadn’t leaked his cold beforehand as an expectation-management measure, though others weren’t buying it as an explanation for his verbal shortcomings. (The Atlantic’s Mark Leibovich dismissed news of the cold in one word: “Whatever.”) Either way, The Age Question was suddenly looming again. At least one outlet that was criticized for questioning Biden’s faculties in the past took a victory lap. And various pooh-bahs of the media establishment declared that Biden should drop out of the race for the good of the country and his party. “President Biden,” Nicholas Kristof concluded in the New York Times: “I’ve Seen Enough.”

As the debate wrapped up, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins predicted that “the news smorgasbord tomorrow is going to be a lot of ‘CAMPAIGN INSIDERS PANIC’ with a healthy heaping of ‘Senior Democrats are exploring ways to replace Biden on the ticket’ plus a side of ‘This is CNN’s fault somehow, I am mad at Jake Tapper.’” Not that he needed to wait till tomorrow for any of these narratives to emerge. Amid all the PANIC, CNN’s role in the debate was arguably something of an afterthought in the aftermath—which might have been exactly what the network’s leaders wanted. (Mark Thompson, the CEO, predicted before the debate that “much of the reaction of the public, the rest of the media and other politicians is going to depend on President Trump and President Biden, who are the stars of the show”; David Chalian, CNN’s political director, said that “the stakes are highest” for Trump and Biden.) But its performance nonetheless attracted a wide range of reviews. So how did CNN do? And how did the rest of the press do in covering the fallout?

Ahead of time, media reporters wrote that the stakes of the debate would be high for CNN—for the first time in decades, a network was organizing a presidential debate entirely under its own steam after the Trump and Biden campaigns agreed to circumvent the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan organization that traditionally sets the ground rules. The coverage focused, in particular, on two changes that CNN would make to the format: there would be no studio audience—a response, perhaps, to the distracting and skewed reactions of Trump supporters at the network’s disastrous town hall with the former president last year—and candidates would have their mics silenced when they weren’t talking, a response to the raucous, mostly Trump-driven cross-talk of the first presidential debate in 2020. Thompson told the Times that the debate would be formatted “in a way, at least in principle, that is designed to get as much light as possible, and not to be overwhelmed with heat.”

In the end, the debate was less hot than 2020’s. The new rules likely helped with that; Politico’s Jack Shafer argued afterward that the format unexpectedly helped Trump by depriving him of a crowd for which to mug and blocking him (mostly) from interrupting, prodding him “in a relatively measured and dignified direction.” (I’d add a heavy emphasis on “relatively.”) But the candidates’ respective performances, and Biden’s soporific turn in particular, were likely the decisive factor. And the lack of heat didn’t mean that there was much more light. Again, this was, to a large extent, the candidates’ doing. But for the most part, the moderators, CNN’s Tapper and Dana Bash, did not do any live fact-checking—a development that CNN telegraphed in advance (Chalian said beforehand that the debate would not be the “ideal arena” for fact-checking, while promising that CNN journalists would offer it afterward) but that nonetheless upset many media-watchers, given how many untrue things Trump, in particular, said. (The Biden campaign was irked, too.) The post-debate stable-closing did happen, but most of the lies had already bolted. If CNN’s early Trump-era motto was “Facts First,” its debate-night mantra might better be described as “Facts… Later.”

If much of the pre-debate chatter focused on CNN’s changes to the format, the lack of live fact-checking that earned the network the most scrutiny on the night was in no way a new invention; CPD-era debate hosts also explicitly steered clear of it. In fairness to them and CNN, live fact-checking is hard, especially where Trump is involved, and the question of where to draw the line is inevitably contentious. But it’s hard to conclude that the alternative—a debate in which Trump can, for example, state without pushback that Biden is weaponizing the legal system against him—was satisfying either. Some observers have suggested that it’s the job of candidates to fact-check each other. But this risks politicizing the notion of truth. In the end, an addled-sounding Biden fact-checking Trump was unlikely to carry due weight—even when he was factually right. And the less said about Trump fact-checking Biden, the better.

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This brings us back to Biden’s performance, and the frantic post-debate coverage that it has driven. There is no question that Biden looked and sounded alarmingly shaky on stage and that this is a legitimately big story, even if the rash of speculative punditry about his place on the ticket rests, for now, on a number of oversimplified assertions. But many of Trump’s answers were incoherent, too, albeit in a different sense—and in some of the post-debate coverage, he seems to be deriving a dividend, of sorts, from being factually incoherent with brio, as opposed to being relatively honest while looking and sounding tired and confused. Several accounts pointed to Trump’s “energy”; Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent at the Times, wrote that it “covered up his misstatements.” But whose job is it to expose cover-ups if not ours?

Live fact-checking might have helped expose Trump’s incoherent answers, but journalists across the media landscape are also responsible for how they frame the debate after the fact. Again, Biden’s shakiness is a big story. But it is, in no small part, one of optics (at least in the continued absence of much evidence that his decision-making is impaired)—and coverage of those all too often drowns out substance, particularly in the wake of debates. In some respects, this debate has crystallized in miniature what is emerging as an oversimplified broader picture of this presidential race in the media: in one corner, Biden, old; in the other, Trump… well, what’s left to say about him? Do you want to do a puzzle? Having brought the picture into greater focus, the debate will only now reinforce it. There is some truth in the picture, for sure. But we need a much wider lens.

We should, at least, not cover a ninety-minute debate as if it is the be-all and end-all of the choice facing America. Debates, while valuable in theory, have long been a deeply flawed showcase for that, in ways that are far bigger than Biden, Trump, or their individual performances and that speak more deeply to the media’s interpretation of American politics and the place of detailed policy substance in that interpretation, as I wrote in the aftermath of the chaotic first debate in 2020. At least one columnist thought that last night’s debate was even worse than that debacle. From my media-critic point of view, I don’t agree, even if last night was deeply dispiriting as a human being. But, as I wrote in 2020, making these debates—and how we talk about them afterward—a truly worthwhile exercise will require deeper reforms than some well-intentioned formatting tweaks, even if we can’t control how the candidates perform. It might require, with apologies again to Talese, a new journalism entirely.

Other notable stories:

  • Emily Atkin and Arielle Samuelson, of the climate newsletter Heated, make the case that major news organizations have fallen short in their coverage of recent heat waves and flash floods in the US. “According to a HEATED analysis of 133 national, international, and major regional digital breaking news articles about record-breaking weather in the United States this month, only 44 percent mentioned the climate crisis or global warming,” Atkin and Samuelson write. “Stories about heat waves fared slightly better, with 52 percent mentioning climate change. Only 25 percent of stories about extreme rainfall mentioned climate change.” Meanwhile, only 11 percent of the articles “mentioned fossil fuels, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.”
  • New York’s Kevin T. Dugan reports on a rift between different families of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting over what to do with Infowars, the conspiracy site owned by Alex Jones, who the families sued (in different jurisdictions) over his repeated claims that the shooting was a hoax. The families “have been split on what is the best way to hold Jones accountable for his lies: shut down Infowars or keep it alive and garnish the money he makes from broadcasting,” Dugan writes. “Both scenarios come up against the same problem—that no matter what happens in court, Jones is unlikely to shut up.”
  • And Anthony Borges—a survivor of a different school shooting, in Parkland, Florida—now owns the name of Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who killed seventeen people at the school in 2018. Under the terms of a legal settlement with Borges, Cruz will not be able to give media interviews without Borges’s consent and will have to cooperate with academic studies of mass shooters, among other conditions. Borges’s attorney said, “We just wanted to shut him down so we never have to hear about him again.”

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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.