The Media Today

Mitch McConnell and the Discourse of Old Age

September 8, 2023
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is surrounded by journalists as he walks to the Senate Chamber for a vote as Democrats look for a way to lift the debt limit without Republican votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

An aide approached, close by his side. She placed a hand gently, firmly on his back. “Did you hear the question, senator?” (A quiet “Yeah.”) Her eyes darted down. “Okay,” she said. Her bottom lip curled under. “All right.” She turned to face the crowd. “I’m sorry, you all, we’re going to need a minute.” Mitch McConnell, Kentucky senator and eighty-one-year old, “appeared to freeze,” as press reports put it—the second time he had done so in public view this summer. The moment lasted about thirty seconds—McConnell withdrawn, distant, silent before a gaggle of journalists in Covington, Kentucky—and it fed hours of coverage. That was last Wednesday. On Friday, Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate for president, appeared on Fox. “The Senate is the most privileged nursing home in the country,” she said. “I mean, Mitch McConnell has done some great things, and he deserves credit. But you have to know when to leave.” 

A week later, and the McConnell discourse is still going. Back on the Senate floor, he declared, “Now, one particular moment of my time back home has received its fair share of attention in the press over the past week, but I assure you: August was a busy and productive month for me and my staff.” They released a letter from the Capitol physician stating that McConnell seemed not to have suffered a seizure or stroke (both episodes were attributed to lightheadedness). But some observers—not least Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and McConnell’s fellow Kentucky senator—didn’t buy it. Also in the news this week: Nancy Pelosi, the former House Speaker, who is eighty-three, and Dianne Feinstein, the California senator, who is ninety. Approached by the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein denied recent reports that her daughter has power of attorney over her legal affairs. Later, Feinstein called to clarify, “I’ve entrusted my daughter to handle those things that I believe she can.”

“The press seems relentlessly focused on the status of the elderly,” Lucy Schiller writes for CJR this week. At eighty, Joe Biden is the oldest president the United States has ever had. Donald Trump, his predecessor and likeliest rival in the 2024 election, is seventy-seven. And as the Washington Post has pointed out, the Senate is at its oldest in history. Haley, too, was recently in the news as part of the same generational plotline: she said that aging politicians should undergo mental-competency tests; on CNN, Don Lemon said that she was not “in her prime”; Haley protested; soon, Lemon was fired. “In technical terms,” Schiller writes, “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 Senators McConnell, Feinstein, and Chuck Grassley—“you are a member of the ‘oldest-old.’”

To examine journalism’s obsession with age, and aging news-obsessives, Schiller visited Schenley Gardens, a personal care home in Pittsburgh, where residents receive help with “activities of daily living” (dressing, eating, bathing) and ceaselessly follow the political press. Everyone has an in-room television; many subscribe to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and check in with coverage on their iPads, computers, cellphones. Sometimes, they gather to watch reports on a television in their common area. Pew Research has found that 85 percent of people over sixty-five often tune in to the news on TV. “Their consumption of the news is viewed as an unchanging fact, even as who is ‘old’ changes with time,” Schiller writes. “That is, to become old is to become a news watcher.”

“More than the rest of us,” she finds, “Schenleyans discuss the news with one another, in close quarters, every day.” But when asked about how journalists cover the subject of aging—or even candidates’ policies surrounding old age—residents expressed far less interest than in LGBTQ rights, immigration, and how the news has changed in their lifetimes. “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,” Schiller observes. “Coursing inside Schenley Gardens were opinions and beliefs that reflected the complex selfhood of the residents, and eluded whatever filter age might suggest.”

The dialogue over oldest-old politicians has typically come with a question: When is it time to quit? In her piece, Schiller raises the idea of “disengagement theory,” through which gerontologists have suggested that “not only are we naturally and inherently inclined to isolate ourselves as we age, but that society, eventually, is done with us.” A troubling thought. Still, she writes, “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.” The residents of Schenley Gardens, at least, are profoundly, persistently engaged with current events. You can read Schiller’s full piece here.

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Other notable stories:

  • In July, Sarah Alvarez reported for CJR that big philanthropic groups including the MacArthur and Knight foundations were considering investing as much as five hundred million dollars to help solve the local-news crisis. Yesterday, a coalition of twenty-two nonprofits, led by the MacArthur Foundation, announced that they would do just that, under the guise of an initiative called “Press Forward.” The effort, which will aim to eventually double its investment to a billion dollars, will “fund grants for existing local for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms, help build shared tools, provide resources to diverse outlets and those in historically underserved areas, and invest in nonpartisan public policy development that advances access to news and information,” per the Times.
  • Yesterday, the Senate voted to confirm Biden’s appointment of Anna Gomez, a digital-policy adviser to the State Department, to fill an open seat on the Federal Communications Commission—handing the Democrats a long-awaited majority that promises to end a protracted period of gridlock at the agency and allow them to reverse the aggressive Trump-era deregulation of the telecommunications industry, including by reinstating “net neutrality” rules on the internet. Biden turned to Gomez after his initial pick for the seat, Gigi Sohn, was derailed earlier this year by what she characterized as “unrelenting, dishonest, and cruel attacks” from the political right and industry lobbyists. (The Verge’s Makena Kelly went deep on the “dark money” campaign against Sohn.)
  • It’s been a busy week for media-jobs news. John Lansing announced that he will retire as CEO of NPR at the end of the year. Also retiring (at least nominally): the prominent media academic Jeff Jarvis, from his post at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School. Elsewhere, Julio Ricardo Varela stepped down as president of Futuro Media following layoffs at the nonprofit. Politico fleshed out its new management structure, with top roles for Francesca Barber, Alex Burns, and Joe Schatz. Substack hired Catherine Valentine, a comms staffer at the Post, to help the platform “lean into politics.” And Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary turned MSNBC Sunday host, will get a Monday show, too.
  • Three years ago, five photojournalists sued the New York City Police Department after its officers arrested or otherwise assaulted them while they were covering the protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd. This week, the journalists reached a settlement that, among other things, will require the NYPD to respect wide-ranging media-access rights and train officers in the First Amendment. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, the NYPD also acknowledged, for “the first time ever,” that the press has a “First Amendment right to record police activity in public places.”
  • And, with coronavirus infections ticking up again and new variants circulating, the Post returned to COVID experts with whom it has consulted in the past to ask them how they’re making sense of the current moment, and what precautions they are taking on a personal level. “Since the level of SARS-CoV-2 virus was low in the community this summer, I did not mask, and I have eaten indoors on occasion,” Anthony Fauci said. “This could change if cases markedly increase for the remainder of the summer.”

ICYMI: Elon Musk wants to blame someone else for Twitter’s decline. This week, it’s the ADL.

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.