Biden’s mental fitness could have been better covered leading up to the debate, some White House reporters acknowledge | CNN Business (2024)

Biden’smentalfitnesscould have been better covered leading up to the debate,someWhite House reporters acknowledge | CNN Business (1)

President Joe Biden at CNN's debate on June 27, 2024.


President Joe Biden’s White House repeatedly and aggressively shot down reportsonthe president’s age and any possible limitationson his ability to perform all the duties of his office. But after his shaky debate performance last week, in which Biden routinely struggled toget his point across, some in the White House press corps say they wish they had pushed harder to tell the story.

In June, when the Wall Street Journal published alengthy pieceon President Joe Biden’s mentalstate, the newspapergotslammed.The White House, its allies, andsome in the media–including CNN’s Reliable Sources–criticized the Journal for quoting mostly Republican political foes on the record, who had a clear political motive to damage Biden’s image. No Democrats were quoted on the record making those allegations, and several Democrats complained their on-the-record quotes praising Biden’s sharpness were not included. TheJournal defended its reporting at the time.

Last week’s debate on CNN laid bare many of the concerns the Journal’s reporting had raised – that the president has good days and bad days but can sometimes seem to slip up. A New York Times report on Tuesday raised similar concerns by those who have recently been in the room with Biden. The Times reported Biden has more frequent “lapses,” although at other times he appears sharp.

After Biden’s lackluster performance last week, some are questioning whether the White House press corps dropped the ball on fully covering Biden’s limitations.

Biden’sage issue is not secret or new. Nearly every media outlet has reported ongrowing concerns aboutBiden’s age well before the debate. The White House in the past has complained that the coverage is disproportionate, and that the media is spending more time covering Biden’s age than his accomplishments as president versus former President Donald Trump’s lies.

The media has faced accusations that it has not covered Biden’s mental fitness more aggressively because it wants to prop up the campaign in some way – an accusation the White House reporters CNN spoke to denied.

Several White House reporterstold CNN thatthecoverageof Biden’s age and his mental staminashould havepushed harder. They cited several difficulties in doing so before the debate – from the obvious political motivations of sources who either want to protect Biden’s image or project a certain image, to the blowback from pursuing such reports, especially from the White House and Democrats.

A difficult task

Like all past presidents, Biden has good days and bad days. Itcan be tricky to report on something as difficult to define as a person aging, when his opponentis a convicted felon, who regularly lies and has threatened to use the government to go after his political opponents.

Still, some reporters said the press corpscouldhave done a better jobcoveringBiden’s physical and mental state.

The failure of the media, one White House reporter said,wasnotpushing more aggressivelyinto Biden’s abilities after the release of the Robert Hurr report in February, which called Biden a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Biden’s age was also a right-wing talking point for years, something the White House was quick to point out to reporters,whichmay have inadvertently turned off any serious investigation.

For example, deceptively edited clips of Biden from the G7 spread widely by right-wing media figures were made to seem as though he was aimlessly “wandering off” from fellow world leaders when really, he was speaking to parachutists who had just landed during a demonstration.

“The right-wing media was calling him senile from day one, and that wasn’t true,” the reporter said. “Then whenever you report on the age you were in some ways solidifying, giving credence to some people that were actually of bad faith.”

All the White House reporters who spoke to CNN for this piece chose to speak anonymously so they could speak more freely about their relationship with the White House.

Keeping the president at a distance

Reporters said the White House has not made the press corps’ job easy:The White House has put up guardrails around Biden, they say, andhe does not engage in as many interviews or planned press conferencesas previous presidents. At those events,the press might be able to gauge how he’s doing on the spot, without prepared remarks.

“They keep him at arm’s length, and he rarely does extended interviews,” the reporter said of the White House,although he acknowledged Biden has started giving more interviews as of late.

Biden has done fewer interviews and formal press conferences than his most recent predecessors, according to data compiled byMartha Joynt Kumar,professor emerita of political science at Towson University who chronicles the presidents’ interactions with the press. But on quick and informal interactions with the press, like shouted questions on the way to his helicopter or plane, Bidenas of this week has had 588 interactions, Kumar reports, second only to Trump when compared to recent presidents. But those interactions are not the same as an extended press conference, reporters noted.

On Tuesday, ABC News announced Biden would sit down with George Stephanopoulos for an interview, his first since the debate.

The White House press shop has also been very “aggressive” and “fairly successful” in mitigating coverage of concerns over the president’s age,saidanother White House reporter who works for a different publication.

“[B]erating reporters who bring them reporting about age concerns, bemoaning that it’s all anyone writes about (clearly, it’s not) and often attacking pieces after they run,” the reporter told CNN. “I think that’s left some folks to conclude that these stories are too painful to report or that they should pick their spots more. It’s clear the age stories that have angered the White House (and the liberal Twittersphere) the most.”

Alex Thompson, a White House reporter for Axios, said on CNN the day after the debate that “the White House’s response every single timeithas come up for three-and-a-half years has been to deflect, to gaslight, to not tell the truth – not just to reporters, not just to other Democrats, but even at times to themselves about the president’s limitations at his age.”

Still, this White House’s recent conduct with reporters pales in comparison to Trump’s team, which has done everything from revoking press access to reporters they disagree with, to calling reporters the “enemy of the people.”

The White House declined to comment.

Aging doesn’t happen all at once

Aging is also not a sudden moment.That makes it trickier to report on.

“To some extent, the decline has appeared to be gradual — hard to notice from day to day — and that’s perhaps made it harder for reporters to determine when is the right moment to write something,” one of the reporters said.

Just a few days before the debate, Biden held a press conference at the G7 alongside Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky that passed off without anything of note in Biden’s demeanor.

But reporters pointed out (and have published stories noting) that the president has been using teleprompters at most big events, even fundraisers where in the past he might not have. He has also started to use the lower stairs to board Air Force One.

Last year, The New York Times published a lengthy piece on the “complicated reality of America’s oldest president,” which looked at some of those accommodations and concerns for his age, but also the moments where he showed stamina and vigor.

Some reporters said that there has been a distinct changewithin the last year, and that the press corps should have reported more aggressively on the accommodations made for the president.

“I think the press, most of the White House press, did suffer from a bit of lack of curiosity,” one of the reporters said.

Look who you’re up against

Biden’s allies will often question coverage of the president’s age, questioning why reporters focus on the president’s age and mental lucidity and not on Trump’s–who, at 78,was observed falling asleep during his hush money trial, has made his own major verbal flubs and bizarre statements, and regularly spouts complete falsehoods.

“It makes sense to reflect on this now and ask whether we missed or, really, under-reported the story of Biden’s age and decline. But it’s complicated,” one of the reporters said. “The fact that the political alternative to Biden is an authoritarian who sparked an insurrection and is a convicted felon does not mean that the press is failing American democracy to focus on Biden’s obvious frailty.”

One of the reporters said the media can, and do, report on both. Biden’s allies, however, say too much attention is placed on Biden’s age and not on the threat Trump could pose to American democracy.

But the reporters say they can, and should, do both.

“Just because you are reporting on Biden age, doesn’t mean you’re not reporting on Trump’s lies. I find that argument silly, and it seems one design towards like producing a certain outcome in the election, rather than like an honest reporting,” one of the reporters said.

The outlets that had received harsh blowback for their previous reports on Biden’s lucidity now feel justified.

A source familiar with the staff behind the Wall Street Journal’s report said that when the piece first published, the reporters were approached by people with sympathy asking how they’re doing “as if something terrible had just happened,” the source said.

After the debate, the reporters started to get messages saying they were right.

Biden’s mental fitness could have been better covered leading up to the debate, some White House reporters acknowledge | CNN Business (2024)


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