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Updated Jul 2, 2024, 3:50am EDT

Mixed Signals: Democrat debate crisis...blame the media?

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How did we get here?

How did the media miss the biggest story in American politics? Many journalists were shocked by Joe Biden’s decline, showcased on a debate stage. Did we ask the wrong questions, or fall for White House spin? Or did we, as Republicans claim, engage in a cover-up?

In this emergency pod, Nayeema, Ben and Max separate conspiracy from reality and reasonable reporting questions falling out of everything from “Weekend at Bernie’s theories” to Jill Biden’s role. They take you inside the media and party machinery bringing spicy takes from top editors and other media elite. Finally, they make some predictions about where it goes from here and who would be the media savviest Biden-replacement (… if it comes to that).

If you have a take on whether it was the media’s fault - drop us a line mixedsignals@semafor.com
Find us on X: @semaforben, @nayeema @maxwelltani or on Instagram @nayeemaraza
Sign up for Semafor Media’s Sunday newsletter: https://www.semafor.com/newsletters/media

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Full episode transcript

Ben Smith: Then I’ve caused you to be very vertical, both of you. It’s great. It feels like we’re in a European railway car together sitting across from each other with our knees touching.

Nayeema Raza: This is mountain pose, standing Tadasana. In my other life I would’ve been a yoga teacher. Okay, here. Ready? Ben. You’re going to initiate.

Ben: What do I say?

Nayeema: You say “I’m Ben Smith,” and then you say, “this is Mixed Signals.” You have literally three lines.

Max Tani: Oh man, we need to get him off-book.


Ben: I’m Ben Smith.

Nayeema: I’m Nayeema Raza.

Ben: And this is Mixed Signals from Semafor Media.

Nayeema: It’s actually an emergency episode of Mixed Signals from Semafor Media. We were supposed to be luxuriating this whole 4th of July week, just indulging in the British elections and whatnot. But instead, since last Thursday’s face plant of a debate, chaos abounds and, in case you’ve been under a rock, there’s a mild war brewing now between the Democratic Party brass who are standing firmly behind Biden. The “mainstream media” as pundits or editorial boards, have been calling for the President to step down, and journalists have been reporting, largely with unnamed sources, on the tension within the party itself. And then democratic voters seem to be unhappy with one, the other, or both of these groups, even the Pod Save America Boys are no longer safe.

Ben: And finger pointing inside the Democratic Party has turned to the obvious target, which is us, the media, at least the mainstream media. And the questions are, did we conceal Biden’s frailty or alternately did we set him up?

Nayeema: Did you Ben? Did you set him up?

Ben: It wasn’t me.

Nayeema: It wasn’t you. So well, to discuss this, we have the perfect person, Max Tani, Semafor Media, Editor, the man you know, who has no blind spots, who in his past life covered the Biden Administration for Politico, and since then has had, I think, Squillion scoops on the ongoing war between Biden’s goals and the media. Max, welcome.

Max: Hey guys, how’s it going?

Nayeema: So Max, I want to get to your experience covering this White House, in particular, in a second, but before we get there, I want to get into your coverage of the coverage. You just published, kind of fresh off the digital presses, the story where you went and asked two reporters, Evan Osnos, who just wrote the 14,000 word New Yorker profile on President Biden, and the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer, who just written the book, the Last Politician about President Biden. How did you guys miss this? Basically was the question for your piece, the striving questions of your piece, and I don’t know, what did you learn?

Max: Yeah, I asked them a version of that and the answer really was they feel that they didn’t miss it. They feel that Joe Biden has changed and that the Joe Biden that Evan Osnos spoke to. Franklin Foer doesn’t say that he spoke to Biden, though he admits to obviously speaking to a lot of people close to him, that Joe Biden is very different than the one that was on stage on Thursday night. And they have various reasons for why that might be, whether that is, in Osnos’s case, that he caught him at a good time when he was feeling loose and feeling very lucid or that possibly he’s diminished even in the months in between when they reported those pieces and Thursday. But regardless, there’s an open question that many in the media and in politics on the Right and Left have been wondering about why we were surprised by what happened on Thursday night and whether the media has a role to play in that.

Nayeema: You talked about Robert Hur, the special counsel who was appointed to investigate Biden’s classified documents case, and, of course, the quote that made many within the media interested and made the Biden Administration very unhappy. When this was declassified by Merrick Garland, the quote was that, “Biden was a sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.” And also in the Hur report he kind of details the way in which the President trails off, or he wants to bring him back to focus. So there was data around this for some time. So do you buy the argument that he had deteriorated in the months since Evan Osnos had been behind closed doors with him?

Max: It’s really hard to say because it certainly is speculative, but the question itself demonstrates the area in which the media has failed. There’s been a lot of discussion on cable news, there’s been a lot of discussion in even within the Democratic ranks and publicly, and Biden has talked about his age and the number attached to how old he is.

Nayeema: It’s a good description of age.

Max: Yeah, exactly Orwellian. But I think that what the question demonstrates is that there hasn’t been a lot of reporting about the way in which Biden’s age and his mental state has affected his ability to perform the presidency and to run. And I think that those are separate things. There’s been a lot of discussion about age and the hypothetical, but there hasn’t been a lot of actual reporting about how the age has impacted his presidency and his candidacy.

Nayeema: That has been the big disconnect here because these big questions about Biden’s age were raised as early as 2020. I mean, when he was running, he came in to see the New York Times editorial board. I remember I was in the opinion section at that time, he was asked very directly, bluntly about his age, gave a quite strong answer back about... And we thought the question again bubbled up in 2022 before the midterms. And in both cases, the noise kind of got quiet because of voters who pushed Biden through in South Carolina who pushed him through in the 2020 primaries. And then in 2022, when the Democrats delivered reasonably well in the midterms. But then these questions came up again, and you’re right Max, it wasn’t fresh reporting, but it was a lot of discussion in 2023. The Washington Post ad board asked that Spring, “If Biden should be running at his age?” The New York Times Upshot then asked, “How much do voters care about Biden’s age?”

An AP-NORC poll found out the answer to that question. They said that fully almost 80% of people, I think it was 77% of people in the poll, said Biden was too old. And then in September of 2023, the Washington Post, David Ignatius, who is a columnist that I think Biden holds in high esteem, who, like Friedman of the New York Times, has spent time with Biden. He wrote this definitive headline in the paper’s opinion section. “President Biden should not run for re-election in 2024.” but reporting fundamentally is a question of doing the work, asking the questions and having the access. So I want to know what you think is the challenge here. Is it access or not having asked the questions?

Ben: And the end of getting the answers. I mean, I do think everything you described or most of what you described is basically punditry.

Nayeema: Yes.

Ben: It’s you know, okay, as Max said, we know his age, but ultimately, this is the most powerful man in the world, should be the number one reporting target. And there are just factual questions about how does this guy spend his day? And I know Max and I talked about like months and months ago, “How do we get this story?” It’s a hard story to get.

Nayeema: When you and Max talked about this months ago, what were the options? What are the ways in which to answer that question?

Ben: I mean, the only real way to answer it is to have your best reporters just run really hard at and ask the questions of how is this guy spending his day? What is it like to interact with him in meetings to try to piece that together? The Times had elements of it, the Wall Street Journal did a version of it that ultimately relied very heavily on the record Republican quotes that in this very partisan environment people didn’t trust, although, seem pretty accurate right now.

Nayeema: The Wall Street Journal had that massive piece, now, last month with reporting from 40 plus sources, mostly Republicans, tackling this question, painting a picture of the President as not having the mental acuity the White House would like us to believe that he had. Max, when you spoke to Emma Tucker, the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal this last week, she seemed to be taking a bit of a victory lap. What was her quote?

Max: Yeah, I basically just asked her straight up in the minutes after the debate, basically if she felt that she had taken a lot of flak and if she felt vindicated for pursuing that story and publishing that story? And she basically said that she did feel vindicated by it and that the reporters, and I’m quoting from her here, “That the reporters took a lot of grief for covering a story that needed to be covered and that no other mainstream publishers were willing to touch and that she was very proud of them.”

Nayeema: The no other mainstream publishers were willing to touch it. Ben, I think you might’ve heard from some other mainstream publishers-

Ben: Yeah.

Nayeema: -On that.

Ben: Yeah, say people really read into the newsletter to that quote from Emma Tucker, and I did hear from senior people at the New York Times who pointed out that, in fact, Peter Baker had done a piece the previous year that the Biden people were hysterical about pointing out that Biden, in particularly when he traveled, was skipping the dinners, was having trouble hearing things, was being treated by European leaders like a distinguished elderly relative. And what neither piece had was the killer anecdote that was undeniable and clear about how some real function of the presidency had been compromised by his age. I think they were suggestive, but I also think that the bubble until Thursday night sort of held.

Nayeema: Yeah, the stakes were implied and then Thursday gave us the anecdote plus, plus, plus, plus, plus that everyone needed. But I think it tells you something when you’re getting notes back from senior editors at the New York Times with the hyperlinks to stories to prove that they had actually... It hits a nerve, right? Because the media feels defensive.

Ben: And there’s also a lot of internal criticism. It’s not all being voiced, but another I thought pretty remarkable email that we got after that newsletter Max and I sent out on Sunday was from Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, just a scalding email. It’s clear the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first studio of journalism to hold power accountable. She wrote, “The Biden White House has clearly succeeded in a massive cover-up of the degree of the President’s feebleness and is serious physical decline, which may simply be the result of old age. Shame on the White House press corps for not to have pierced the veil of secrecy surrounding the President.” I basically just asked, “Do you think this is the media’s fault?” And she began with that, and then she concluded that it is laughable and immoral for Democrats to blame the press now for overreacting to that reality. So good luck to everybody.

Nayeema: I should say these are all responses that Ben had written in the newsletter. I’m curious what the sophisticated readers of the newsletter think, if only so I can sound smart on our episode of Mixed Signals this week.

Ben: Did it work?

Nayeema: What blame, if any, does the... You sound so smart, Ben.

Ben: This reminds me of that. There’s an incredible TikTok of women imitating all the anchors during the debates saying, “Oh my God, my phone is blowing up with texts from very, very senior Democrats.”

Nayeema: Right.

Ben: We were all doing it too.

Nayeema: Of course.

Ben: But now our emails were exploding with texts from very, very senior people.

Nayeema: Some on the record, which is always helpful.

Ben: Yeah, I know. Or at least I didn’t ask, I think it was on the record. Jill is always on the record. Another one, Bubba Atkinson, who helped found Axios, another smart media gay.

Nayeema: Yes, what did Bubba say?

Ben: The media is almost entirely to blame for the Democratic Party’s crisis.

Max: Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, why have we not published these? I feel like we should publish some of these. The Jill thing, we should publish that.

Nayeema: Well, this is publishing it Max, it’s publishing in the podcast. We’re breaking some news in the podcast. Don’t try to scoop me.

Max: This is good stuff.

Nayeema: It is good stuff.

Ben: I mean, I don’t think we’re going to have a slow July 4th newsletter, but we might, so we can always, we’ll throw some of these in there. If you’re extremely important, and you email us, we’ll include you too.

Nayeema: Yeah. So you can plug to them.

Ben: But it was really ultimately a reporting failure, I think broadly, and on all of us, because I think I was just thinking about talking to Max right after the debate about how people gasped in the media file when Biden just appeared so frail immediately. And, I mean, the notion that the media is authentically surprised at what the President of the United States is like in a spontaneous setting is really shocking, would not have been true of Donald Trump, of Barack Obama, of Bill Clinton, of George W. Bush. These people interacted with the press, and I do think at some level, COVID allowed Biden to go into a kind of hiding where there just were not spontaneous public interactions, and we totally lost track of what is this guy like? And they managed to kind of maintain these gains of sort of secrecy that they took during COVID.

Nayeema: But Max, you were there during the early part of the Biden Administration, right? You were at Politico what years?

Max: Yeah, I was at Politico from the very end of 2021 through the fall of 2022.

Nayeema: What were your observations of the Biden White House, that kind of, tell me your craziest or most emblematic stories of how much the President was out and about post COVID, how much that COVID excuse went away?

Max: I mean, I certainly agree with Ben that there were some procedures and things put in place to kind of put some distance between the press and the President, and certainly there were a lot of complaints about the press that despite the Biden 2020 campaign’s insistence that they were going to kind of restore normalcy to the relationship between journalists and the White House. That actually the results were quite different. And this was something I wrote a lot about in West Wing book, which was the daily newsletter that we were writing about Biden, which was this really, really limited access and press complaints about very, very limited access to the President. I mean, what I saw, I went on pool duty with him a few times to Delaware over the weekends and, of course, in the White House, watched speeches and appeared for various media things. And I guess I think what we really saw was fairly little spontaneity.

Occasionally, he would interact with reporters when he felt up to it, when there were shouted questions on a rope line or things like that. But what we saw was very, very little access in terms of interviews, except for in super, super tight kind of TV, short brief TV interviews or with very friendly media outlets. I mean, we saw them try to create their own media on the side, which was doing these interviews with Heather Cox Richardson, this sub pro Biden author and these kinds of Biden political influencer types. So what I really took note of was the way in which he severely limited access to the White House.

Ben: And I’d add that... The surprise and when I reported about him around the same time was how little he talked to journalists behind the scenes. Trump was on the phone with Sean Hannity all day. Barack Obama was like having lunch with Jeffrey Goldberg. And when I talked to people who I thought of as the kind of people Biden would talk to, Thomas Friedman, Friedman was like, “Yeah, maybe once a year,” but there weren’t really reporters.

Nayeema: He had that one column, My Lunch With the President. It was not frequent.

Ben: But it’s funny, because I think you can talk about how there’s something a little worrying about the press getting too cozy with the President about having these off the record chats with the White House, which is a long tradition, but also you just do have some sense of what the hell is going on with this person when you interact with them informally and off the record. And I do think the media, to a degree that’s pretty wild, just lost track of what is going on back there.

Max: I think we have to hand the Biden White House and the campaign some credit for this, because I think that they’ve done a fantastic job in limiting leaks to the press. These internal stories, even during the obviously there were thousands and thousands of stories during the Trump administration that were leaked for various reasons regarding these detailed play by plays of-

Ben: The gist was always that he was insane. And Biden, you’re right.

Nayeema: Yes. That is the thing.

Max: For that is because Biden relies on a very, very close inner circle that really, really frowns on leaks, and they don’t have this team of rivals that Biden or that Obama had during his presidency that occasionally did leak things for their own gain. And so I think that part of it is just that this White House has been relatively leak free, and so we haven’t gotten a lot of those.

Ben: But it’s an incredible lesson and how that kind of secrecy just massively backfires because the reality loses touch with the coverage when those things collide. It’s a huge explosion.

Nayeema: I don’t want to age you in this ageist episode that we’re doing, but when you were covering Obama in the early days for Politico around the O.A. Campaign, you’re the star reporter. And in the early years of his administration, didn’t Biden’s White House, the communications approach have some similarities to Obama’s. I mean, it wasn’t that leaky, it’s quite controlled.

Ben: Obama was very locked down, very scripted in certain ways, but Obama liked nothing better than a 17-hour interview with David Remnick. Whatever Obama was trying to control, it wasn’t that he lacked confidence in his own voice and his own ability to do unscripted directions. I actually remember when I interviewed Obama, I actually called Remnick up right before because he talked to the guy a lot and asked him his advice, and how do you interview Obama? And he said, “Well, first thing, he just has a lot to say. So you kind of got to just let him talk himself out for a couple of hours of all whatever he wants to say, and then you can move on to the topics you want.” And I was like, “David, I have 20 minutes here.”

But Obama was very engaged with the press, he read things. I remember he read blogs, I remember him grumbling when Jeffrey Goldberg left the Atlantic for Bloomberg. Because he couldn’t read his blog anymore. I mean, there was a sense that there was a lot of control of information and of image, but there were senior journalists who just day-to-day had a sense of what the President was like. If he had been unable to complete sentences, it would’ve been clear.

Nayeema: Yes, that’s fair. I mean, there’s no shortage of grumbling from this White House. You hear it more from people around the President, from Anita Dunn, from Ben LaBolt, from others who are sharing that they’re unhappy with coverage, scolding the coverage about the age, and journalists have all kinds of interactions with people in D.C. I remember when a Democratic senator, a senior staffer was complaining to me about the New York Times running questions about Biden’s age saying that they were just working for Donald Trump at this point was effectively his line, which I thought was bizarre. You talk about the New York Times as a kind of prestigious institution and entitled to an interview with the President, but it shows the entitlement of the White House to not be covered, not be scrutinized in a way that doesn’t kind of seem to click with being the most powerful person and therefore the person that the press most needs to hold to account.

Ben: Yeah, there’s just this sort of hacky playbook where if somebody accuses you of being senile, you say the other guy is senile and then the media says they’re both senile, and we have to write questions about age. And then what happened was you put them both on stage, and they were not similar.

Nayeema: Yeah.

Ben: The media had, to some degree, bought this kind of hacky, “Well, they’re both old men,” line that ultimately was kind of a Biden smokescreen.

Nayeema: Do you guys think it would’ve helped him to speak to the press more often?

Ben: Not if he can’t talk.

Nayeema: Maureen Dowd raised these questions, saying that the staff had effectively muzzled him, that he, even the President, would limit his spontaneous questions to these duets, these kind of two plus twos after meetings with foreign leaders, and even those started to fall away, and you’d hear the President kind of even fall of last year be like, “Oh, got to go to bed. I would answer those questions but don’t have time, would get in trouble,” whatever the case may be. There was a sense that the staff was really reining him in and did that hurt his confidence, his readiness for this kind of spontaneous environment?

Max: I think the answer is no, partially for the reason that Ben said, but I mean, it’s one thing if you’re not familiar with the types of questions that you’re going to be asked. I think you saw that in 2012 with Obama. He just wasn’t ready for some of the kind of types of questions that he was going to be asked and the types of rebuttals that were going to come at him real quick, which was different than Romney who’d been campaigning and facing a lot of those types of questions, in 2012. Biden’s issue was much deeper than that, which was that there were certain times where it was just completely unclear what he was saying. And without getting into too much into punditry, I think that the Biden campaign and the White House actually bought its own propaganda in some sort of ways or bought its own kind of line of reasoning in some sort of ways, which is that this is an unfair question that Biden would be completely ready for these types of instances. I think it was a bit hubris.

Ben: Some of that’s now a reporting question, like, “What happened in that debate prep?” And I got to think it’s going to leak now. One of the things that happened when things start going badly is they start leaking.

Nayeema: Well, people have started, the reporting so far has been that Democratic donors are blaming the likes of Ron Klain, who, the former chief of staff who was preparing President Biden as well as Anita Dunn and her husband Bauer, who’s standing in as Trump. Those were the three people in the inner circle, there’s some kind of finger pointing to them. I know, Ben, you think all the finger pointing is to the media, but other people are being thrown under the bus too. Don’t you worry.

Max: It’s a bit surprising to me that there haven’t been more leaks. And again, I think this is something to Biden’s credit, but it also gets at the tight circle that he keeps that very, very little of this stuff leaked out over the weekend at a time when major media publications are throwing really, really serious bodies and journalists at this question. The fact that there hasn’t been a deeply reported New York Times story from the best reporters on the case with all of this information shows that it’s not particularly easy to get and that a lot of it still is quite locked down. And that was something that I encountered. This was not an easy circle to penetrate, and a lot of the people who are part of Biden’s inner circle have been close and close to each other for decades.

Nayeema: There wasn’t this direct exchange between the media and Biden, despite the media asking for it in a big way. And this comes back to something Max you pointed out, but something that Obama started trialing these kind of interviews with YouTubers. It was cool back in 2014, 2015. I remember Obama would give interviews to GloZell Green and Ingrid Nilsen, Hank Green. They weren’t done at the expense of press interviews, but they were certainly tested and began there.

And President Biden, a core part of his campaigning strategy has been this to give interviews to the Heather Cox Richardson’s of the world, to give interviews to Howard Stern who dedicates minutes upon minutes to Biden’s lifeguard career to give interviews to Betches Media, for example. And meanwhile, you have major journalistic publications, first and foremost, the New York Times, where The New York Times has said it’s crazy that the President has not sat down for a conversation with the newsroom. This is the first time since FDR that a sitting president has not sat down with the New York Times, and it wasn’t just the New York Times, sit down with ABC, sit down with CNN, which the President has since done with Aaron Burnett, but sit down with anyone that isn’t a social media influencer or an MSNBC correspondent.

Ben: I think people love to talk about citizen journalism and social media and broadening the sphere to influencers, but I mean, there’s something to be said for adversarial journalism and you sort of skip over that page in the book or sort of decide to call in sick for that test, really at your peril. It seems to me it is totally reasonable to imagine that if somebody is avoiding journalists, it’s because they can’t handle it, and that does seem like what happened here.

Nayeema: Or they’re too entitled and believe that they shouldn’t be handling it, which is also its own kind of Democratic problem.

Max: I think that in this case, it’s a combination of both.

Nayeema: Yeah.

Max: It’s a frustration that they had with the media dating back to the 2020 presidential campaign, not just the New York Times to all of the media for what they felt like was treating them unfairly and not taking them seriously. And the feeling that exists in the White House, that the media is focused on frivolous stories and not focused enough on policy and the things that are actually going on that are right and a fear of these types of stumbles, like the ones that we saw on Thursday night.

Nayeema: Right, but it’s come full circle now because originally this strategy was actually part of, I joked about the Pod Save America guys before, but Tommy Vietor, who, of course, was in the Obama Administration comms, but also is now one of the co-hosts of Pod Save America. I think he had written the piece in 2020 that was kind of like, look, the Republicans have Fox News and the mainstream media just is burdened by their ethics, and they stand up for Fox News when Fox News is denied access to the President. One of his, I think, tips to the Biden Administration was like, “Hey, it’s time now for you to give interviews to influencers and podcasters,” very self-serving since Tommy Vietor had become one, but I think it was part of the strategy.

And now the Biden-Harris campaign circulated some messaging this week that I thought was quite funny, where they said, we want to help you answer questions from “your panicked aunt, your MAGA uncle, or some self-important podcasters,” which seemed like a real diss to the boys of the pod. But I do think it’s worth giving a minute of what Politico called the petty feud between the New York Times and the Biden Administration. You’ve reported this, out, you’ve spoken to the executive editor, Joe Kahn, at the New York Times, about the kind of confrontations that the New York Times and Biden Administration have had since really the primaries, when the editorial board backed a combination of Warren and Klobuchar over Biden, right?

Ben: Yeah.

Nayeema: This has been an ongoing dispute, so maybe you can talk a little bit about that and where you think it goes from here.

Ben: Sure. And there are two things happening here. One is that Biden has never been the New York Times’ kind of Democrat. He didn’t go to a fancy school, in particular that. And then in the 80s, Maureen Dowd, then a reporter for the New York Times, reported that he had plagiarized a speech from the British leader, Neil Kinnock, and that ended his first campaign. So there’s sort of old blood between The Times and Joe Biden, which really was crystallized in 2020. When the editorial board, which was really caught up in the kind of progressive moment, just could not bring itself to endorse the guy or even treat him with great respect in an editorial board meeting in his view, and decided to go with a co-endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

And I think he’s always thought, screw those guys. Conversely, the New York Times, I think right now, is attempting to kind of reestablish its sense of a really independent, strong journalistic institution. And just made no bones of how disappointed it was that the President of the United States wouldn’t talk to them and maybe sort of felt like they ought to be on his team in some way. And so there’s a level of kind of mutual resentment that has produced the worst possible outcome for America, I would say.

Nayeema: Yeah, it did. It is not looking good. And in that vein, there have been a series of conspiracies that have been floated over the course of the last weeks, but particularly since Thursday, and I want to revisit some of the conspiracies around Biden’s age and the media, and let’s actually just go through them and say whether or not we think they’re conspiracies, they have some truth to them. What’s going on here? So first of all, there was a conspiracy going into this that Biden was only looking old because of Republican clipping and cropping of viral clips. So you’d see a lot of these viral clips of the President at D-Day in France or elsewhere, and Democrats would reply, “Oh, that’s just because they cropped this.” I think we even had one of these conversations on our podcast. What do we think now?

Max: Yeah, I did one for Blindspots about Biden on D-Day, which obviously, what we said was true, which is that Biden did not poop himself at D-Day, the conservative conspiracy theory. It’s worth noting that the people who were not surprised on Thursday night or viewers of conservative media or who read FoxNews.com or Drudge Report, they said “Biden who showed up on Thursday night wasn’t surprising. That’s exactly the Biden that we’ve been seeing over the last three years.”

Nayeema: And I kind of feel that way. I mean, I think when we talked about this too, and many people understand what they’re seeing and the media trying to disintermediate what people are seeing doesn’t really, I don’t think it has that same power this day and age, but let’s keep running through these. There’s also conspiracy that Democrats and or CNN set Biden up to fail. You saw kind of chatter out there. Ben has just put his palm all over his face. There’s chatter out there noting that Gavin Newsom was just there in the wings, ready to show like look hot and be so presidential, answer questions after the President’s failure.

Ben: No accounting for tastes.

Nayeema: And even Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who writes about autocracy and propaganda, retweeted some theories and questions about the lights and camera angles that CNN had used, making Biden look old, leading Ken Klippenstein, who describes himself as an independent journalist, to call this quote “Democratic Q&On”

Max: Those people are obviously overthinking it and are trying to essentially not make us pay attention to what we saw with our own eyes, which is that most of Biden’s failures were his own on Thursday night in his inability to communicate the basic talking points that he had prepared over a week for.

Nayeema: Yeah. Republicans liken some efforts to dismiss these kind of critiques of Biden’s age as a bit of the Hunter laptop coverup, except in this case, instead of having dozens of intelligence officers say that it looks like a Russian hack, that this was party apparatus basically dismissing what was happening. Ben, what do you think of that?

Ben: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of these theories that one included was an element of people getting too far into this conversation about AI and disinformation and the media itself and what is the media’s role, and at some point, I think you can get lost in that conversation and lose contact with reality, and what that debate was, was basically reality.

Nayeema: So opposite of that, and the Republicans, conservatives are asking this question, which I’m going to call the Weekend at Bernie’s Conspiracy, which is like, “Who has been running the government? What is going on?” I actually think it’s a question that has yet to be reported out.

Ben: Yeah, no, I mean I think that’s a great question. Max’s old colleague, Alex Thomson, who we tried and failed to hire, it’s been reported, good reporter. Still a place for you here, Alex. He reported that Biden is really totally with it between 10 AM and 4 PM, and there are sometimes important things happening at other hours. That said, the Biden Administration has actually been defined by very complex international conflicts, which you can love or hate their strategy, but which they seem to have handled with aplomb. There haven’t been massively dropped balls because nobody could reach the President as far as we can tell, but we don’t know yet.

Nayeema: Here’s my personal favorite conspiracy after the Weekend at Bernie’s question is that the media coverage actually made him old because, in February 2024, a Washington Post piece, which the story itself was good, but there was a question of which came first, the Biden age question or the coverage of his age.

Ben: Oh my God, of all the stories that are going to age really, really badly, that February 2024 sort of suggestion that we had just imagined that he was old, just incredible Washington Post column that will live forever, I hope.

Nayeema: Excellent.

Max: It’s the old journalism truism, which is if you put a question mark in the headline, the answer is almost always no. The conclusion that the post came to is that the reason why the coverage of Biden focuses on his age is because he’s old.

Nayeema: Yes.

Max: And that was it.

Ben: I should have read to the end the column. That’s a relief to me.

Nayeema: But don’t worry, you can create a conspiracy with just a headline, guys, I hate to be the one to tell you.

Max: Yes.

Nayeema: But you can. There is also pushback that Trump, and you hear this from a lot of reporters with Left leaning sympathies, I think where they will say, “Look, Trump is just as senile, the media just doesn’t cover it.” Any response to that, I think.

Ben: People love these long-distance diagnoses, and I think somebody wrote a book in the first term about how Trump was suffering from some brain disease because his language had changed.

Nayeema: Oh yeah, I have that. The articles of impeachment.

Ben: I’m sure he is obviously older than he was, but he’s also obviously lucid and able to have conversations, which is, by the way, a very low bar that most of us meet most days.

Nayeema: To their credit, the Wall Street Journal story on Biden. Did it also include a list of gaffes by Trump as people were critiquing them? What we saw in the debate, we saw in the debate.

Ben: But what do you guys think of, I think the big conspiracy question, which is, did the media take a pass on this, because we screwed up, because we didn’t do the reporting right because we weren’t sure? Or because we’re rooting for Joe Biden, and we’re trying to protect him from the sort of fear of a Donald Trump presidency.

Max: What do you think, Nayeema?

Nayeema: It’s very hard to have any kind of conspiracy or any kind of read that’s like the media as a monolith. I think that there are reporters who were unwilling to critique the President or ask questions or get those questions answered. Often, not political beat reporters, but just prominent pundits, people out there who preserved access and also bought into this Biden existential democracy moment of like, “Are you going to back the Democratic Party? Or are you going to back Donald Trump?” But I think ultimately the failure here is about the way in which the Biden Administration set up access to the President, and I think that questions were being raised. There wasn’t sufficient reporting as we’ve talked about, but the questions were being raised, they were being raised time and time again, and actually voters kind of put them to bed. The results of elections in 2020 and 2022 kind of put them to bed. And so it’s interesting now to see where these polls go and whether it will quiet the pundits and the question asking again or whether it will continue.

Max: I think that in my experience in writing a daily newsletter about Biden for a little less than a year, essentially, the conclusion that I came to is that there are stories in which a lot of people or more people would talk to you, from the administration, would talk to you, and there are certainly things that the administration and many people within its ranks would not return your calls and what would get you hectored by members of the communications staff and even people in Biden’s orbit who were not on the comm staff. But were certainly being good team players and things around Biden’s age in particular were incredibly, incredibly sensitive. I think that reporters poked into it didn’t really get very far and then moved on to other topics, so I do think it was probably a failure of persistence, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Ben: We got an interesting email from a pretty prominent White House correspondent who basically said that he felt like the White House press corps was fighting for access. Because that’s sort of what beat reporters do, is no matter if they’re engaged in these what seemed like very trivial micro and sometimes kind of annoying fights for which side of the rope line are you on and how close to the helicopter can you be and can you be at this table or that table at the dinner. And that they didn’t get the kind of support from HQ that they were used to getting or that they thought they should get because the bosses in New York and Washington were maybe a little preoccupied with the big existential Trump story, and maybe it felt like these little battles for White House access were trivial by comparison.

Nayeema: Well, the HQ being editors in this case, just to translate for people, right? Editors the top brass of these organizations.

Ben: Yeah, network presidents.

Max: I think another part of this is the weakening of the networks in general. I mean, I think that part of it is just that these people used to be incredibly powerful figures who really did have a lot of sway and who people in positions of power, in the White House and in Congress we’re scared of. And now what we’ve seen is the diminishment of the power of the news networks with fragmentation and the way that the TV economy is moving. They had less leverage and less power than they used to, and so they were able to be pushed around a little bit more, and Biden wasn’t as good for the bottom line as Trump was.

Nayeema: I also think there’s, by the way, a generational reality to this reporting in some sense, because I just think back to that September 2023 podcast that we did with Franklin Foer and Jen Psaki, who is now, of course, MSNBC correspondent, and instead Hernan, Alex Thompson and myself and Kara. And it was like everyone under the age of 40 was very concerned about Biden’s age and everyone older wasn’t. I don’t know if that’s a reality as well of there’s some kind of unwillingness to cover. Am I just being ageist, Ben? You can say if I’m being ageist and starting a new conspiracy.

Ben: I’m trying to figure out which side of this line’s Jen Psaki is on, but...

Nayeema: Well, Jen Psaki is in her own special category, right? Because she, of course, was part of the Biden White House.

Ben: Part of the apparatus.

Nayeema: Yeah.

Ben: But I do think that questions about age are genuinely difficult for everybody, but particularly for older people that when Dianne Feinstein was dying, I talked to John Bresnahan, this great Capitol Hill reporter who had known her forever and just talked about, like, look, it’s really hard these are people you’ve known for a long time. It’s not easy to go write a story about their decline. People who you have seen at their heights as these brilliant figures. And I think maybe there’s a little of that. And I think as I get older, as you get older, you do develop more sympathy for people, but I actually think good luck to senators in their seventies now, because I think there’s going to be ferocious coverage of people’s mental capacity now, because the media loves nothing more than fighting the last war. And so we are going to be out there putting the fear of God into every 72-year-old member of the US Senate who spills her soup or something like that. So yeah, watch out.

Nayeema: I think there’s a little bit of cover your ass as well, of after a debate performance like that. You can’t not say anything because it’s like, “Well, if things really go down the rails, and you were there backing Biden...” I mean, I think there is a desire to kind of come out and speak out when you see something, that’s that clear.

Max: Yes.

Nayeema: Can we do two more conspiracies, by the way?

Ben: Yeah. Shoot.

Nayeema: There’s a sense that the media is giving Trump a free pass for his many lies, and you see this critique kind of all over Twitter or elsewhere where people are like, they’re like, “Why are you asking these questions? You should be calling out Trump who lied 20 plus times over the course? And outside of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board, who noted that Trump is the only candidate that should drop out of this race, was, I think, their editorial. Not a lot of people. I mean, what do you guys think of that? That we are not covering Trump enough?

Max: All the media has done, a significant portion is built around covering Trump’s lies. CNN employs its on-air fact-checker who was hired specifically because he went viral during Trump’s first term to cover Trump’s lies. And even though the network has laid off all different types of people, they’ve kept their Trump lie fact-checker on there. And of course, these people who are complaining about this, how do they know that Trump lied about all these things? And of course, they knew some of these things, but they’re reading much of it in the media. There’s so much; I find that to just be one of the least compelling things that can be said.

Nayeema: I think that also, part of it comes down to what Ben, you said to Vik Ramaswamy in our first episode of the show, which is part of what makes news new is that something is new and there is a reality that Donald Trump has been lying and lying, and although there was lots of coverage of his fact checks. The big news coming out of Thursday’s debate was that President Biden was not who he was expected to be.

Ben: And Biden secondarily, and possibly because he was a little befuddled, said a bunch of stuff that wasn’t true during the debate as well. Yeah, I don’t think that was the big news.

Nayeema: And then there’s this conspiracy that it is all. This isn’t really a media conspiracy, but I kind of think it is because there’s this one clip that went viral of Dr. Jill Biden speaking to her husband right after the debate where she says.

Dr. Jill Biden: “Joe, you did such a great job, you answered every question, you knew all the facts.”

Nayeema: And this has led to this kind of conspiracy and a lot of coverage about the idea that it’s all down to Jill Biden. Monica Hesse wrote a piece about this, there was pieces about it in the Times elsewhere, but this idea that it’s all Jill’s fault, and Bill Ackman actually assures us that he no longer blames POTUS. He blames FLOTUS now, who he thinks wants to keep the job because she just loves West Wing Tea Time. Oh my God, this guy. But this idea that it’s all like Lady Macbeth.

Ben: Look, I mean, this is a reporting problem. You got to get, what’s the Macbeth’s Castle called again? You just got to get into the castle and ask the servants whether Lady Macbeth put them up to it or not. Shakespeare got in there, and he told the story, and so I don’t know, right?

Nayeema: This is the wild thing about this White House; even the resident staff doesn’t have access to the President in the same way that previous White Houses have. And Joe from Scranton will say it’s because we’re not used to having staff there. Of course, that leads to all kinds of questions and conspiracies, but to who to ask the question.

Ben: And I think it’s hard to get into people’s marriages, right? And there was a quick backlash to the idea that Jill Biden is an important force in Joe Biden’s life and might be deciding whether he stays or he goes. I don’t know. It seems like a reporting question to me. She obviously is, I was just talking to somebody at a state dinner, one of my very important text friends, about how much she obviously is having a blast and is totally in the zone as First Lady, even as Joe sort of sometimes would like to go back to bed from this event now. And she’s the most influential voice in his ear. And so I think...

Nayeema: That’s just marriage, Ben. That’s just marriage when you date a boring guy. But I will say that I got this question from people who are donors to the Democratic Party this weekend, and I said to them, “I have expertise in dating men, I’ve got on dates with lots of men.”

Ben: Where’s this going Nayeema?

Nayeema: I just want to say, a man says to you, “Baby, I want to be president.” And you’re like, “Yeah, you’d be great a president.” I think the idea that she’s driving the train versus being a supportive partner is the fundamental of that reporting question. We’re going to cut all this, but I just want to put it out there.

Ben: No, no. This is the best part. Yeah.

Max: You can’t cut this, this is good stuff.

Ben: I just want somebody at the end of this to be like, “You did such a great job, Ben. You talked so well, you answered all the questions.”

Nayeema: Call your wife and say that. She bought you a chair to watch the debate in Ben, don’t complain.

Ben: That is true. That was pretty good.

Nayeema: But I think this idea that Joe Biden was set up is complete bullocks, but this idea that the Democrats were, it comes back to this major conspiracy that we’ve talked about a lot, which is like what happens when you tell your audience something they do not want to hear? And what Nate Silver spoke about, that there is some fear of polls and pundits telling people what they don’t want to hear anymore. And right now in this moment, we’re seeing that the media is speaking out, but I do think that voters are not necessarily excited about that or embracing that conversation.

Max: It’s a really interesting question because right now, obviously, members of the Democratic Party have not come out to call for Biden to step aside or for the party to nominate someone else. And voices that you’ve heard calling for this are people in the media. And I think you could look at this one of two ways. You could say, “Well, Joe Biden hasn’t stepped aside and decided to let someone else seek the nomination, so maybe the media is not particularly powerful.” But on the other hand, what we actually have seen is that on the heels of Biden’s poor performance, the media has driven the narrative and has driven the story forward, and pressure from the media has gotten people to kind of react. And so I think you could look at this and say, “Oh, maybe the editorial pages still have a little bit of juice left in them,” and maybe Ezra Klein and other influential pundits can still actually drive this in a significant way.

Ben: I tried to get Ezra on this show, but he said it was too meta.

Nayeema: Last time we spoke, Max, you said that the media matters because it could help change Biden’s mind that this class, this political elite class, it has been several days. Biden’s mind hasn’t shifted, even though Joe Scarborough, the person the president watches every morning, has spoken. Thomas Friedman has spoken, who calls the President a close friend. Thomas Friedman has even said he wept alone in a hotel room in Portugal, watching these debates. David Ignatius has spoken yet again. Will any of it matter? Lets... Predictions.

Max: I don’t remember exactly predicting that, but maybe I’m a little bit like our president and I struggle, but...

Ben: Too soon.

Max: I do think that this has had an obvious impact on... I think that the media voices and this strong universal, almost nearly universal condemnation from everybody, from the New York Times editorial page to David Remnick, to Friedman, I think it’s had a real impact on the discourse and reflects something deeper, which is that there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party who would like to see Joe Biden step aside.

Nayeema: Ben, what do you think?

Ben: Yeah, I think that the media has managed to create a real storm here, but again, we talk about the media. Our job here is to tell you what happened in reality, and I think the Biden people managed to create a medium-sized bubble that kept out reality for a time, and the media’s job is to bring it back, and that’s what’s happening here.

Nayeema: I think it’s interesting that these early polls coming back have not shown much difference. They still have Trump ahead by just a slight margin. I thought it was wild that around 60% of Americans thought that Trump had won the debate, and I was like, “Should we give the man, woman, person test to the other 40% as well?”

Ben: There was a poll in which 60 some percent said Biden should resign, but also he won the election in that poll. But also there’s a legendary memo from Mark Penn in January, February of 2008 titled, Where’s The Bounce? Because Barack Obama had beat Hillary in Iowa, but the polls hadn’t changed. So it’s a famous jinx to say the polls aren’t going to change. I would wait a couple of days here.

Nayeema: And I imagine that the administration will be watching the polls, as much as they’re listening to the conversation or as much as they’re actually trying not to listen to the conversation, but that indirectly, I don’t imagine that someone like former President Obama doesn’t pay attention to what the Pod Save America guys are saying, even if the Biden Administration would like not to.

Ben: So that’s an empirical question. I do not know if Barack Obama is listening to Tommy Vietor’s podcast, but maybe one of them can call us and tell us.

Nayeema: I imagine President Obama is playing basketball, listening to that podcast, listening to some cool tunes on Spotify, reading a book hanging with Michelle. This is my imagination of post-presidential life. It’s not that bad, Jill. You can go there too.

Ben: But seriously, the cycle here for a real collapse goes terrible debate, huge media firestorm, bad polls, and then Barack Obama and Bill Clinton saying he has to get out. And so the polls will be the really crucial part of whether Biden stays or goes.

Nayeema: We’re a media podcast. We’re not a political punditry podcast, but we each, I think, can answer this question within our lanes of all the names potentially out there as a Biden replacement. Who would be the most media savvy?

Max: I mean, I think, obviously, maybe based on my interview with him, I get access and I go immediately in the tank, but I think that Gavin’s been setting himself up for this. He’s been doing national media all year answering questions around this type of thing. He did a fake debate with DeSantis for reasons that are completely unclear for both sides, and so, I think he clearly has set himself up for something like this. He is waiting in the wings, just like those people in the other conspiracy are thinking.

Nayeema: I would say maybe the media savviest would actually be someone who is like lower in name, but Secretary Mayor Pete, or as he might become President’s Secretary, Mayor Pete. I think that he just has been a king of Fox News, is young, is fresh, is energizing in a way.

Ben: Yeah, those are both two people who do really, really get what we do. There are other ways to run for president, but those two are going to dominate the media primary, and I think there isn’t actually a third.

Nayeema: Really? Nobody; Gretchen Whitmer, Kamala Harris.

Ben: These are all accomplished politicians, but nobody who’s just kind of be their own communications director type.

Nayeema: All right, thanks guys for doing this. That was great.


Nayeema: Thanks for listening to Mixed Signals from Semafor Media. Our show is produced by Max Tani, Alison Rodgers, Alan Haburchak, Sheena Ozaki, and Kate Gallagher. What special thanks to Anna Pizzino, Britta Galanis, Chad Lewis, Rachel Oppenheim, Garett Wiley, and Jules Zirn. Our engineer is Fernando Arruda. Our theme music is by Bill Libby and our public editor is, of course, the Biden White House. Just kidding. It’s Jill Biden, obviously. Jill Biden, Lady Macbeth.

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