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In this edition: Biden’s biographers process the debate.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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July 1, 2024


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome back to Semafor Media, where our fitness is never in doubt.

If you were surprised by Joe Biden’s frailty and discombobulation Thursday night, the media is, on some level, to blame.

Our core job is to tell you what powerful people don’t want you to know. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that — scattered stories and open questions aside — the American press corps failed to penetrate this White House as it did the last one, and failed to provide an accurate portrait of the president.

Max, who covered this opaque White House for Politico before he got to Semafor, revisits those questions today, and speaks to Biden chroniclers Franklin Foer and Evan Osnos, who now argue that Biden seems to have deteriorated in recent months.

I’m curious what the sophisticated readers of the newsletter think, if only so I can sound smart on our special episode of Mixed Signals this week. What blame, if any, does the media bear for the Democratic Party’s crisis? Send us an email with your thoughts.

Also today: Shaping Caitlin Clark’s story, Emma Tucker takes a victory lap, and Alex Thompson on thinking about Biden’s age past 2024. (Scoop count: 3)

I teased a media scoop in Semafor Business last week — but I swear it’ll be in there Tuesday. And you should be reading Liz Hoffman anyway, to understand the currents of money and power. Sign up here.

Mixed Signals

In the latest episode of Mixed Signals from Semafor Media, presented by Think With Google, Ben, Nayeema, and Max react to the debate and interview Nate Silver about his new model, which — even pre-debate — gave Donald Trump a 66% chance of winning the election. We press Nate on the relationship between polling and the media, and the question of whether they’re in an unhealthy feedback loop.

Max Tani

‘Totally different’: Biden’s biographers and defenders reckon with the debate

REUTERS/Brian Snyder


Why did anyone think Joe Biden was ready for a 90-minute presidential debate? One reason is that a small handful of journalists, with left-leaning sympathies but very credible records, have interviewed him and those close to him in the White House and returned with reports that while he’s definitely older, he’s still pretty sharp and in charge.

Two of the most prominent are Biden biographers Evan Osnos and Franklin Foer. I spoke to them Sunday as they reconciled their own portrayals with the faltering 81-year-old they saw on national television.

In his deeply-reported recent New Yorker article, Osnos detailed Biden on the precipice of his final campaign, the definition of an elder statesman steeling himself for a rematch with an emboldened Donald Trump. But in his one sitdown with Biden in January (the White House declined his invitation for a second), he described an older Biden in command of his faculties: “His mind seemed unchanged. He never bungled a name or a date.”

“The Biden I spoke with in January was very different from the Biden we saw on that stage Thursday night,” Osnos said Sunday.

Osnos said that following Thursday’s contest, he’d concluded that Biden “clearly has good days and bad days and wretched days. What we saw was not the kind of performance that anyone would want from a candidate.”

And he said he made no apologies for his journalism. For that New Yorker piece, he’d spoken at length with Biden advisers and confidantes who raved about his ability to do the job despite his age. “I don’t think I would do anything differently,” Osnos said.

Foer had also defended Biden’s mental acuity since publishing his book on the president, The Last Politician, last year. He told podcast host Kara Swisher in September that the real problem was not Biden’s age, but the media’s false equivalence between that and the dangers of a second Trump presidency.

“His inability to finish a sentence, or the fact that his stories occasionally trail off, is now on a continuum with Trump being a lunatic. And this is in part something that they need to combat,” Foer said at the time. “It’s also a media failing as well, that there’s just an inability to talk about the relative problems that these two senior citizens have, which I think are not the same in kind, and they’re being smushed together.”

“If you gave him the type of mental acuity test that Nikki Haley talks about giving him, he would pass that,” he said.

But in an Atlantic piece published on Friday, Foer compared the decision for Biden to step down to his family’s attempts to take the car keys away from his aging grandfather when he got older. In a brief note to Semafor over the weekend, he said that since publishing his book last September, he had changed his mind about the president.

“I still think he has the acuity to do the job,” he said. But, he added, “I do feel differently.”

Read on for Max's View and reaction from The Wall Street Journal's Emma Tucker.  →

One Good Text

Alex Thompson is a national political correspondent for Axios.


✦ Marketing

Daniel McKnight/Semafor

Where’s the PR MVP? National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jessica Berman offered a surprising perspective on the emergence of the women’s basketball star Caitlin Clark in an interview with Liz at the Semafor Business Summit last Monday.

“Storytelling drives growth,” she said of women’s basketball in general. “Caitlin Clark didn’t come out of nowhere. They have been building the story of Caitlin Clark through ESPN and the NCAA for three full seasons. And if anyone’s interested in understanding how the ‘Caitlin Clark effect’ happened, you should know that it didn’t start in March Madness this year, and it didn’t even start last year, with the Angel Reese/Caitlin Clark little interaction that happened at the end of the game. It happened the season prior, that they began to build. And it was very intentionally invested in, through brands and media and the NCAA and the WNBA.”

“These things don’t happen by accident, and they require strategic investment in thought and planning about how to maximize those moments,” she said. “All those things were true — plus the fact that she’s performing as well as she is, and she’s a consummate professional and is so sophisticated and mature. All those things help.”

☊ Audio

Steele yourself: The Michael Steele Podcast is moving to The Bulwark. In an announcement first shared with Semafor, The Bulwark said it would be distributing the podcast from the former Republican National Committee chair, who has been hosting a show since 2018.

“Michael is one of the most honest and incisive voices out there, and there’s no one better to help our listeners navigate the unprecedented months ahead,” publisher Sarah Longwell said in a statement shared with Semafor. “He knows all of the players in the Republican Party who helped us get to this point, and he can shine a light on what it’s going to take for us to come out on the other side. His show is — and will continue to be — essential listening.”

Steele’s podcast launch on the Bulwark is part of the media organization’s broader expansion into podcasting and its increasing focus on YouTube. A spokesperson for The Bulwark told Semafor that it has added nearly 250,000 subscribers on YouTube since it began investing in the platform last year and has 53 million views across its videos. The outlet recently launched George Conway Explains It All, a legal affairs show hosted by the well-known never-Trump pundit. The Bulwark has also added several staffers, including Sam Stein and former Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger.

Earworms: “The music industry has produced more new pop stars this year than any in recent memory,” from “Espresso” hitmaker Sabrina Carpenter to Benson Boone, Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw writes.

⁛ News

Hanging on: In its recent investor presentation, Newsmax lists anchor Ed Henry, who this week was accused in a story in Mediaite of sending sexually explicit text messages to a “young female staffer” while working for another right-wing cable network. Mediaite noted that Henry was absent from the organization’s debate night coverage.

⁜ Tech

REUTERS/Peter DaSilva

Meta hardball: Meta may walk away from news deals the Australian government forced it into in 2021. The Australian move, backed by and favorable to News Corp. in particular, requires tech giants to negotiate with publishers. Now Meta is instead threatening to block news in Australia, as it has in Canada. (Google, however, doesn’t have the luxury of exiting the news business there.)

That ought to do the trick: The inaugural White House Creator Economy Conference will “emphasize the administration’s commitment to creators.”

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