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How did the US media miss America’s biggest story?͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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July 2, 2024
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to a special edition of Semafor Media.

It’s the biggest question for American journalism right now:

How could we have allowed our audience to be surprised about the basic condition of the number one reporting target in the country, the president?

Max, Nayeema, and I tried to answer it on a special episode of Mixed Signals today, which we hope you’ll check out.

We also asked that question of our newsletter readers on Sunday, and got a flood of responses, including a rocket from former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. She wrote that “the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable.” (More from her and many others below.)

This isn’t a simple story. The Times, for example, drew White House fury for writing about Biden’s age in 2022, and liberal scorn for demanding an interview with the president. But the most damning fact, to me, was Max’s observation that the press assembled in Atlanta gasped at Biden’s performance. How could we have been surprised?

Mixed Signals

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).

Listen to the full story on Mixed Signals.

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1

The View from Jill Abramson

It’s clear the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable. It is our duty to poke through White House smoke screens and find out the truth. The Biden White House clearly succeeded in a massive cover-up of the degree of the President’s feebleness and his serious physical decline, which may be simply the result of old age. Shame on the White House press corps for not to have pierced the veil of secrecy surrounding the President.

Obviously, the President’s decline was a super hard story to report, even by those who wanted to get it, like the WSJ. Their story did not deliver, using mostly named GOP sources.

But I do think if enough reporters had pushed, the story was reportable. I worry that too many journalists didn’t try to get the story because they did not want to be accused of helping elect Donald Trump. I get that.

But this is no excuse for abandoning our first duty, which is to report the truth and hold power accountable. President Biden should be held accountable for his obvious lapses of mental acuity, even if there are periods of lucidity.

It is simply astounding for the entire country, including its most seasoned reporters, to be as shocked as everyone was by the ugly and painful reality of Biden’s debate performance.

And it is laughable and immoral for Democrats to blame the press now for over-reacting to that reality. The reports of how bad Biden was are certainly not exaggerated. Nor are the reports of Democrats in panic.

Jill Abramson was executive editor of the New York Times from 2011 to 2014.

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2

The View from a senior New York Times journalist

These days the most vociferous Times critics are the left. We continue to get no end of blowback for our coverage of Biden’s age, even as a polling question. That — coupled with the dubious reporting on how [AG Sulzberger] was upset at Biden for not granting access and so ordered the newsroom to go hard on him, look at his age, etc., has become the boilerplate angry note filling inboxes.

So, could The Times have gone harder on Biden? Certainly. Did we do as much (or more) than most? I’d argue yes. And we’re still getting blowback.

So did the media fail? Or was it Twitter? I’m not putting Twitter on the same footing as a news organization. What I’m saying is Twitter, et al., allowed media blindness to form, or at the very least a bizarre sense of legitimacy in belief over knowledge. I don’t think this is the case, or I don’t believe it, became, in the age of Twitter, you’re wrong, this is false, this is a conspiracy. The MAGA faithful just got there before the left did.

If there’s media failure, it was in losing its influence. Even when The Times gets it right, we’re somehow still wrong.

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3

The View from a prominent television correspondent

I’d argue what doesn’t help is not getting more support from top editors and bureau chiefs in Washington and especially New York-based colleagues and bosses with outsized influence…who haven’t joined those of us in the daily White House press corps to push harder all the time for more access, openly asking what he’s up to when we don’t see him, why they shield him, why he doesn’t do overseas news conferences, etc., and making sure we call that out in our coverage.

“The audience doesn’t care when we gripe” is the common refrain. Maybe we aren’t griping - maybe we were trying to warn the public that your president is being shielded from you?!

Are there people on the White House beat who take what the Biden team is selling and report it at face value with little if any skepticism? Totally. But can you fault the lot of us for not having a good sense of his faculties when the staff and family does such a concerted job to keep us away from him?!

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4

The View from Bubba Atkinson

The media is almost entirely to blame for the Democratic party’s crisis! Sure, the Biden admin and whoever speaks for them is expected to spin or lie, but that is not the expectation for the media! They’re objectively out of step with the American people as we’ve seen time and time again:

Bubba Atkinson was an early employee at Axios and is the founder of Bubba News.

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The View from a reader

I think you have done nothing but tell us how weak Biden is; how about spending even half the time telling us about the lies Trump keeps telling over and over and over again and the press just ignoring him since we all are expected to know he is crazy so not much news there........

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6

The View from Vivek Ramaswamy

The now-universal concern that Biden is slipping was, until last week, widely assumed only on the Right.

“All people remember later is you said something crazy — without remembering what it was, when in fact the crazy thing that you said turned out to be true,” Vivek Ramaswamy told Semafor’s Shelby Talcott. “Many Republicans rejected this possibility last year when I spoke about it, let alone the Democrats in relegating this to fringe conspiracy talk.”

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