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Why was it a surprise? Biden’s debate problems leave some wondering if the press missed the story

NEW YORK (AP) — President Joe Biden’s fitness to serve a second term in office has been a top story since his halting performance in last week’s debate against Donald Trump, where the president at times appeared unable to complete or articulate some thoughts in the pressure of the moment.

To some press critics who are now reading these stories, there’s another question: What took you so long?

“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,” Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, told the website Semafor this week.

While it was a “super hard story to report,” she said it could have been done. Instead, Abramson said, the American press failed in its duty to hold those in power accountable.

Certainly, there’s no shortage of “I told you so” sentiment coming from Biden opponents. “Conservatives have noticed that for a very long time,” said “Fox & Friends” host Ainsley Earhardt.

It’s a complicated story that has bubbled for months — and, it can be argued, the American people were onto it first.

Big pushback from Biden aides all along

Throughout the campaign, Biden aides have pushed back aggressively on the notion that he had become diminished, and some supporters are angered by any attention the issue gets in comparison to stories about whether or not Trump tells the truth.

Nearly a year ago, in August 2023, the Associated Press-NORC poll found that three-quarters of U.S. adults said that the 81-year-old Biden was too old to effectively serve another four-year term as president. AP-NORC found this February that six in 10 adults were “not very” or “not at all” confident that Biden had the mental capability to serve as president, although the sentiment was roughly the same for his 78-year-old Republican opponent, Donald Trump.

Media standards for covering a president’s health have changed markedly through the years. It was little known at the time, but after President Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in 1919, his wife effectively ran the government for the remainder of his term. And, in the pre-television days, the press stayed largely quiet about the disability that largely kept Franklin D. Roosevelt in a wheelchair much of the time.

Four reporters from the Times collaborated on a story, published Tuesday, that said several people who had encountered Biden behind closed doors noticed “he increasingly appeared confused or listless, or would lose the thread of conversations.”

Not many uncontrolled public appearances

Biden’s lack of public visibility in situations that aren’t tightly controlled has been evident throughout his presidency.

The 36 news conferences he had given through June 30 were fewer than any president in the same time frame since Ronald Reagan, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project. Biden gave a total of 128 interviews, compared to Donald Trump’s 369 at the same stage of his presidency and 497 by Biden’s former boss, she said.

It was noticed in February when Biden passed up an interview in the Super Bowl pregame show, a relatively new presidential tradition that offers an audience of tens of millions of people.

Under pressure following the debate, Biden has agreed to an interview on Friday with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, and his team said he would do a news conference next week.

Biden’s staff may have done him a disservice by shielding him from such situations, said Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist. “In general, it’s good for a politician and for an older person to exercise and manage stressful situations,” he said. In other words: practice helps.

If there were signs beyond public speaking that he was impaired in his ability to do the job, Biden should have been investigated, said Pillemer, professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell. But he said he was unaware of such evidence, unlike what there was for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein before she died.

“I don’t think there’s a lot more the media could have done,” Pillemer said.

The situation shows how media pressure for greater access is more than just whining, said Ben Smith, co-founder of the news website Semafor and a former media columnist. Even off-the-record time with a president is valuable to get a sense of what he’s like, and Biden did not do that to the extent of his predecessors, Smith said.

If there had been some crisis situation before the debate where Biden’s problems were evident, the press might have jumped on the story earlier. “But a lot of Americans believed that the president was in really bad shape, and the media kind of waved that off,” Smith said.

“We should have all gone after it harder,” he said.

A story challenging to tell for journalists

Abramson told Semafor that she was worried that many journalists didn’t try to get the story because they did not want to be accused of helping elect Trump.

The Wall Street Journal, in a June 4 piece by Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes, said that some people who had worked with Biden “described a president who appears to be slower now, someone who has both good moments and bad moments.”

The Journal reporters interviewed more than 45 people, both Republicans and Democrats, for the piece. Yet because the story, in a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, prominently quoted Republican House speakers Kevin McCarthy and Mike Johnson, it was dismissed by many at the time as being inspired by partisanship.

Similarly illustrating the challenges in telling the story, the Biden campaign has sharply criticized the Times during instances when they wrote about concerns over Biden’s age. Even before the campaign, the Times cites stories that indicate the newspaper did not ignore the issue.

Politico suggested in April, quoting an unnamed Times staff member, that the newspaper’s attention to the issue was “quietly encouraged” by publisher A.G. Sulzberger because he was upset that Biden had not agreed to an interview with Times reporters.

The newspaper sharply denied that, and issued a statement saying that it was troubling that Biden “had so actively and effectively avoided questions from independent journalists during his term.” On Wednesday, Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn sent a message to the paper’s newsroom about the issue, acknowledging “ample speculation” about what the media did and didn’t do.

“What I’ve seen and what our readers have experienced from our team is steadfast, fact-based reporting on the subject that began a couple of years ago as we documented Biden’s age-related challenges in multiple, industry-leading articles,” Kahn wrote. “We have stayed on that story at every turn, always with nuance and context, through today’s outstanding report.”

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Linley Sanders of The Associated Press’ polling team contributed. David Bauder writes about media for the AP. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.

David Bauder, The Associated Press