Friday, June 14, 2024

The Wall Street Journal’s story on Biden’s mental fitness: fair or foul? – Poynter

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The buzzy story on Wednesday was from The Wall Street Journal’s Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes. It came with a wow headline about President Joe Biden and his mental acuity:

“Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping”

The story was a talker on a bunch of cable news shows and political websites. The Journal thought it was a big deal. I got an email (and I’m assuming others did as well) from a Journal publicist late Tuesday night touting it as an “explosive story” — something fairly common when a news outlet thinks it has a big scoop or important story.

The gist of the 3,000-word article is what the reporters wrote in the sixth paragraph: “Some who have worked with him, however, including Democrats and some who have known him back to his time as vice president, described a president who appears slower now, someone who has both good moments and bad ones.”

That came after this quote from Republican and former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy: “I used to meet with him when he was vice president. I’d go to his house. He’s not the same person.”

The Journal reported that the White House insists Biden remains a sharp and vigorous leader, and that any criticism is all about partisan politics. The Journal also mentioned criticisms of Donald Trump’s mental sharpness.

The Journal said it interviewed 45 people over several months who had either met with Biden or had been briefed on meetings involving Biden. They then wrote, “Most of those who said Biden performed poorly were Republicans, but some Democrats said that he showed his age in several of the exchanges.”

The Journal also wrote, “The White House kept close tabs on some of The Wall Street Journal’s interviews with Democratic lawmakers.”

Biden’s mental fitness has been a talking point, mostly among his detractors, for some time. With Biden turning 82 in November and Trump turning 78 later this month, age is often brought up when talking about this year’s presidential election.

Biden has always appeared sharp in interviews and speeches, such as this year’s fiery State of the Union address when Biden appeared as quick as ever. And there is a debate coming up this month that should give us way more insight than a newspaper story

So, about this Journal piece. Is it a fairly reported story on a pertinent topic? Or is it a pointed piece based pretty much on quotes and opinions from those who don’t want to see Biden elected to a second term?

I’d go with the latter — considering the money quote is from McCarthy, another key anecdote was reported by current Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, and other tales suggesting Biden’s decline are flimsy, at best. (For example, he sometimes talks quietly, he uses notes, and he relies on aides.)

Media Matters’ Matt Gertz looked into the Journal story. Now, to be clear, Media Matters is often described as a “left-leaning” watchdog that spends a lot of bandwidth dissecting and discrediting conservative media stories. Yet it’s worth noting some of the verifiable findings in the Media Matters story, which, in its headline, called the Journal story “comically weak.”

Gertz writes, “The Journal notably provides no on-the-record statements from anyone speaking against their partisan interests. It would be genuinely revelatory if the Journal found Democrats willing to offer on-the-record comments about Biden’s mental acuity that remotely approached the public statements from former senior Trump aides describing him as ‘an idiot’ who does ‘crazy’ things and lacks understanding of basic concepts.”

Hughes, one of the Journal reporters on the story, appeared on CNN on Wednesday and responded to criticism that the story didn’t quote more Democrats.

For example, and for what it’s worth, former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “Many of us spent time with @WSJ to share on the record our first-hand experiences with @POTUS, where we see his wisdom, experience, strength and strategic thinking. Instead, the Journal ignored testimony by Democrats, focused on attacks by Republicans and printed a hit piece.”

On CNN, Hughes said, “My job here is to be the agent of the reader. I am not here to publish the quote provided to me or us by every single Democrat. I just can’t do that.”

Gertz wrote, “Instead, the Journal uncovered negative anecdotes about Biden’s performance in three negotiations dating back to May 2023.” Gertz then pointed out that the “sole named critical source for any of the anecdotes” was McCarthy.

Even McCarthy’s criticism of Biden is under scrutiny.

Hughes was asked on CNN about how McCarthy criticized Biden in the Journal story, but, according to reports, has privately told colleagues that he found Biden to be sharp.

MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough tweeted, “The @wsj uses Kevin McCarthy as their source on this hit piece? McCarthy has spent the past few years telling members how sharp Biden is in negotiations despite his public-facing lies.”

Scarborough pointed to times when outlets (Politico, The Hill, The New York Times) reported that McCarthy told colleagues that Biden was sharp in their meetings.

So on CNN, Hughes said, “Our reporting also suggested that McCarthy was doing that tactically because he had to get along with President Biden at a time when the country was really at risk of a debt default if there was not some type of a deal. So you can take that for what it’s worth, you can  decide McCarthy is not credible or that he is, but that’s what our reporting showed.”

The Journal, by the way, is standing behind its story, according to The Hill’s Sarah Fortinsky and other outlets.

Politico’s Lauren Egan, Eli Stokols and Burgess Everett wrote, “Inside the West Wing, staff interpreted the piece as a sign that the paper was reverting to partisan form ahead of the November election. There was some speculation that the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, was showing his preference for a Donald Trump victory, according to two people familiar with the communications team’s thinking.”

Scarborough also tweeted, “I have repeatedly stated on air that I am an avid reader and cheerleader for the WSJ. That is what makes this false, biased story so disappointing. It is undermined immediately by the massive weight on on-the-record contradictions.”

In the end, the Wall Street Journal piece with the spicy headline seemed to have more smoke than fire with one side of the aisle using a copy of the newspaper to fan the flames.

It’s been quite a couple of weeks for The Washington Post. The Poynter Report has been documenting all week the massive changes, with Sally Buzbee stepping down as executive editor and the new leadership plan put in place. That came on the heels of publisher Will Lewis telling staff that the Post lost $77 million in the past year, and has seen a disturbing 50% drop in audience since 2020.

Shoved to the back burner was that the Post sat on a decent story that was eventually broken with much fanfare by The New York Times. It’s the story of how the Virginia home of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito flew an upside-down flag right after the Jan. 6 insurrection and just days before Joe Biden was sworn in as president. The upside-down flag has become a symbol for supporters of Donald Trump who falsely believe the 2020 election was rigged.

The New York Times first reported on this story on May 16 — just last month. On May 25, the Post admitted in a story that it knew about the flag incident back when it happened in 2021 and didn’t publish anything. It dropped this little nugget in a story about Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann Alito: “The Post decided not to report on the episode at the time because the flag-raising appeared to be the work of Martha-Ann Alito, rather than the justice, and connected to a dispute with her neighbors, a Post spokeswoman said. It was not clear then that the argument was rooted in politics, the spokeswoman said.”

I wrote about this last week and I’m still shaking my head that the Post not only failed to run the part about the flag, but that it sat on another part of the story, which was that the wife of a Supreme Court justice was in what sounded like a pretty nasty neighborhood feud over politics. That’s a story, as is the part about the upside-down flag, obviously.

Anyway, that mess kind of died down with all the other Post drama over the past week, but then Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote about it on Wednesday.

First off, credit to Wemple for writing about his own shop, and doing so in a fair way. He started with a banger: “It’s one thing to get scooped when your competitors bust their humps. Or when they catch a lucky break one way or another. It’s quite another thing to get scooped when the story has sat in your notebook for 3 ½ years.”

Wemple spoke with Robert Barnes, the now-retired former Post reporter who worked on the neighborhood feud-flag story in 2021. Barnes told Wemple that he and others at the Post determined that Alito himself didn’t have anything to do with the flag, and that Mrs. Alito’s flying of the flag was about the dispute with neighbors and not a political statement.

Wemple offered some good context, writing, “Barnes is addressing the considerations that he was processing at the time — essentially a haze of information during one of the most news-packed periods in American history. Reaching judgments in the moment, with imperfect information, is always harder than it is for a media critic gazing back with more than three years of context.”

Furthermore, at that moment, Barnes didn’t know the upside-down flag was a “Stop the Steal” symbol.

Wemple gets into more of the story, so check it out.

In the end, I still think a neighborhood feud involving the wife of a Supreme Court justice is a heck of a juicy story, and the then-managing editor of the Post, Cameron Barr, told Semafor’s Ben Smith and Max Tani that he wished he had pushed harder for that story.

The New York Times’ Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson reported Wednesday night that Sally Buzbee, who resigned abruptly last weekend as executive editor of the Post, had clashed with publisher Will Lewis last month and that their relationship had become “tense” since then.

What was the clash about? The Times wrote it was “over whether to publish an article about a British hacking scandal with some ties to (Lewis), according to two people with knowledge of their interactions. (Buzbee) informed Mr. Lewis that the newsroom planned to cover a judge’s scheduled ruling in a long-running British legal case brought by Prince Harry and others against some of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, the people said.”

The Times added, “As part of the ruling, the judge was expected to say whether the plaintiffs could add Mr. Lewis’s name to a list of executives who they argued were involved in a plan to conceal evidence of hacking at the newspapers. Mr. Lewis told Ms. Buzbee the case involving him did not merit coverage, the people said. When Ms. Buzbee said The Post would publish an article anyway, he said her decision represented a lapse in judgment and abruptly ended the conversation.”

The Times reported that this incident was not the “primary reason” Buzbee left the paper. The Post had plans to reorganize the newsroom and Buzbee is believed to have not liked what her new role would be.

Baseball great Satchel Paige, shown here in 1942 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman, File)

Major League Baseball recently took all the statistics from the old Negro League and integrated them into the MLB record book. So, now, great Negro League players such as Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige have their career numbers alongside (and, in some cases, ahead of) some of the great names in MLB history such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker.

That spurred Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark to have this thought: The Pulitzer Prizes should follow Major League Baseball’s lead.

Roy writes, “Here’s my proposal: The Pulitzer Prize Board, one of the great standard bearers in journalism and the arts, should create a new category of Pulitzer Prizes. For the moment, let’s call it the Pulitzer Legacy Prizes. The board need not take the entire effort upon itself. It would work better with congenial partners. I don’t see this as a single award, but one that would go to three to five winners each year, quickly building a virtual hall of honor, with a curriculum that might go with it.”

Roy goes on to write, “I don’t mean these honors to be regarded as ‘reparations,’ because a century ago great work was already being created by Black journalists and artists. Nor do I think of this as a reexamination of history, such as the powerful reframing of America’s own history in ‘The 1619 Project.’ The work I seek to honor is already a part of history, but almost invisible, eclipsed by the traditionally white celebrations of excellence, such as the Pulitzers.”

He then lists examples of the kind of work he’s talking about.

Very thought-provoking. I urge you to check it out.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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