From hostile reception to praise: How WSJ’s report on Biden laid bare media fault lines

The Wall Street Journal’s report on President Biden’s slipping cognitive health was slammed until the recent US presidential debate.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
WSJ's White House reporter Annie Linskey and US President Joe Biden.

Last week’s US presidential debate has made the murmurs grow louder about the mental acuity of Joe Biden, the incumbent US President and Democratic Party candidate. This has also meant that what was dubbed as a contentious piece of journalistic work in the Wall Street Journal early last month will now be seen in a new light, if not with the glow of hindsight.

In some ways, the story and the responses it evoked show that the reflex of assigning motives along the lines of a polarised political sphere can come in the way of taking note of some findings. At the same time, the last four weeks in the life of the report also mirror the split chambers of media trust and what it loses sight of more often than not.

On June 4, the Wall Street Journal published a report, co-authored by the newspaper’s White House reporter Annie Linskey and its Congress reporter Siobhan Hughes, that pieced together what a few having access to watch President Biden working in official meetings and the Congressional work had to say about his cognitive health. 

The reported piece titled ‘Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping’ cited observations made by participants in meetings attended by the President. They noted Biden’s interactions ranging from being “sharp and spontaneous” to disturbing spells of him appearing “tuned out”, getting into “long extended pauses”, “forgetting key policy details” and “mumbling, and being hardly audible to others in the meetings”. The White House, meanwhile, dismissed such observations and maintained that President Biden was working as hard as a tack. 

The response to the report was almost dismissive, not only in the official quarters but in an influential  section of the US media. But a measure of how the responses were shaped by the politically fraught nature of the report, particularly in today’s hyper-partisan time, was that it was slammed for being politically motivated because it was mostly sourced from what Republican politicians said. The report clearly named the persons quoted, and mostly they were Republicans, though not all. But was that enough to ignore the substance of the story? 

A number of media commentators thought so. Slamming the report, Jenifer Rubin, the Washington Post columnist, remarked that  a “shoddy front-page article” in WSJ about President Biden’s slipping cognitive health meant that we had reached a “journalistic inflection point”. While simplistically attributing the task of “promotion of a right wing meme” to the report, Rubin predictably attacked it for being based on quotes from Republicans, and she somehow found relief in what she called “widespread media condemnation” of the report and the “negative response by journalists” to such “irresponsible reporting”. 

To add to that, writer Thomas E Ricks cited WSJ veterans, saying that the report couldn’t have passed the editorial scrutiny in the pre-Murdoch days of the paper. That was another trope of assailing the report, attributing it to the nature of ownership.

This week, Annie Linskey, one of the co-authors of the report, while talking to the BBC ’s Media Show, recalled that while she expected some critical  reactions to a politically sensitive story, she was still surprised by the extent to which people were ready to discount the facts just because it was mostly based on Republicans as sources. That way, she argued, the Democrats can veto any story involving crucial aspects of reporting from Washington and the White House. 

A little more than three weeks later, however, the opinion about her report showed some change, and that too across the bipartisan divide. She remembered that almost 10 minutes into the first 2024 presidential debate, she realised that what she reported was now unfolding in real time. She also started getting appreciative text messages from colleagues as well as Democratic politicians. In the days to follow, one could see a growing number of influential Democratic supporters urging Biden to drop out of the race, including the New York Times editorial board as well as major donors to the Democratic Party.

In the same show on the BBC, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, lauded the WSJ’s report on Biden’s cognitive health. At the same time, she hinted that one of the reasons for many media houses to skip the issue of the president’s state of mental acuity could be their intent to deny Trump a possible advantage in his campaign. That was also a possible explanation for why a section of the media looked away, or was late, from reporting Hunter Biden’s felony gun charges as well as his tax affairs. Abrahmson finds such agenda-driven and cause-pursuit omissions a disservice to the journalistic practice of reporting crucial facts and seeking accountability. 

The trajectory of the early June WSJ’s report on Biden’s cognitive health has covered the arc from a hostile reception to late acknowledgment. In the process, it has revealed the fault lines of media narratives that run along the split echo chambers of political partisanship. It resonates with the prisms through which media work is being received– either showcased or discredited – across political divides in different countries, particularly India. The toll of polarising politics on media stories has cast them in the form of favourable or unfavourable narratives, both in terms of what they are covering and, more so, what they are omitting.

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article imageUS outlets underline ‘disaster’ as first US presidential debate leaves Biden weak


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