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Trump-hating White House media betrayed voters by hiding Biden's alarming condition, and now it could backfire

OpinionTrump-hating White House media betrayed voters by hiding Biden's alarming condition, and now it could backfire

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In 1991, when I was just a few years into my career as a journalist, I experienced a stroke of life-changing professional luck. The 1992 presidential campaign was ramping up, and a host of eager candidates were vying to take on President George H.W. Bush, who was running for his second term.

I was a 20-something off-air political reporter for ABC News, waiting to find out which candidate I would be following on the campaign trail. I would remain embedded with my designated candidate for the duration, until he (no shes were running) lost, dropped out or won the whole shebang.

Naturally, I was hoping for someone interesting, someone who would go far in the race, or at least, someone who would make a little news.

WHERE ARE THE JOES? SCARBOROUGH, BIDEN LAY LOW AFTER EMBARRASSING DEBATE

Would it be the populist Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin? The idiosyncratic former California Gov. Jerry Brown? The Republican conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, launching a hell-for-leather anti-Bush challenge? The commonsense former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas?

ABC’s assignment desk handed out our roles. I was tasked to cover the governor of Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton.

What followed was a fascinating year that took me to nearly every continental state in America. I saw in granular detail the inner workings of a fledgling campaign, and watched it grow. I witnessed the power and wisdom of American voters, and what it took to earn their support. I apprehended the need to go out in the field, away from hermetic news offices in New York and Washington, D.C., to see firsthand the house parties and rope lines, debate spin rooms and local newscasts, the rallies large and small.

President Clinton holds Socks the cat as he and first lady Hillary Clinton host Washington area elementary school children at the White House on Dec. 20, 1996. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson, File)

President Clinton holds Socks the cat as he and first lady Hillary Clinton host Washington area elementary school children at the White House on Dec. 20, 1996. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson, File)

I observed the young Bill and Hillary Clinton as they fought back from tabloid scandal, primary losses, bad news cycles, embarrassing gossip and malignant rumors, until they finally vanquished Bush, Ross Perot and a handful of their own demons and skeletons to nab the brass ring. 

Out on the Clinton trail, I also observed some of the greatest political reporters of the modern era, up close and in action.

As Bill Clinton became the hot topic, the besmirched Icarus, the Comeback Kid, the frontrunner, the Democratic nominee and eventually, the president-elect, more and more reporters of note, rising young stars and prize-winning legends, crowded onto the bus to cover his stratospheric rise.

Renaissance Man Johnny Apple, deliberative Dan Balz, cultivated Todd Purdum, shrewd Adam Nagourney, perceptive Joe Klein, the great Gwen Ifill.

I spent time with them, shared meals and conversation, watched their off-the-cuff interviews with the principals and the staff. I learned from them. I respected them. They were civilians and citizens, individuals with specific experiences and personal beliefs, but they remained impartial, prudent and fair. They told the facts, even as they draped their words with detail and poetry. They cataloged mundane, day-to-day events, while keeping an eye on history. They felt beholden to the American people and took that responsibility seriously, distilling and explaining policy positions, clarifying spin and staying direct and detached, all while holding the powerful accountable to the public interest.

As reporters, they had intimate access to a person who would end up being the leader of the free world. Who was he? What were his thought processes? What were his failings, and his strengths? How would he lead if elected? Was he resilient? Honest? Thin-skinned? Brave? Nimble? Wise? Those questions might be impossible for anyone to answer in full. But they had to try. It was an admirable goal, vital to the health and future of the United States, and a tacit promise to the American voters who counted on skilled journalists to report the truth without bias.

The media’s conspiracy of silence was intended to keep Donald Trump from returning to the White House for a second term. It is ironic that the deception and hypocrisy may be what in fact leads Trump straight back to the Oval Office.

When Bill Clinton was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 1993, I moved to the off-air White House beat. The ABC White House correspondent was Brit Hume, and, in our tiny booth, I received an invaluable tutorial in how to cover a shambolic administration with grace, coherence and aplomb.

As my career continued, I worked mostly in liberal newsrooms, and saw plenty of obvious pro-Democratic media bias, although it was rarely acknowledged. When I endeavored to call it out, or correct the imbalance, I was falsely accused of right-wing leanings, or of professional treachery. The constant undercurrent of bias was troubling, to be sure. Most of my colleagues seemed in denial about it, and oblivious to how their predilections were alienating about half of America.

Journalistic anti-Republican bias has, of course, escalated in the Trump era.

Joe Biden

President Biden looks down as he participates in the debate against former President Trump at CNN’s studios in Atlanta on Thursday. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

But the conspiracy of silence between the press and the Biden administration to conceal President Biden’s grievous mental and physical state has brought our country to a unique level of peril, disorientation, and disillusionment.

How did one of America’s most essential bulwarks, a strong and fair political press, crumble and decay?

Maybe it was the advent of the internet, which shifted datelines into ether, and replaced concrete deadlines with the necessity of now. Headlines and live streams were posted in seconds, and then evaporated without opportunity for reflection or analysis. Maybe it was social media, which placed untrained, inexperienced influencers and bloggers on the same nebulous platform as veteran professionals. Maybe it was the collapse of TV ratings and magazine ad sales that led to smaller budgets for travel and research. Or maybe it was just laziness and corner cutting, the lures of likes and clicks, that have so far defined our 21st century ethos.

BIDEN PUTS HIS FATE, AND MAYBE THE NATION’S, IN THE HANDS OF HUNTER

Maybe it all changed because of the coarse complexities of the Clinton administration, or the visceral tragedy and fear of 9/11 and the policy confusion of the subsequent Gulf War. Maybe it was the glamorous cool of Barack and Michelle Obama that dazzled so many frumpy members of the press corps. 

Certainly, it worsened with the polarizing presence of Donald Trump, which excreted an epidemic of Trump Derangement Syndrome to all four corners of the Dominant Media, and generated such hatred of and derision towards the 45th president that many reporters not only became overtly biased against him but practically bragged about being agents of “The Resistance.”

However, nothing compares to what I have witnessed in the five years since Joe Biden launched his successful presidential bid in 2019. 

I was surprised when Biden decided to run for president again, his third attempt at competing for the White House. It was not his chronological age of 77; many of us know plenty of septuagenarians who are vital, mentally sharp, physically industrious and fully lucid. 

But not Joe Biden. 

Biden was an old 77, in body and mind. In November 2017, when I was on Nantucket Island for the Thanksgiving holiday, I attended a question and answer and book signing event for Biden’s new memoir, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose.” Some politicians publish memoirs before commencing a presidential bid to introduce themselves to the voting public. Some politicians publish memoirs at the end of their career, to say goodbye. I assumed this was the latter, as well as an effort for Biden to try to earn some post-Obama administration cash; Biden famously often complained that he was one of the least financially flush political figures in Washington.

Biden spoke to a room full of friendly local year-rounders and summer residents, many of whom had known him personally for years. I was taken aback by what I witnessed. The fire had left Biden’s eyes. He rambled strangely, repeatedly lost focus, misunderstood questions, missed cues. After the Q&A, a decidedly awkward, meandering affair, Biden greeted a select group of audience members backstage, to sign books, take photos and say hello. I watched as he struggled to maintain the simplest of small talk, on occasion failing to recognize old friends and supporters, men and women who had known him well for decades.

Well, that’s the end, I thought. Biden’s swan song. I considered it fortunate for his family that his political career had ended, and had arguably ended well, with two terms as Obama’s vice president, where he had acquitted himself with relative dignity and exited on a career high of civility, spirit, and decorum.

And then he ran for president. 

There were many factors that enabled Biden to win first the nomination, and then the general election in 2020. Obama intervened during primary season to clear Biden’s path, encouraging Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out, not just to help Biden, but to prevent the firebrand Bernie Sanders from becoming the nominee. The COVID pandemic kept Biden comfortably tucked away in his Delaware basement for much of the general election, social distancing his way to victory. Trump himself labored under the unfamiliar pressures of a pandemic presidency, unable to charm or convince a weary nation that he could continue the job at hand.

But a leading factor in Biden’s 2020 presidential victory was the press.

Large swaths of the political media decided that any substantive criticism of Biden would contradict their shared goal of getting Trump out of the White House. They stopped doing their jobs and became activists instead of reporters. They willingly betrayed their responsibilities to the public and the requirements of an open society. 

Any journalist from a left-leaning press outfit who offered up concern over Biden’s health or questioned his general competence as a potential president was bullied and ridiculed on social media or live on the air, even threatened with cancelation, by Biden’s staff, by Democratic operatives and by fellow reporters. The coverage of Biden overall throughout the campaign was muted, vague and insubstantial. By contrast, coverage of Trump was largely aggressive, hostile and hyperbolic. Trump, of course, deserved intense scrutiny, but the imbalance was clear to anyone who wished to see it.

After Biden won the White House, his staff became even more opaque and secretive. Biden was shielded from the press, rarely sitting for interviews and avoiding press conferences to a farcical degree. He relied on notecards and teleprompters for even the most elementary appearances. He took long vacations followed by weekends at the beach. He skipped important events at world summits and made embarrassing faux pas at important meetings. 

Reporters were not allowed to communicate with Biden’s physician or see his full medical records, a standard element of White House coverage that has caused drama in every previous administration, but has rarely been refused.

His team obfuscated and intimidated, denied what was visible to all. Troubling raw video feeds were deemed “cheap fakes.” Biden, they said, was in the prime of life, regularly outworking his younger advisers and sharp as Canadian Cheddar.

And the friendly media let them get away with it all. Not every story of every conspiracy of silence in the various newsrooms is exactly the same. Editors, anchors, executive producers, beat reporters — all have played different roles in different news organizations to simply black out the truth. The White House press corps was not gaslit by Biden’s aides. They were intimidated and co-conspirators in equal measure.

This is not to suggest that every media element and news outlet lied unabated. There were some gentle forays into medical analysis and concern. The New York Times published a few prominent articles that prodded the sleeping giant, although such stories were always hedged and couched, and made a point of comparing Biden favorably to Trump. And then the paper’s journalists were stridently rebutted and ridiculed by the administration.

Late night comics, generally liberal in nature, actually did more than our nation’s biggest newsrooms to hold Biden accountable, sometimes poking fun at Biden’s elderly stumbles, and at the absurdities of the White House pushback.

The RNC and Red Media, meanwhile, often went too far with accusations of dementia, especially during the first two years when Biden’s decline was less acute, spouting extravagant diagnoses and conspiracy theories. When such coverage veered into obvious fraudulence, the other tribe was granted another layer of camouflage.

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Biden was not as far gone as the Reds claimed, nor as hale as the Blues pretended. He had good moments and bad, lucid mornings and cloudy afternoons. He needed rest and calm, and comfortable conditions, and then was usually able to perform adequately, for brief periods. This produced enough video clips for the friendly press and the White House to hide behind, and claim all his days were good. Biden’s first chief of staff, Ron Klain, was masterful at managing both Biden’s schedule and his pals in the press corps.

But the presidency is a 24/7 job, with daily stresses and unforeseen crises. It is not part-time. It cannot be scheduled around a hazy old man’s care routine and frailties.

Several months ago, a few weeks after Biden’s respectable showing at the State of the Union, sources began to let me know that the president was worsening precipitously. His mental condition was waning, and he was painfully frail. Meetings with him were at times pitiful and scary. His team, said my sources, were both in denial about the state of the campaign and his capability for future governance, and also shoring up their conspiracy of silence, with talking points, scare tactics and false promises for the media.

Those desperate missives became wishy-washy excuses in the newspapers and stertorous lectures on cable news. 

History will be a harsh judge indeed for one of the greatest failures of journalism in our nation’s recent past.

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The country is now in great trouble. The public has been lied to by its government and its free press. Foreign nations, both friends and foe, know that our president is mentally unfit for office, and that there is no one in charge in the White House. The very foundations of the American system have been replaced by sand and mist, leaving questions about, yes, re-election, but also fundamental doubts about our national security and our commander in chief.

The media’s conspiracy of silence was intended to keep Donald Trump from returning to the White House for a second term.

It is ironic that the deception and hypocrisy may be what in fact leads Trump straight back to the Oval Office.

Political analyst and best-selling author Mark Halperin is the founder and editor of the Wide World of News Concierge Coverage.

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