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By Charles M. Blow
The relationship between political campaigns, the news media and the public isn’t exactly an interplay between independent actors. It’s a web of influence.
This dynamic is particularly relevant when it comes to the avalanche of headlines and polls about President Biden’s age.
The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63 percent of those surveyed thought Biden didn’t have the mental sharpness to serve effectively; 43 percent said the same of Donald Trump, even though their ages are only a few years apart.
Let me say up front that a candidate’s age and competency are always fair game in politics. It’s not ageist to acknowledge the scientific reality that our bodies and minds decline in capacity as we age. It’s not ageist for voters to factor that into their electoral decisions. And aging is individual: Some people appear vibrant at 80 and others worn at 50.
But there are also other truths that must be considered. Headlines and polls don’t just measure and reflect public sentiment, they also influence it. The persistence of a theme elevates and validates that theme.
As Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, told me: “As with anything in journalism, more broadly, as there’s a great deal of a spotlight on a topic, it raises the salience of that topic for the public, and people are more likely to consider things that are in the news as important.”
I also think that we as citizens and consumers of media like to think that we come to our opinions and beliefs completely on our own, and we resist the notion that those opinions have been influenced or manipulated by outside forces. But there is a growing body of research that demonstrates the opposite. We are, unquestionably, influenced by the media.
This brings me to the coverage of Biden’s age. It’s true that if he’s re-elected, Biden would be the oldest president we’ve ever had. But he was already the oldest president the first time he was elected. What changed?
I’d argue that the biggest change wasn’t the simple passage of time, but the decision of some Republican leaders to focus like a laser on Biden’s age as the factor weighing against him. In an April interview, the former South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, said it was unlikely Biden would “make it” through a second term. In this year’s Republican response to the State of the Union address, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas noted that she’s half Biden’s age.
Some observers contend that voting for Biden is essentially voting for Vice President Kamala Harris to be president, because Biden may not last another term. For Republicans, that notion offers the added benefit of allowing them to campaign against the trifecta of their disdain — a liberal who’s a minority and a woman.
Which brings us back to the web of influence: Campaigns elevate an issue, pollsters and journalists ask whether the issue is having an effect on a race, stories are written about that effect and as a result of the coverage, the effect is often intensified. That is the chain of custody for a political attack, but far too often that connection and context isn’t made clear. It’s often presented as if these types of concerns just spring forth in voters’ minds and aren’t influenced by campaigns and news coverage.
This happens all the time in politics.
Before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump decided once again to whip up Americans’ xenophobia by harping on a caravan of migrants, an “invasion” he called it, heading for our southern border.
Less than a month before those midterms, The Times reported, “For the last two weeks, Mr. Trump and his conservative allies have operated largely in tandem on social media and elsewhere to push alarmist, conspiratorial warnings about the migrant caravan more than 2,000 miles from the border.” The Times concluded that they had largely succeeded in animating Republican voters “around the idea of these foreign nationals posing a dire threat to the country’s security, stability and identity.”
This caravan drew headlines and consumed airtime. And there was at least one poll taken about the threats people thought the caravans posed. According to Politico, Trump “seized” on the caravan issue after his team reviewed polling from congressional districts that were competitive in the 2016 election and found that border issues resonated with voters in those districts.
But when the midterms were over, Trump backburnered the caravan issue and so did the media, as Quartz reported. And as the publication pointed out, “Attention from Trump and other Republicans helped drive the media coverage of the caravan, and cable news and newspapers either repeated the calls of alarm, or sought to ease concerns.”
If the caravans had been entirely of organic interest to the public, more robust coverage probably would have continued. Instead, in that case, we saw how a political party weaponized a topic and the media helped deploy the weapon.
This doesn’t mean that immigration and border security aren’t independently newsworthy, but rather that the media doesn’t simply cover campaigns; editorial decisions can be influenced by those campaigns and coverage can influence voters as much as it informs them.
This is playing out again. The idea that voters are worried about Biden’s age and capacity has been repeated so often that it no longer requires any proof beyond polling that reflects what respondents have consumed: reports that they’re worried about Biden’s age and capacity.
There’s a real chicken-egg conundrum here.
And as Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, who generally believes media should “focus more and not less on the health and mental fitness of elected officials,” told me via email, it’s unclear how much the age issue will affect votes for Biden, anyway. As Silver put it: “In the abstract, voters raise high levels of concern but — they also did so in 2020 and he won both the primary and the general. And his approval ratings, while not great, are roughly in line with what you might expect given high polarization and high inflation.”
Breathless headlines have created a sense that worry about the president’s age is common knowledge and common sense, when in fact it is, at least in part, fueled by political manipulation and media complicity.
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