The New Kremlinology: Reading the New York Times
With censorship soaring and real reporting all but taboo, the major dailies have just one important function left: being a political signaling system
On Monday, the New York Times ran a story pegged to a new poll, showing Joe Biden dragging a sub-Trumpish 33% approval rating into the midterms. The language was grave:
Widespread concerns about the economy and inflation have helped turn the national mood decidedly dark, both on Mr. Biden and the trajectory of the nation… a pervasive sense of pessimism that spans every corner of the country...
The article followed another from the weekend, “At 79, Biden Is Testing the Boundaries of Age and the Presidency.” That piece, about Biden’s age — code for “cognitive decline” — was full of doom as well:
Mr. Biden looks older than just a few years ago, a political liability that cannot be solved by traditional White House stratagems like staff shake-ups… Some aides quietly watch out for him. He often shuffles when he walks, and aides worry he will trip on a wire. He stumbles over words during public events, and they hold their breath to see if he makes it to the end without a gaffe.
Biden’s descent was obvious six years ago. Following the candidate in places like Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire, I listened to traveling press joke about his general lack of awareness and discuss new precautions his aides seemed to be taking to prevent him engaging audience members at events. Biden at the time was earning negative headlines for doing things like jamming a forefinger into the sternum of a black activist named Tracye Redd in Waterloo, Iowa, one of several such incidents just on that trip.
My former editor at Rolling Stone John Hendrickson, a genial, patient person whom I like a great deal, insisted from afar that Biden’s problems were due to continuing difficulties with a childhood stutter, something John had also overcome. He went on to write a piece for the Atlantic called “Joe Biden’s Stutter, and Mine” that became a viral phenomenon, abetting a common explanation for Biden’s stump behavior: he was dealing with a disability. The Times added op-eds from heroes like airline pilot Captain “Sully” Sullenberger with titles like, “Like Joe Biden, I Once Stuttered, Too. I Dare You to Mock Me.”
But I’d covered a much sharper Biden in 2008 and felt that even if the drain of overcoming a stutter had some effect, the problems were cognitive, not speech-related. He struggled to remember where he was and veered constantly into inappropriateness, challenging people physically, telling crazy-ass stories, and angering instantly. He’d move to inch-close face range of undecideds like Cedar Rapids resident Jaimee Warbasse and grab her hand (“we’re talking minutes,” she said) before saying, “If I haven’t swayed you today, then I can’t.” I called the mental health professionals who were all too happy to diagnose Donald Trump from afar for a story about the effort to remove Trump under the 25th amendment, and all declined to discuss Biden even off the record for “ethical” reasons.
This week, all that changed. Add stories like “Biden Promised to Stay Above the Fray, but Democrats Want a Fighter” and Michelle Goldberg’s “Joe Biden is Too Old to Be President Again,” and what we’ve got is a newspaper that catches real history spasmodically and often years late, but has the accuracy of an atomic clock when it comes to recording the shifting attitudes of elite opinion.
Whether through Emily Bazelon’s Times Magazine piece “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” or Michael Powell’s “A Vanishing Word in the Abortion Debate: Women,” or even the Editorial Board argument from late May, “The War in Ukraine is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready,” the Times has become a place where the public often learns about key facts, pressing international controversies, or trends in American thought only once these have been deemed suitable for public consumption by an unseen higher audience. An all time effort in this direction was “Hunter Biden Paid Tax Bill, but Broad Federal Investigation Continues,” in which the paper allowed some of its better reporters to quietly confirm a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop two years after keeping more or less mum as the story was tabbed Russian disinformation.
Along with companion outlets like the Washington Post and The Atlantic (as pure a reflection of establishment thought as exists in America), the paper in this sense fulfills the same function that Izvestia once served in the Soviet Union, telling us little or even less than nothing about breaking news events (“Can NATO Long Exist?” was among Pravda’s final questions in 1991) but giving us comprehensive, if often coded, portraits of the thinking of the leadership class.