The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will the news media make the same mistake this election?

President Trump at the White House last week. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Rahm Emanuel is a former Chicago mayor, White House chief of staff and Democratic congressman from Illinois.

For all the concern that social media plays too large a role in shaping public opinion, journalists still wield enormous influence over how voters perceive presidential contests. Once reporters settle on a view of the candidates’ characters — once they choose a central campaign narrative — they often orient their stories to fit that frame. The last two Republican presidents were propelled into office in part because the media seized on narratives that undermined the Democratic nominees’ messages. The question today is whether reporters will commit the same kind of malpractice when it comes to Joe Biden.

Four years ago, the media decided Hillary Clinton was cold, secretive and duplicitous. That helps explain why journalists/ were so entranced with the bogus email story — it supported their underlying narrative. Never mind that others, including many Republicans, maintained similar servers. The media published more articles on Clinton’s emails than they did on all of Trump’s more serious scandals combined. That effectively neutralized all of Trump’s venality.

A similar thing happened in 2000. Compared with Al Gore, reporters concluded, George W. Bush appeared more comfortable in his own skin. But as president, Bush turned out to be so comfortable in his own skin that he let Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld (and other officials around them) talk him into pursuing phantom Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — with disastrous consequences. In the past 20 years, the media bears some responsibility for putting an inexperienced cowboy and a corrupt reality television star in the White House. The results speak for themselves.

Of course, no one forced Democratic hopeful Michael Dukakis to put on a helmet and jump into a tank, as he did in 1988. But if, as the Trump White House desperately hopes, the media decide this year to make a big deal of Biden’s age, this race could tighten in less time than it takes Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to announce that she’s “disappointed” about Trump’s latest tweet.

If journalists decide to turn a few mangled phrases into a real conversation about Biden’s mental acuity, they will do a disservice not only to their embattled profession but also, more importantly, to our democracy.

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We already know how the Trump White House wants reporters to frame the race: to pit the president, imperfect though he may be, against a “senile” Biden. The president’s trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a medical acuity test (followed by repeated calls on Biden to do the same) was revealing on its own, but part of his larger campaign to change the focus from the novel coronavirus and work the refs. And if journalists begin looking for story lines that “raise questions” about Biden’s purported mental impairment, Republicans will have played them again.

Can we just please be reasonable about who’s actually showing signs of strain?

Trump has speculated that bleach can cure covid-19. (He later insisted he was asking sarcastically.)

He has suggested dropping nuclear bombs on hurricanes.

He has hinted that windmills cause cancer.

He refuses to say he will accept the results of the election.

If the public has a worry about anyone’s judgment in this campaign, it shouldn’t be Biden’s.

Here’s what everyone knows: Trump is behind in the polls on account of his abysmal performance — not because, as he likes to whine, the media doesn’t like him.

Biden, meanwhile, has several lifetimes in government. He was the steady hand that led the recovery implementation in 2009 — a program that rolled out an $800 billion stimulus package. He frequently served as the Obama administration’s point person in complex international crises. He oversaw the moonshot for cancer research. He’s uniquely qualified to lead the country at this fraught moment.

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The media will be right to scrutinize the former vice president, and fact-check his comments. They should examine his choice for vice president closely. But if they hammer at a specious senility narrative, Trump, Brad Parscale, Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner wouldn’t be able to script it any better.

At the conclusion of nearly every presidential campaign, journalists have a mea culpa moment where they own up to the mistakes they made on the trail. This year, let’s nip what could be the biggest mistake in the bud. Let Trump and Biden fight the campaign on a level playing field, and let the voters make their own judgments as to who has the capacity, competence and character to lead the country forward.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Is Biden getting the Hillary Clinton treatment?

Dana Milbank: America is flunking its cognitive assessment

The Post’s View: It was a rough primary season. The general election could be worse.

Greg Sargent: The coronavirus is infecting our entire election

Dana Milbank: The Great American Crackup is underway