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Questioning Biden’s fitness

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor /

Our inbox is flooded with questions about NPR’s post debate coverage of President Joe Biden’s fight to stay in the race. Listeners are objecting to the intensity with which NPR is covering the turmoil in the Democratic Party as political leaders privately and publicly ponder whether Biden should be on the ballot.

As a political story, it’s hard to overestimate the implications of these unprecedented circumstances. Presidential elections in the United States unfold in fairly predictable ways, under the control of the two political parties. Hundreds of political reporters earn their bread and butter by knowing what's going on inside those parties.

Before the debate, a handful of newsrooms had done stories questioning Biden’s sharpness and ability to do the job for another four years. But the Democratic Party still stood behind him, at least publicly. The ground shifted during the debate.

Many news consumers are asking if all this coverage about Biden’s future in the race is overkill (and not just in our inbox). Others have criticized the media for ignoring former President Donald Trump’s fitness as reporting focuses on Biden’s standing. In response to one of these letters, we looked over NPR’s extensive coverage and asked the chief Washington editor how these news decisions are being made.

In a second audience letter, we answer a different question about NPR’s coverage of Biden, this one about the president’s response to the criminal conviction of his son Hunter.

Finally, keeping with the theme of election coverage, we applaud two different reporting series that shed light on how the political process unfolds on several different levels. — Kelly McBride

<em>Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the </em><a href="https://click.nl.npr.org/?qs=c06cf2d89db79b79c44b0a109836f89411ca43acb8e86ecc936c10c20705b8103c7e11871d3d5dbb699ca06f70d0e7e74ce5f0e1b1425cf1" link-data="{"link":{"attributes":[],"linkText":"NPR Contact page","target":"NEW","url":"https://click.nl.npr.org/?qs=c06cf2d89db79b79c44b0a109836f89411ca43acb8e86ecc936c10c20705b8103c7e11871d3d5dbb699ca06f70d0e7e74ce5f0e1b1425cf1","_id":"0000018f-ca43-d29a-a7df-ee734e9f0000","_type":"ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a"},"_id":"0000018f-ca43-d29a-a7df-ee734e9f0001","_type":"809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288"}">NPR Contact page</a><em>.</em>
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

The continuing focus on President Biden’s bad debate

There has been a lot of coverage on NPR about Biden’s political future. Since the debate on June 27, almost every single episode of Morning Edition and All Things Considered has featured at least one story about the crisis in the Democratic Party. The story has been prominent on many of NPR’s podcasts, including Up First, Consider This and the NPR Politics Podcast. And there have been several digital stories, including this most helpful tracker that lists prominent political figures who are backing Biden, those who are calling for him to step aside, and those who are publicly asking questions.

Are all these stories warranted? First, it’s important to note that each show and podcast are designed to serve a discrete audience. To that end, a single story may be repackaged several times for different audiences.

“That’s a pretty significant story,” chief Washington editor Krisnadev Calamur told me. “I mean I would say this is the biggest (political) story we’ve covered in the last 20 years.”

To that end, he said that with every development, he and others at NPR are trying to calibrate the placement of the story and the tone of the coverage. For instance, when Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, publicly called for Biden to step aside, NPR did a story for the website and made a brief mention of it on a newscast. He was the first congressperson to do so. But he’s not a heavy hitter in terms of political influence, so NPR kept the volume of the story relatively low, Calamur said.

Some of the stories NPR listeners hear are generated by reporters on the Washington desk, like this June 30 reporting by senior political editor Domenico Montanaro and this July 3 ATC reporter interview. Other news segments are generated by the shows themselves, booking interviews with outside experts, like this June 29 ATC interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and this July 5 Morning Edition interview with two presidential speech writers.

All of these stories and interviews bring additional insight to the audience. But do they take up resources and space from other important stories, like coverage of the other candidate?

Stories about how Trump performed in the debate definitely took a back seat to the questions from fellow Democrats about Biden. To be fair, Trump said nothing in the debate that he hadn’t said and been fact-checked on previously.

“We covered him in the moments after the debate,” Calamur said. “And we’ve been covering him and his policy platforms. When folks have spoken out against him within his party, we’ve covered that.”

Biden has dominated the news cycle for two weeks because of a new development in politics: People in his own party questioning his ability.

In the coming days before and during the Republican National Convention, the focus of NPR’s political reporting will shift back toward Trump, Calamur promised, including a deeper dive into Project 2025, a longer-range Republican agenda.

However, there is a disconnect between the story NPR journalists are telling and the questions that audience members hear journalists asking. For journalists, the story is about the crisis of faith among Democrats and the chaos that may cause in the nominating process. When audience members hear those stories, they hear the question that drives that crisis: Is Joe Biden cognitively competent to run for election and serve another four years?

“None of our coverage has diagnosed what’s wrong with the president,” Calamur said. “When people like [Nancy] Pelosi and Jim Clyburn come out and say ‘This might be a problem.’ These are serious people. You treat their concerns seriously and you report on that.”

As big as this story is now, it’s either going to become much bigger (if Biden steps aside) or it’s going to be a nagging presence through the Democratic primary and possibly for the rest of the election. As long as the second version of events remains our reality, NPR editors should address the disconnect, clearly defining that the story is about the Democratic Party. Additionally, the people who lead the reporters and the shows should coordinate their efforts, ensuring that NPR produces stories in proportion to the news at hand. If Biden steps aside, this will be a massive political story. But if he doesn’t, it’s just one of the many narratives influencing the 2024 election. — Kelly McBride

Why ask about pardoning Hunter Biden?

NPR has made clear in its news coverage and headlines that a federal jury convicted the president’s son Hunter Biden on federal felony gun charges.

While the president cannot pardon someone convicted of violating a state law, he “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment,” according to the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Given that politicians have long been accused of abusing the power afforded them to get their family members out of legal trouble, asking Biden whether he intends to pardon his son has clear news value. The president could indeed pardon his son of his recent federal convictions, and many people wanted to know if he would. The question is a good one. We’re glad NPR reported the answer. — Emily Barske Wood

 <em>The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.</em>
The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

Informing about disinformation

Two years ago, NPR launched its disinformation reporting team (and we wrote about it shortly after). Much of the team’s reporting is highlighted on NPR’s website in a special series called "Untangling Disinformation." Two recent stories caught our attention. An All Things Considered story analyzed the recent Supreme Court decision allowing the government to communicate with social media companies about controversial content and what it could mean for this year’s election. A Morning Edition story highlighted a pilot program from a Miami nonprofit to help local immigrants explore how to find credible information and methods for fact-checking in Spanish. Both stories provided the audience with compelling updates about disinformation and how it can be curbed. As the methods of spreading lies and misinformation have only grown since the reporting team launched a couple of years ago, the work is more important than ever. — Emily Barske Wood


In the wake of a mass shooting at their children’s private Christian school in 2023, three lifelong conservative mothers in Tennessee are pushing for gun control. Supermajority, a new four-part series collaboration between NPR’s original documentary podcast Embedded and WPLN News in Nashville, follows what happens when these moms, supporters of the Second Amendment, try to make a difference in a state where the Republican Party has a supermajority in the Legislature. Through meticulous research and interviews with experts and lawmakers, host and reporter Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio guides listeners through the struggles the moms face. In the third and most recent episode, Knight examines what more moderate Republicans can achieve in the Tennessee Legislature. Supermajority zooms in to what happens when determined citizens try to influence their lawmakers. It’s a fresh case study on just how frustrating and messy democracy can be. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on FacebookX and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2024 NPR

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