(U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Public Domain; Gale Skidmore, Creative Commons)

Robert Hur, the Republican special prosecutor assigned to investigate President Biden, is a lawyer, not a doctor. On Thursday, Hur issued a lengthy report that came to the legal conclusion that charges against Biden for mishandling classified materials were not warranted. In the report, Hur also opined, based on a few hours of interviews, that Biden had a “poor memory” and “diminished faculties.” Hur lacks any qualifications to arrive at these medical opinions. Nevertheless, Hur’s decision to include those opinions in the report was newsworthy, as was Biden’s forceful rejection of Hur’s attack on his mental fitness later that day. 

But while Hur’s views about Biden’s memory were worth mentioning, the media instead treated Hur’s amateur medical judgments as a political crisis for Biden and an existential threat to his reelection campaign. But the actual threat to Biden’s political prospects is the deluge of negative media coverage based on Hur’s conjecture. A Popular Information analysis found that just three major papers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal — collectively published 81 articles about Hur’s assessment of Biden’s memory in the four days following the release of Hur’s report. Incidents that raised questions about former President Trump’s mental state received far less coverage by the same outlets.

Overall, The New York Times published 30 stories about Biden’s alleged memory issues between February 7 and February 10. Over those four days, the story was covered by 24 reporters (some of whom filed multiple stories), four opinion columnists, and the New York Times Editorial Board. 

Hur’s report legally clearing Biden was described in the New York Times as “a political disaster,” “a political nightmare,” “a new political crisis,” and “a political mess.” The paper said the report inflicted “searing political damage,” placed “Mr. Biden’s advanced age… back at the center of America’s political conversation,” and constituted “a gift” to Republicans. And that’s just what was included in purportedly objective “news” reports. After Hur’s report, New York Times opinion columnists with no medical credentials said Biden showed “signs of senescence” and suggested he was sliding “into dementia.” Another said Hur’s report proved “Biden should not be running for re-election” and blamed Biden’s mental state for “the emboldenment of America’s rivals.” The New York Times Editorial Board described the report ominously as “a dark moment for Mr. Biden’s presidency.” 

Only one of those stories mentioned a key fact: Hur is completely unqualified to render a judgment on Biden’s mental capacity. On February 9, health reporter Gina Kolata published an article headlined, “Memory Loss Requires Careful Diagnosis, Scientists Say.” The piece noted that “while the report disparaged Mr. Biden’s mental health, medical experts on Friday noted that its judgments were not based on science and that its methods bore no resemblance to those that doctors use to assess possible cognitive impairment.” David Loewenstein, director of the center for cognitive neuroscience and aging at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine told the paper that it is “a basic tenet of the field never to diagnose a patient you have not seen in a medical setting.” 

These basic facts were omitted from the rest of the New York Times’ voluminous reporting on Hur’s report. And while many articles about Hur’s report were plastered on the front page of the paper, Kolata’s piece did not even appear in the print edition.    

The Washington Post featured even more coverage of Biden’s memory in the aftermath of Hur’s report. The paper produced 33 articles featuring Hur’s opinions about Biden’s memory from February 7 to February 10. Headlines include: “Special counsel report paints scathing picture of Biden’s memory,” “‘Hair on fire’: Democratic worries grow over claims about Biden’s memory lapses,” and “Republicans call for 25th Amendment to be invoked.” The articles described Hur’s report as a “devastating picture of [Biden’s] mental agility,” “a devastating portrait of an 81-year-old president,” and “damning.”

Just one of the Washington Post’s 33 articles noted that Hur’s opinions about Biden were baseless. That piece, written by health reporters, noted that “the cognitive abilities of Biden… can’t be evaluated based on anecdotal memory lapses.” Instead, “[f]ormal evaluations are needed to truly assess someone’s brain health.” Those evaluations would not focus on “memory lapses,” which “at any age are surprisingly normal and, for most people, aren’t a signal of mental decline.”

The Wall Street Journal produced somewhat less coverage, publishing 18 articles on Biden’s memory from February 7 to February 10. A news article reports that the information in Hur’s report “suggest[s] a notable decline” in Biden’s mental health. The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pieces were even most caustic, flatly asserting that Hur’s report proved that Biden was in “cognitive decline,” and had “a failing short-term memory.” Columns included “Special Counsel: Biden Too Forgetful to Prosecute,” “Biden’s Doddering Document Defense,” and “A Tipping Point on Biden’s Decline.”

The Wall Street Journal did not produce any articles explaining that Hur’s evaluation of Biden’s mental health has no medical basis. 

Biden, 81, will almost certainly face Trump, 77, in the general election. Both men are senior citizens, and Trump forgets things in public just as frequently — if not more — than Biden. In recent weeks, Trump:

Called Viktor Orbán, who is actually the leader of Hungary, the leader of Turkey. Trump also claimed that Orbán shared a border with Russia, which is not true of Hungary or Turkey.

Warned that America is on the verge of World War II.

Claimed he defeated Barack Obama in the 2016 election instead of Hillary Clinton. Trump also suggested Obama was his opponent in 2024.

Mixed up his Republican primary challenger, Nikki Haley, with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)

Trump’s mixup of Haley and Pelosi received the most coverage. But it was still relatively muted. In the four days following the mixup, the incident was referenced in four articles in the New York Times, nine articles in the Washington Post, and two articles in the Wall Street Journal. 

Moreover, the tenor of the coverage was markedly different. One of the New York Times articles was a brief recounting of the incident without any suggestion that it was a political liability for Trump. The other three articles briefly noted that Haley was using the mixup to attack Trump. The Washington Post, which had the most robust coverage, also focused on Haley’s use of the incident as an attack line. But it also published two pieces concluding that Haley’s attack was ineffective. Another piece suggested the issue would make it harder for Trump to attack Biden’s mental competency. In the Wall Street Journal, the incident merited one paragraph in a lengthy article about Haley and a brief mention in the podcast transcript. Neither mentioned suggested it would create any significant political problem for Trump.

On February 10, the New York Times explored the question of why voters seemed so much more worried about Biden than Trump, even though they are around the same age. It notes that “while Mr. Biden, 81, has been increasingly dogged by doubts and concerns about his advancing years from voters, Mr. Trump, who is 77, has not felt the same political blowback.”

The article says the disparate treatment by voters reflects “profound differences… in how they are perceived by the American public.” It does not mention that the perceptions of the two men by the public are shaped by media coverage.

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