Ben Smith in the New York Times: “How to cover politicians in decline.”

From a Ben Smith Media Equation story in the New York Times headlined “How to Cover a Politician in Decline: Blunt Truths”:

Physical decline is likely to be a major feature of the next few years of American politics, at least. The current line of succession, after Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, features Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is 80, and the Senate president pro tempore, Charles Grassley, 87, who also runs the Senate Finance Committee. Ms. Pelosi’s two most powerful deputies in the House, James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, are both 80 or older. Over in the Senate, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee is 85 and coasting to re-election. The chairman of the Appropriations Committee is 86. Joe Biden, who turns 78 next month, is nearly a year younger than the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who is also seeking re-election in November.

This concentration of power in the hands of the old is an American phenomenon, Derek Thompson recently wrote in The Atlantic, noting that our leaders are getting older as European leaders get younger. . . .

Among the people scrambling this weekend at American newspapers are obituary writers, as major outlets assigned top reporters to update Mr. Trump’s obituary — Peter Baker at The New York Times, Marc Fisher at The Washington Post and Mark Z. Barabak at The Los Angeles Times, people at each paper told me. But the easiest solution to this media quandary is for citizens to elect leaders of working age. . . .

But for the next few years, at least, our leaders’ age and health will remain big news. We need a reporting culture that’s ready to handle the public decline of this generation of leaders, as long as they insist on declining in public. Searching questions about everything from sleep to cognition shouldn’t be off limits.

“It will help if reporters are medically knowledgeable, and ask the right questions, e.g. blood pressure, heart rhythm, sleep disorders,” Dr. Mark Fisher, a professor of neurology and political science at the University of California, Irvine, told me on Sunday. “The more specific and precise questions reporters ask, the better. A robust fund of knowledge by the reporter is a great advantage.”

When politicians won’t share honest results, health experts’ long-range diagnoses should be treated as news. The whispers by reporters and lawmakers’ aides about feeling as if they work in a nursing home should find their way onto the record. And the most powerful people in the country should learn from Mr. Trump’s disastrous example that if you lie consistently about your health, nobody will believe you in a crisis.

None of this comes easily.

“Reporters are human beings and we cover these people,” [Politico’s John] Bresnahan told me. “You have respect for who the person was. It’s difficult.”

Ben Smith is the media columnist. He joined The Times in 2020 after eight years as founding editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. Before that, he covered politics for Politico, The New York Daily News, The New York Observer and The New York Sun.

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