On Monday, a video was doing the rounds on the internet that showed Joe Biden appearing to struggle to remember Donald Trump’s name during an interview on Sunday.

Here’s the video, posted by the official Trump YouTube account (just one of a huge number of videos posted by the account that portray “Sleepy Joe” as not mentally fit for office — some more blatantly than others):

As you can see there, Biden stumbles over this sentence:

Four more years of George uh, George uh, he uh, we’re gonna find ourselves in a position where if Trump gets elected, we’re gonna be in a different world

It’s not clear which “George” Biden might have been thinking of during his stumble. The caption on that YouTube video, posted by Trump’s official account, suggests he was referring to former president George W Bush. That’s also what others on the Right — such as Breitbart and Republican National Committee rapid response director Steve Guest — suggested (though in Trump’s own tweet about the Gaffe he didn’t suggest who he thought he was referring to).

The last time Biden was trying to become president in 2008, during his unsuccessful bid to become the Democratic party’s nominee, Bush was in the White House. So the idea that Biden could have accidentally been referring to him, the last Republican “bad guy” he was up against, seems like a fairly reasonable suggestion to us. It doesn’t even seem like a particularly big a gaffe for a man who stumbles and stutters over things quite a lot when he’s speaking.

The “fact-check”

Come Tuesday though, it was time for that favourite weapon tool of America’s liberal media — the “fact-check” — to be pulled out, so as to pour cold water on this idea. In various articles across the mainstream press, it was pointed out that Biden was being interviewed by a man called George Lopez, and so he might have instead been referring to him when he said “four more years of George”.

We find this idea less convincing, though we are prepared to accept it as a possibility. But we don’t really see why Biden accidentally talking about four more years of George Lopez would be any better than talking about four more years of George Bush. Neither man is in the White House.

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Nevertheless these “fact-checking” articles, such as this one in AP, were widely shared on Twitter as proof of yet more “fake news” by the Trump campaign and the media that support him — like here, by the Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges:

We are normally fans of Hodges, so we are quite surprised by this tweet (and particularly by his doubling down on it in the replies). Because whatever you think Biden was meaning to say, to call the idea that he was accidentally referencing George Bush “fake news” and instead to assert so confidently that Biden was in fact referencing George Lopez seems a bit off. Unless Hodges has some sort of superhuman ability to see into Biden’s mind, how can he possibly state this with such certainty? And anyway, again, why would this have been any better?

There was also the suggestion that Biden wasn’t actually getting in a muddle at all, but instead had suddenly interrupted himself midway through his sentence to speak directly to George Lopez, which, having watched the clip several times, seems to us like an even less convincing idea.

One of those who took this angle was the Washington Post, which as part of its “Fact Checker” series ran the headline “No, Biden did not confuse George W Bush and Donald Trump”. In it, Joe Biden’s spokesman Andrew Bates is quoted as saying:

He was addressing George Lopez, the interviewer, as is a common practice.

We would encourage you to watch the clip and decide for yourself — the link to the whole “I Will Vote” concert was tweeted here by Biden on Monday.

The fact is, none of us know who Joe Biden was referring to when he said George (maybe not even Biden himself — how many of us are completely aware of what our brains were doing when we fluff something up?). And we’re not sure it matters anyway.

When “facts” and the truth are not the same thing

What we do think matters, however, is that there seems to be an instinct across the Trump-disliking media to push back against negative news about Biden — whether the journalists believe it’s true or not — because it might be damaging to Biden’s chances of winning the election.

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We saw the same instinct after the first TV debate between Trump and Biden. Much of the media declared it had proven that Biden had not lost any of his mental acuity, and chalked up all of his stumbles to his stutter (which he has suffered from his whole life). Whereas we thought it had proven almost the opposite: that the former vice-president’s mental faculties had noticeably suffered in the years since he was in office (which is not that surprising; he is almost 78 after all). If you compare Biden’s performance with footage of him debating in 2012 or 2008, the difference is stark (though we felt he performed slightly better in the last debate).

This instinct is, of course, in large part a response to the rightwing media’s inclination to suppress negative news of Trump, often to a much greater and more absurd extent than the liberal press (though the most balanced reporting we could find on the Biden “George” gaffe was, somewhat astonishingly, Fox News, which regularly defends Trump to the hilt but balanced its story by including accusations that Trump and his team had been “less than transparent” when he was hospitalised with coronavirus). It is also a response to the utter disregard — contempt, even — for truth that President Trump continues to display.

So we can see how this state of affairs has come to be. But that doesn’t mean we should condone or accept it. Matt Taibbi wrote brilliantly on this, and in particular of the way in which the mainstream press suppressed a recent New York Post story about Hunter Biden, in an article posted on Substack on Monday (emphasis ours):

The flow of information in the United States has become so politicized — bottlenecked by an increasingly brazen union of corporate press and tech platforms — that it’s become impossible for American audiences to see news about certain topics absent thickets of propagandistic contextualizing . . . 

True information has been scrubbed or de-ranked, either by platforms or by a confederation of press outlets whose loyalty to the Democratic Party far now [sic] overshadows its obligations to inform.

Obviously, Fox is not much better, in terms of its willingness to report negative information about Trump and Republicans, but Fox doesn’t have the reach that this emerging partnership between mass media, law enforcement, and tech platforms does. That group’s reaction to the New York Post story is formalizing a decision to abandon the media’s old true/untrue standard for a different test that involves other, more politicized questions, like provenance and editorial intent.

We are all aware that we are currently locked in a culture war — that has been well-documented (though how much the American version of it really exists in Britain is another question, which Helen Lewis wrote about an excellent piece in The Atlantic on Tuesday).

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But we think we’re also locked in a fact-war that is becoming ever more detached from reality. Political debates, when you listen closely to them, are largely made up of one person throwing one set of facts at the other person, as they would a punch; it’s very seldom that the issues at hand are actually being debated in any real sense. And these days it seems not to really matter whether you believe in your “fact” or not; if it suits your agenda, you can use it very effectively as a weapon against your opponent.

We understand that certain news outlets are supportive of particular political parties or movements, and that’s fine — just because a newspaper is partisan, that doesn’t lessen its quality. But there is a difference between being selective in what you publish, and actively misrepresenting reality. The short-term effects of that strategy might be effective, but over the long term, it will chip away further at trust in the media.

America’s mainstream media might be doing everything they can to get rid of a dangerous president. But in so doing, they are setting a dangerous precedent.

Related links:
Let’s call Trump out but let’s get our facts straight too – FT Alphaville



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