May 15, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

In asking if Biden is responsible for Roe’s fall, the Times misinforms the public 

The consequences for democracy could be dire.

Courtesy of the Times.
Courtesy of the Times.

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I have to apologize in advance. I’m going to write about the Times again. What it did is too important to overlook.

What did the Times do? One of the questions in that recent Times poll I was telling you about, the one about Donald Trump being ahead of Joe Biden in five swing states, was about abortion. 

Specifically, the question was about who’s more responsible for the end of Roe and national abortion rights: Is it Donald Trump or Joe Biden?

It’s a trick question, and the pollster asking that trick question should have told the person on the phone just kidding just kidding – Biden had nothing to do with it! It was all Trump. It was he who appointed the justices who struck down Roe. Indeed, he’s taken responsibility for it. 

Importantly, the Times knows the answer to the question. The Times knows the answer is black-and-white, conclusive, falsifiable, not a matter of argument or interpretation. The Times knows there are not two sides to this story. Yet in asking the question, it invented sides.  

It’s not an open question. It’s not a debate. Who’s responsible is settled. Trump says he did it. Joe Biden says he did it. Anti-abortionists credit Trump. Abortion-rights defenders credit Trump. Everyone who’s participated in abortion discourse knows who did what to whom. 

It may be the closest we’ll get to a national consensus on anything.

Yet the Times decided to wonder and the results are as expected. 

Importantly, the Times knows the answer to the question. The Times knows the answer is black-and-white, conclusive, falsifiable, not a matter of argument or interpretation. The Times knows there are not two sides to this story. Yet in asking the question, it invented sides.  

What happens when people who know better pretend they don’t know better by asking whether a fully closed question is actually open? 

People who really don’t know better come to the mistaken belief that it’s open. The result, in this case, is that 12 percent of Democrats believe Joe Biden is responsible for the end of national abortion rights.

Should these Democrats know better? Yes! But that’s not the point. 

The point is they don’t. They don’t pay attention. The most attention they have given to any politics of any kind was when the Times called that morning to ask who’s more responsible for the end of Roe

And because they don’t pay attention to politics of any kind, they probably figure it must be an open question, otherwise the Times wouldn’t be asking. And in that moment, instead of informing citizens on important public affairs, the Times ends up misinforming them. 

Would 12 percent of Democrats, most of them supporters of abortion rights, say Biden is more responsible than Trump for the end of Roe if the Times stopped pretending it didn’t know what it actually knows? 

I doubt it.

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You could say people who are not paying attention to politics believe Biden is responsible, because Roe’s fall happened on his watch. That may be true but, again, that’s beside the point. The point isn’t whether citizens should know things. They should! But they often don’t! And that ignorance is why we need a free press – to educate the public. 

The Times could have relieved these Democrats of their ignorance. Instead, it deepened it by validating it. Moreover, it humiliated them for it. For instance, instead of telling a 62-year-old abortion-rights supporter in Las Vegas that she was mistaken, it let her say that Biden “had the ability to fight” the Supreme Court. Then it named her.

Just to be clear: the president could do nothing to stop a rightwing supermajority determined to cut the social standing of half the country in half. But, again, the point isn’t that lots of people don’t know how government works. The point is that the most influential news organization in the country does know but pretends not to, and in the process of pretending humiliates citizens whom it’s failing to educate. 

(These are not just pollsters making contact. Times reporters later reached out to poll respondents for interviews. Those would have been ideal moments for civic edification, but evidently, they were wasted.)

This isn’t just some academic beef. When news organizations like the Times pretend they don’t know better, the consequences can be dire. The 62-year-old abortion-rights supporter in Las Vegas, the one who thought Biden could have fought the Supreme Court, said that now, because Biden didn’t defend abortion rights, she might not vote.

Other abortion supporters quoted in the Times story were similarly affected by the Times’ makebelieve. One said Biden could have done more to stop states from passing anti-abortion laws. (He couldn’t.). One said Biden “made empty promises.” (He didn’t.) One said Biden’s age “prevented him from closely tracking” state-level anti-abortion laws. (Laughable.) Another said “Biden did not fully criticize or condemn the taking away of people’s rights.” (Ha!) And another said “he doesn’t say much about it anymore.” (It’s central to his reelection campaign.)

Perhaps most troubling is that the Times does not correct these misconceptions even for the sake of its own readers. The report just lets them slide, as if they were true, potentially compounding the public’s ignorance of the president’s record as well as his capacities. 

There’s a reason why some say the Times has contempt for ordinary people. It’s because the Times has contempt for ordinary people. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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