Guest Post: Lazy Journalism and the Fallacy of Gerontocracy  

Journalist Paul Kleyman has been covering the “age beat” for almost 50 years, and no one is better at it. I’m indebted to his e-newsletter, Generations Beat Online for countless thoughtful analyses of aging-related social and economic policies, and as well as how these stories get covered. In the current issue (29.7) Paul tackles the current outbreak  of major media stories that propose fixing our broken democratic system by replacing older politicians with younger ones.  (This gripe is cyclical; see  my 2019 post, “Here we go again with “too old to be president.”) Here’s his critique, slightly edited, with emphasis added. It’s long. I strongly recommend the whole thing. If you only have time for one sentence, here it is: “Changing the guard from the gray to the dark or ropey blonde locks of youth would not alter the structural templates of power.”

While the hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol have provided the nation riveting testimony guided by RepresentativesBennie Thompson, D-Miss., age 74, and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., 55, there’s been a quieter kind of insurrection in the nation’s capital. It’s a bipartisan tsunami of ageism in politics and national media, conspiring to remove longstanding politicians, not based on their individual competence, but on the peculiar presumption that a sweep of generational replacement will somehow clear the path for positive change in Washington.

The current rash of age-centered political writing fails both in its demographic premise of inevitable stagnation in later life, and in meeting any reasonable standard of journalistic inquiry. One article in particular, in New York Magazine, by Rebecca Traister has received wide media attention. The article ostensibly profiles one individual, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., 88. Although her behavior has prompted justifiable concern for her leadership capability, the piece makes two unsubstantiated leaps.

First, the author jumps from the senator’s apparent confusion and reported memory lapses to speculation that she may have dementia. She states in the article, “It seems clear that Feinstein is mentally compromised, even if she’s not all gone.” Traister’s expert sources, though, are not geropsychiatric authorities, but a link to a newspaper article and a statement by “one person who works in California politics.” 

Provocatively, Traister suggests that Feinstein is declining from an organic brain condition, but offers no medical corroboration or discussion of alternative explanations for the senator’s slow or seemingly distracted comments. Grief, perhaps? Feinstein’s husband died shortly before their  half-hour interview. Gerontologists explain that often temporary memory impairment may follow such losses. The writer, though, doesn’t indicate whether the considered this or alternative explanations.

More disturbingly, the article metastasizes its speculation about Feinstein’s mental health into an attack on the entire body of older political leaders as the principal source of congressional gridlock. Traister, 47, seems to believe that a wave of Harry Potter’s youth wand over Capitol Hill would override the Senate’s 50/50 split and expunge the filibuster, thus setting sorely needed progress in motion. 

‘Dysfunctional’ Age Reporting

Preceding Traister’s grievance against Washington’s immobility, in May major media spotlighted similar charges by Republican éminence grise David Gergen, in his new book, Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made (Simon & Schuster).  Among his countless national interviews, such as with Walter Isaacson on PBS’s Amanpour & Company, he attributed the dysfunctional divisiveness gripping Washington, once again, to that ill-defined canard, “gerontocracy.” 

Gergen, noting that he recently turned 80, commented in the interview, “I can just see, you lose some of your focus, you lose some of your memory, your brain. It does not bring quite the same way.” He added, “There’s a lot of things that begin to happen to you in your age, and indeed in your 70s that I think the leaders who are in charge today– we shouldn’t be ruled by them going forward.” Revered in the nation’s capital as a stalwart of bipartisanship, having advised presidents of both parties, Gergen pointedly suggested that it’s time for the likes of former President Donald Trump, 76, whom he has long derided, and especially Sen. Feinstein, to make way for “fresh blood.” Most of those mentioned in this segment, though, are graying on the Dem side of the congressional aisle. 

Of course there are capable younger officials in leadership, such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 40, a Democrat. Perhaps, though, Gergen could recommend a worthy younger member of his party who hasn’t been drummed out of the GOP. Or does he have in mind the leadership potential of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., age 48; Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., 40; Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., 36; or Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., 59, an alleged tour guide for the insurrection. 

As someone who just turned 77, I’ll allow that age does matter—but in both directions. Top-gun reflexes may flag, and energy levels noticeably dip, but as much research has shown, one’s ability and drive often recharges with purposeful goals and a little help from one’s friends. As experience kicks in, people compensate for changes and may excel.

Among those Gergen and others believe are candidates for retirement without regard for their mental capacity have been Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 80; and House Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 82. These and others anyone might mention are as keen of mind as their voters may want representing them – or want to unseat for their political prowess and experience. What about the chair of powerful Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 80. Earlier in June, Sanders vigorously challenged GOP establishmentarian, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, 67 in a debate on Fox News, of all networks. Agree with Sanders or not, no one would ever accuse the consistently progressive Sanders of toeing the party line. 

The ‘Silver Tsunami’

In her new bookBreaking the Age Code  (William Morrow/Harper Collins)Yale social psychologistBecca Levy, PhD., observes, “Some politicians, economists and journalists are wringing their hands over what they call ‘the silver tsunami,’ but they’re missing the point. The fact that so many people are getting to experience old age, and doing so in better health, is one of society’s greatest achievements. It’s also an extraordinary opportunity to rethink what it means to grow old.” 

Unlike any other consumer-press book on how to age richer, happier and sexier, Breaking the Age Code is researched-based at every step, often with Levy’s own widely replicated studies over the past quarter century. Most prominently, she has shown that the pervasive negativity about aging, in American culture in areas from media to health care, actually limits people’s health status and longevity. 

Levy’s milestone research, which she presented to the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 2002, showed that people who reach late life with positive age beliefs live on average 7.5 years longer those with a dismal view of the years ahead for them. Among her later findings, negative attitudes often can be reversed with measurably positive results. Optimistic research on aging, such as by Levy, or in Tracey Gendron’s new book, Ageism Unmasked  (Steerforth Press/Penguin Random House), do get coverage in feature pages or specialized media. For instance, Gendron’s work, was just featured in a blog). 

Also, Newsweek and other outlets, such as the “Get What’s Yours” blog on Substack, by respected retirement finance writer, Phil Moeller, just wrote up the new study published in JAMA  finding that 93% of a sample of 2000 older Americans said they “regularly  experienced some form of ageism.” The researchers show that continual ageist slights, intended or not, may damage one’s health over time because many people internalize the constant negativity.

But the exciting findings from them or other experts, frequently reported by generations-beat journalists, seldom gets into the top news sections, or on online landing pages. So evidence-based research on aging (and ageism) is easily outshouted in age-biased news or opinion pieces. At the New York Times, for example, although Paula Span’s fine “New Old Age” column  appears biweekly in the “Science Times” section, this story ran on the front page:  “Should Biden Run in 2024? Democratic Whispers of ‘No’ Start to Rise,” by Washington reporters Reid J. Epstein and Jennifer Medina (June 12, 2022). 

The story reads in part, “Interviews with nearly 50 Democratic officials, from county leaders to members of Congress, as well as with disappointed voters who backed Mr. Biden in 2020, reveal a party alarmed about Republicans’ rising strength and extraordinarily pessimistic about an immediate path forward. . . . To nearly all the Democrats interviewed, the president’s age — 79 now, 82 by the time the winner of the 2024 election is inaugurated — is a deep concern about his political viability.’”

Epstein and Medina include this apt defense from David Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama: “Biden doesn’t get the credit he deserves for steering the country through the worst of the pandemic, passing historic legislation, pulling the NATO alliance together against Russian aggression and restoring decency and decorum to the White House,’ Mr. Axelrod added. ‘And part of the reason he doesn’t is performative. He looks his age and isn’t as agile in front of a camera as he once was, and this has fed a narrative about competence that isn’t rooted in reality.’” White House coverage does show him handling a grueling global workload without the record number of tee-times logged in by his predecessor.

The bulk of the article quotes reactions to Biden’s age … [from various people calling for] “a younger person” and “fresh, bold leadership.” The Times article defaults to what social scientists call “the fundamental attribution error,” as Yale’s Becca Levy put it in her book “The popular narrative of aging as a time of inevitable mental and physical decline is incorrect,” Levy writes. She adds, “This line of thinking gets cause and effect mixed up.”

OK, Boomer Basher

A more plainly prejudicial piece is“Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old?” by Yuval Levin (June 13, 2022). One would expect a conservative viewpoint from someone like Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a regular NYT Opinion contributor. But why do the editors allow such prime space for writing critically of people based on their demographic category while providing no factual basis for its assertion of fated decline with years?

Levin’s article begins, “America’s top political leaders are remarkably old. It then itemizes the ages of people in key federal leadership roles. Would the Times run a comparable essay if it opened, instead, “America’s top political leaders are remarkably ethnic”?  Arguing that there’s poor age balance among top government leadership, Levin, 45, particularly champions more inclusion of Gen Xers. Perhaps, he’s too embarrassed to mention the waffling over Trump’s Big Lie by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., 57. Levin declares, “Middle-aged leadership may be exactly what we now require.” How about January 6 rally speaker Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, 58? Not who he had in mind? What other qualifications might Levin and his conservative thinktank colleagues like to see in charge?

Rebecca Traister’s profile of Sen. Feinstein so excited mainstream media colleagues, that Time’s liberal columnist Jamelle Bouie devoted his June 14 entry to her story, headlined, “The Gerontocracy of the Democratic Party Doesn’t Understand That We’re at the Brink.”  Her article also garnered effusive praise at CNN and a lengthy interview by Mary Louise Kelly on NPR’s All Things Considered (“Why a phone conversation with Sen. Feinstein Worried This Reporter” (June 13, 2022). 

Raising longstanding Washington concern over congressional seniority rules, Traister told Kelly, “The Senate works by offering increased power to those who’ve been there for the longest. It’s not necessarily just individuals who want to stay and increase their own authority. It also is an enticement for the states that wind up electing them and reelecting them,” as those officials deliver increasing appropriations back home. Traister, though, did not pursue that promising direction, such as by delving into an analysis of rules and policies that tend to cement certain people as decisionmakers. Instead, she descended into a generational smear. Her article fails to demonstrate persuasively the functional, operational harm that younger leaders or a more age diverse leadership would moderate.

Traister commented to Kelly, “Diane Feinstein is not alone. We are run by a gerontocracy on both the Democratic and Republican sides.” That is, journalists from at least two major news organizations failed to question the writer’s leap from a specific critique of one person to a sweeping indictment of the political system based entirely on age. If merely eliminating people of a certain age would curtail the entrenchment of misguided policies, what about Rep. Elise StefanikR-NY, 37. A Trump supporters who embraces conspiracy theories and voted against confirming President Biden after personally witnessing the January 6 attack, she remains on a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, which Congress chartered to promote democracy around the world.

In her article, Traister wrote, “But the fact that many of her colleagues, on their best days, are less acute than Feinstein on her worst is exactly the kind of dismal, institutionally warped logic that has left us governed by eldercrats who will not live long enough to have to deal with the consequences of  their failures.” Some people, at least, resonate more with the story of an elder who was asked why he bothered to plant an acorn for a tree he’d not live to enjoy. He replied, “So that my grandchildren will someday think of me as they sit in its shade.”

One who has famously said she’d like to retire is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As a nonpartisan San Francisco voter who has taken many issues with her leadership over the years, I’ve not been alone in feeling grateful that Pelosi has been at the helm through the passage of the Affordable Care Act, two impeachments, pandemic relief and more. Even her toughest detractors can’t deny her legislative skill, and, I’ll add, her moral integrity.

A Journalist’s Non-Diagnosis

I’ve also had the chore of deciding whether or not to mark my ballot for Feinstein since her years on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisor. Traister’s review of the senator’s dogged liberalism is often astute. But nothing in the article justifies her crossing into speculation that Feinstein’s slow responses and apparent memory lapses result from “dementia,” even after she disingenuously told Kelly, “I’m not in a position to diagnose here.” Many San Francisco voters would share Traister’s dismay over how out of touch the senator can be, but that sentiment goes back for decades, as it would the constituents of many long-time politicians. 

Traister was particularly appalled by Feinstein’s compliments to Sen. Graham, after he championed the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Appallingly fawning but was that any more than standard political collegiality for a friendly face across the aisle. Remember how the diametrically opposed judicial forces of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg bonded in friendship at the opera? 

The writer told NPR’s Kelly how Feinstein’s “sunny and impervious optimism about the progress that’s being made” in their half-hour interview “betrayed a kind of disconnection from our current circumstances.” Or, perhaps, a wary official was merely parsing her words in a short interview with a reporter. Only last week President Biden spoke of his “optimism for the future.” That’s what politicians do. Reporters may judge, but a mental-health evaluation requires evidence Traister’s piece fails to verify.

By What Standard?

However prejudicial (and lazy) the ill-applied language of “gerontocracy” may be, these journalists have yet to provide a meaningful examination of the deep and self-perpetuating flaws in the US political system in ways pointing to solutions. Changing the guard from the gray to the dark or ropey blonde locks of youth would not alter the structural templates of power. 

Writers as capable as Traister, Bouie, Epstein, Medina, and especially the journalist-historian Isaacson, are likely aware of political science and organizational theories of congressional structure that may suggest at least some realistic approaches for restraining perverse incentives while also optimizing democratic engagement. What questions might good political writers and editors ask about the basic standards of integrity for evaluating office holders and seekers? Beyond the obvious, such as investigating corruption, what essential questions should media entities frame in assessing the effectiveness of individual political actors or decisional bodies? 

What list of functional questions might prompt writers toward second thoughts that might turn a cooler eye on their own emotional responses? For example, I’ve often consulted guidelines in judging reporting competitions and either elevated or reduced my initial level of enthusiasm for an entry when nudged to think more objectively about a proposal’s reach and impact. Regarding politics, at the outset, I suggest borrowing from Hippocrates with: “First, do no harm.” 

One guideline I’ve long kept in mind was recommended by the late editor and publisher Robert Maynard, namesake of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. He urged reporters to view every story through the spectrum of class, race, gender, geography and generation. (I’d add religion.) What other standards of conduct and social impact might fairly swab the nostrils of politicians to determine whether their rules or operations need to be vaccinated for our political health? 

Fifty years ago this summer, I began writing my book, Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously (Glide,1974) on the politics of aging. While I’ve seen considerable advances on racism and sexism–including exposures of underlying prejudice–I’ve been amazed and, with deepening sighs, dismayed about the many permutations of bias toward people strictly based on their age. It’s nothing less than scapegoating. What’s worse is that facile blaming obviates honest queries into problems that might lead to a genuine understanding of society’s problems, such as entrenchment that regiments people, lockstep in the wrong direction, regardless of their demographic identities. It’s the job of journalism to peel back the superficial, the opaque, the skin-deep distractions to expose the sinew of our problems. How else might real solutions be exposed to light?

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Lazy Journalism and the Fallacy of Gerontocracy  

  1. Today’s NYT hit piece on “gerontocracy” angered me so much that I found and read your excellent piece on the ageism that seems rampant in current media. Thank you!

  2. GenXers? God help us! GenXers are extraordinarily libertarian — on both sides of the aisle. That’s the LAST thing this country needs.

    Incidentally, GenX hosts are presumably the reason for NPRs increasingly ageist stance, not to mention their abysmal lack of interviewing skills.

    My younger sister, an otherwise intelligent academic researcher, is GenX. Even though she’s only 3 years younger than me, I sometimes feel like we grew up in radically different times. But then again, maybe we did. My earliest memories of public life were watching the Vietnam War on TV. I turned 5 a few days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember the Watergate hearings, although I can’t say I followed them assiduously. Still, I understood what was at stake. And prior to that, I remember being shocked at the age of seven at an article in my Weekly Reader about Nixon’s trip to China. Even then, I understood what a mistake THAT was going to turn out to be.

    1. I have to disagree, Linda, for the same reason I take issue with people blaming things on Boomers. Nothing could possibly be true of a massive cohort of people born around the same age. (There’s no agreed-upon definition of “generation,” and the term has no scientific value. Generational finger-pointing is incredibly tempting, but it distracts from underlying issues of privilege and power (more on that here: Here’s why we’d do well to wean ourselves off generational labels entirely:

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